Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cooper, Jessie Mary (1914–1993)

by Jenny Tilby Stock

This article was published online in 2017

Jessie Mary Cooper (1914–1993), politician, was born on 29 June 1914 at Rockdale, Sydney, younger of two children of Scottish-born James McAndrew, retired grocer, and his New South Wales-born second wife Janet Annie, née Darling. Jessie grew up at Bexley, excelling academically at St George Girls High School. She studied piano at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music (AMusA, 1933), and French, psychology, and economics at the University of Sydney (BA, 1936). In the same year she gained a certificate in shorthand from the Metropolitan Girls’ Secretarial Institute.

Becoming secretary at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Pymble, in 1936, Jessie worked closely for eight years with its dynamic principal, Dorothy Knox; the two remained firm friends for life. On 2 April 1940 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, she married Geoffrey Day Thomas Cooper, of the prominent Adelaide brewing family. After three years of overseas service with the Australian Imperial Force, he was appointed an instructor at the senior wing of the Staff School (Australia), Duntroon, where Jessie joined him. In Canberra she developed an interest in national politics, becoming a frequent visitor to Parliament House. After her father-in-law’s death in 1944, the couple moved to Adelaide where Geoffrey became a director of Cooper & Sons Ltd.

In Adelaide’s respectable eastern suburbs, Jessie became active in Musica Viva, the Queen Adelaide Club, the Liberal Women’s Educational Association (president 1951–53), the Lyceum Club (president 1953–54), and the Adelaide (later South Australian) University Women Graduates’ Association (president 1968–69). She joined the Liberal and Country League (LCL), and by 1948 was a member of the State executive council. Inspired by Senator (Dame) Annabelle Rankin and encouraged by a network of women friends, she sought preselection in 1952 for the Legislative Council but was unsuccessful. Six years later, supported by a team headed by the retired politician Sir Shirley Jeffries, she won first position on her party’s ticket for a safe LCL seat representing Central No. 2. A disgruntled LCL member took legal action, claiming that Cooper and her Australian Labor Party (ALP) rival, Margaret Scott, were not ‘persons’ under the 1934 Constitution Act. After a hearing that attracted great public interest, in late February 1959 the Supreme Court of South Australia returned the decision to the parliament, which confirmed the eligibility of women to seek election.

On 7 March, nearly sixty-five years after women gained the right to vote in South Australia, Cooper and her LCL colleague Joyce Steele became the first women elected to the State parliament. Asked how she would combine home and political life, she replied that ‘she would fit in her housework in the same way as a male member fitted in the running of an orchard or an accountant’s office’ (Jenkins 2002, 13). For sixteen of her twenty years in parliament, she would be the only woman in the Legislative Council.

Fervently royalist, pro-business, anti-socialist, and socially conservative, Cooper voted predictably with her party to water down or defeat attempts by the ALP to introduce social and electoral reforms. Although never a supporter of women’s liberation, she advocated measures to remove legal limitations and discrimination against women, and believed in the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. As a housewife herself, a term she never disowned, she spoke on matters of concern to women in the home. Among the wider issues she championed were the need for a women’s prison (opened at Northfield in 1969); allowing women to be summoned for jury service; improving women’s access to third party damages; and equalising superannuation entitlements for women parliamentarians. Education was another interest, including the funding of private schools, and the establishment of the State’s second tertiary institution: she served on the inaugural board of Flinders University (1966–70). She urged greater parliamentary interest in less developed countries. In 1962 she travelled to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s meeting in Lagos, Nigeria, and next year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she also attended the opening of the new country’s parliament.

Although she was easily returned in 1965, reformist elements in her party had Cooper relegated to second position on the ticket for the 1973 election. By 1979 electoral reform had so eroded Liberal dominance of the Legislative Council that her decision to cross the floor with two others was sufficient to enable the ALP government to block the businessman Alan Bond’s move to obtain control of South Australia’s flagship resources company, Santos.

Under pressure from party power-brokers, in July that year Cooper abruptly retired. Her colleagues praised her as a courageous, courteous, intelligent, and fair representative. Frank Blevins, an ALP parliamentarian, noted that ‘her contributions to debates were concise, relevant and stylish’ (SA Parliament 1979, 371). Relinquishing most of her public positions, she devoted herself to her garden, family, and travel. After a year of ill-health, she died on 28 December 1993 in Adelaide, her husband and son surviving her; she was buried in Centennial Park cemetery. The Jessie Cooper Study Grants for Mature Entry Women scheme was established in 1994 by Flinders University.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Cashmore, Jennifer. ‘Liberal Trailblazer Wedded to Principle.’ Australian, 19 January 1994, 13
  • Cooper, Jessie. Interview by Amy McGrath, 1 May 1980. National Library of Australia
  • Craig, Ailsa. ‘The Suffragette Fight of 1959.’ Woman’s Day, 21 March 1959, 13
  • Jenkins, Cathy. ‘The More Things Change: Women, Politics and the Press.’ Ejournalist 2, no. 1 (2002). http://ejournalist.com.au/v2n1/cathy.pdf. Copy held on ADB file
  • Jones, Helen. In Her Own Name: A History of Women in South Australia from 1836. Rev. ed. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1994
  • News (Adelaide). ‘Woman LCL Nominee Always Keen on Politics.’ 11 November 1952, 9
  • South Australia. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates. 7 August 1979, 371

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jenny Tilby Stock, 'Cooper, Jessie Mary (1914–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cooper-jessie-mary-18996/text30599, published online 2017, accessed online 19 March 2019.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019