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Scott Griffiths, Jennie (1875–1951)

by T. H. Irving

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Jennie Scott Griffiths (1875-1951), journalist and political activist, was born on 30 October 1875 near Woodville, Texas, United States of America, daughter of Stephen Randolph Wilson, cotton-farmer, and his wife Laura, née Nettles, who had been born in France. Apparently a precocious child, Jennie recalled—in a memoir written at the end of her life—busking in the 1880s at town fairs as 'The Baby Elocutionist of Texas', studying Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, Henry George, Thomas Paine and Edward Bellamy with a tutor at home, and bungling an elopement with the tutor at the age of 15. She also claimed that she entered the school of law at the University of Texas at Austin in 1890; she probably acquired her knowledge of law while attending classes with her elder half-brother Tom Cowart. When not mixing in student circles, she wrote a column for children in a local newspaper and visited prisons with her father. She then trained as a stenographer and worked as a court reporter.

On a world tour with her brother, Jennie Scott Wilson arrived in Fiji and met Arthur George Griffiths, whom she married on 9 November 1897 at Levuka; they were to have ten children. The Griffiths family owned the Fiji Times. When Arthur became the proprietor in 1909, Jennie worked as editor, always with a small child at her feet. After the Fiji Times was sold in 1912, she moved to Sydney where her youngest child was born in March 1913.

Scott Griffiths was soon prominent in feminist, pacifist, labour and socialist organizations. Under her editorship (from 1913) the Australian Woman's Weekly became a forum for discussions of sex hygiene, infant welfare centres, education for motherhood and equality of the sexes. In 1916 she was sacked for opposing conscription. She served with Kate Dwyer on the Women's Anti-Conscription Committee that year and with Vida Goldstein in the Women's Peace Army, and also belonged to the Social Democratic League and the Feminist Club. A regular writer for the Australian Worker, she sometimes replaced (Dame) Mary Gilmore as editor of its women's page.

By 1917 Scott Griffiths was calling herself a revolutionary. She supported the general strike in New South Wales, wrote for the socialist press, and told the members of the Children's Peace Army that women should 'take over control of State affairs and put men in the kitchen to cook'. She also criticized racism, reversing her earlier warnings that the British were under threat from 'invading hordes of Eastern peoples'. Late in 1917 she joined the migration of revolutionaries to Queensland, where opportunities for socialism seemed to rest with the one remaining Labor government. Noted for her small stature (4 ft 8 ins, 142 cm), American accent and passionate conviction, she spoke at meetings to mark the Bolshevik revolution, May Day and the imprisonment of the 'Twelve' Industrial Workers of the World. She also combined membership of the Labor Party with attempts to revive the Queensland Socialist League.

With the help of the Children's Peace Army, Scott Griffiths made the red pennants that sparked three days of riots in Brisbane in March 1919 when returned soldiers attacked militant unionists, radicals and Russian immigrants who insisted on displaying the red flag in defiance of the War Precautions Act (1914). M. H. Ellis saw her at an outdoor meeting during these events and described her as 'a bit hysterical': 'she pulled down a big man and put a red ribbon round his neck'. She subsequently led the successful campaign to free the 'Red Flag' prisoners.

In June 1920 Scott Griffiths left for the U.S.A., disappointed at the ebbing of the revolutionary tide, but still committed to her principles. By 1923 she was living with her husband at San Francisco. They took American citizenship in 1928. Active in the I.W.W., she contributed to the history of California produced by the Federal Writers' Project (1947), sent poems to the Industrial Worker (Chicago) and served as secretary of the Californian branch of the National Women's Party. She died on 29 June 1951 at San Francisco and was buried in Woodland Memorial Park; her husband, six sons and three of their four daughters survived her. More committed to action than doctrine, she had joined any organization that seemed to promise change. Although she was a rationalist, her funeral oration was delivered by a lifelong Quaker friend who said, 'No church was big enough to hold this little woman'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Evans, The Red Flag Riots (Brisb, 1988)
  • J. Damousi, Women Come Rally (Melb, 1994)
  • Australian Woman's Weekly, 19 June, 18 Sept, 6 Nov 1915, 1, 15 Apr, 15 July, 11 Dec 1916
  • Australian Worker, 26 Oct, 30 Nov 1916
  • Socialist (Sydney), 9 Feb 1917, 29 Nov 1918
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 1 Mar, 22 Apr, 29 Aug, 17, 23 Sept 1918, 9 May, 26, 30 June 1919
  • Industrial Worker (Chicago), 5 July 1951
  • B. Sutton, She Fought Where She Stood (manuscript, no date, University of Queensland Library)
  • Scott Griffiths papers (National Library of Australia)
  • censor's secret intelligence reports, MP95/1, items 169/43/48, 169/56/63 and 169/74/90 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

T. H. Irving, 'Scott Griffiths, Jennie (1875–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scott-griffiths-jennie-11641/text20793, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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