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Collisson, Marjorie Chave (1887–1982)

by Jill Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Marjorie Chave Collisson (1887-1982), lecturer and feminist, was born on 5 February 1887 at Muncie, Indiana, United States of America, one of four children of Rev. Reginald Kingsmill Collisson, a London-born Anglican clergyman, and his Irish wife Katherine Elizabeth, née Gamble. The family returned to England later in 1887, and came to Australia in 1896. After incumbencies in Tasmania, Marjorie’s father served in South Australia from 1908 until his death in 1932. Marjorie was educated privately and at the Collegiate School, Hobart.

In 1913, aged 26, Collisson (often known as Chave) enrolled at the University of Sydney (BA, 1916), where, after winning two Women’s College scholarships, Professor George Arnold Wood’s history prize (1914 and 1915) and the Frazer scholarship (1916), she obtained first-class honours in history. In 1915 she was president of the Sydney University Women Undergraduates’ Association. Writing to Meredith Atkinson in May 1916, Frederick Todd described her as a ‘pestilential feminist’ whose influence upon her fellow undergraduates was ‘almost wholly bad’ and who had been chiefly responsible for ‘bringing the Pankhurst female to the University to address the women undergraduates and spread the gospel of vandalism’. Collisson was accused of throwing two hockey sticks at male undergraduates who were protesting at Adela Pankhurst’s lecture, but another woman owned up. A prominent supporter of conscription during the plebiscite campaign in October 1916, next month she helped form a women’s national organisation, which, she asserted, was ‘not an anti-man’ group.

After graduation Collisson taught in the department of tutorial classes at the university, organised a short-lived women’s department of the Workers’ Educational Association of New South Wales, and joined the staff of Methodist Ladies’ College, Burwood. In July 1918, accompanied by Rose Scott’s niece Mollye Shaw, Collisson suddenly left Australia to lecture in the United States of America. Next year, on a bursary, she wrote a thesis—on the evolution and economic policies of the Australian Labor Party—at Columbia University, New York (MA, 1919); she taught history (1919-20) in its extension school. She also lectured for the City of New York Board of Education, and for the New York State government, for which she toured promoting the victory loan.

Collisson moved to London, where she was associated with the City Literary Institute and studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She joined the international campaign for equal citizenship. With Bessie Rischbieth, whom she had known as a girl in Australia, she was a cofounder of the British Commonwealth League, formed to promote equal citizenship throughout the Empire. Appointed organising secretary at its first conference (London, July 1925), she addressed economic discrimination against women workers in Australia. In 1927, having been presented at Court, she visited India in support of its feminists, and early in 1928 returned to Australia as advance agent for the Australasian tour of the English preacher Maude Royden, which she financed and managed for the BCL.

Briefly owner-manager of an experimental picture theatre in London in 1930, Collisson was living with Mollye Shaw, now Menken, when Miles Franklin encountered her in 1931 running conferences for the BCL. Although ‘the big woman’ was ‘not one of my favourites’, Franklin deemed a lecture on the White Australia policy ‘brilliant and comprehensive’. By 1939 Collisson worked for the Imperial Policy Group.

Chave Collisson was a member (from 1949) of the board of the International Alliance of Women, and hard-working chair (from 1952) of its Equal Moral Standard Committee, focusing on prostitution. Between September 1949 and 1960, when she resigned after ‘a stupendous fight’ against the Street Offences Act, 1959, she served as secretary to the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene (Josephine Butler Society). This organisation was the British branch of the International Abolitionist Federation; she also chaired the IAF’s international committee. In 1966 she delivered the Alison Neilans memorial lecture on ‘Prostitution Today, The International Scene’. In this period Collisson’s main interests were prostitution from a feminist perspective, the rights of deserted or separated wives and persons born out of wedlock, the age of consent and marriage, and female genital mutilation.

Commemorated by colleagues for ‘her brilliant mind, dedication to fighting injustice, booming voice, warm sense of humour and infinite compassion’, Collisson campaigned for equal moral rights for women and men into her eighties. Her only sister, Nora, had died in Australia in 1963. In her later years Collisson lived in hotels and finally at the Nightingale Home, Twickenham. She died on 14 April 1982 at Isleworth, London, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Roe (ed), My Congenials, vol 1 (1993)
  • R. Annable (compiler), Biographical Register: The Women’s College Within the University of Sydney, vol 1 (1995)
  • A. Woollacott, To Try Her Fortune in London (2001)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Oct 1916, p 5, 25 Nov 1925, p 8, 13 Feb 1928, p 5, 14 Feb 1928, p 5
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 Nov 1916, p 18
  • International Women’s News, Sept 1982, p 42
  • Collisson personnel file, and Minutes of the Joint Committee of Tutorial Classes and the WEA (University of Sydney)
  • Collisson papers (Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jill Roe, 'Collisson, Marjorie Chave (1887–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/collisson-marjorie-chave-12338/text22165, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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