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Persia Gwendoline Campbell (1898–1974)

by Susan Hogan and Heather Radi

This article was published:

Persia Gwendoline Crawford Campbell (1898-1974), economist, was born on 15 March 1898 at Nerrigundah, New South Wales, elder child of native-born schoolteachers Rodolfe Archibald Clarence Campbell (d.1905) and his second wife Beatrice Harriet, née Hunt. Persia was educated at Fort Street Girls' High School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1918; M.A., 1920); in both degrees she obtained first-class honours in history. She then attended the London School of Economics (M.Sc. Econ., 1922) on a scholarship. Her monograph, Chinese Coolie Immigration (1923), published in the Studies in Economic and Political Science series, investigated the abuse of indentured-labour regulations and concluded that the system 'benefits money rather than mankind'.

After studying social economy at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, United States of America, in 1922-23, Campbell returned to Sydney where she worked as assistant-editor for the Australian Encyclopaedia and lectured for the Workers' Educational Association. In March 1927 she was appointed assistant research officer in the Industrial Commission of New South Wales and in July next year transferred to the Bureau of Statistics. Interested in Fabian socialism and feminism, she was soon prominent in progressive intellectual circles due to her energy, ability and dedication. She espoused the educational and professional advancement of women and international co-operation, addressed the National Council of Women of New South Wales and judged its peace essay competition, and became a stalwart of women graduates' organizations and of the Pan Pacific (and South East Asian) Women's Association (formed 1928). When the Institute of Pacific Relations was established 'to study conditions of the Pacific people with a view to the improvement of their mutual relationships' she joined the New South Wales branch, and, with Richard Mills and Jerry Portus, co-edited its first publication, Studies in Australian Affairs (1928). She likened the use of psychiatric screening of immigrants to espionage and forcefully demolished Alfred Martin's grounds for the alleged racial inferiority of Southern Europeans.

In 1930 Campbell accepted a two-year Rockefeller fellowship to study agricultural policy in the U.S.A. On 15 October 1931 at the 1st Presbyterian Church, New York, she married Edward Rice junior (d.1939), a widower with three children; she bore him a daughter and son, and in 1936 took American nationality. The family lived at Flushing, New York. As world agricultural prices fell, Campbell studied America's response. In American Agricultural Policy (London, 1933), she examined the evolution of Federal Farm Board policies; through her journal articles, she analysed America's pursuit of international wheat quotas; and she explored the escalation of restrictive policies in her doctoral dissertation for Columbia University (Ph.D., 1940), Consumer Representation in the New Deal (1940). The last-mentioned study showed how producers and government had collaborated to stabilize prices and overlooked or over-ridden consumers' interests. She advocated 'that everyone shall be able to secure each day his daily ''bread", of good quality, and at decreasing cost, under conditions promotive of human worth'.

Increasingly focussing her work—at practical and theoretical levels—on the consumer, Campbell presented statistical data to the Pan Pacific Women's Conference (Honolulu, 1934) to show the many hours which women spent in purchasing and management. The economic impact of their decisions, the importance of informed choice, of consumer education and of legislation to protect consumers were her dominant concerns. She was a long-serving director of the Consumers Union of United States, the publisher of Consumer Reports.

In 1940 Campbell joined the faculty of economics at Queens College, City University of New York. She was described as the head of the college's consumer council and as chairman of social studies, New York branch of the American Association of University Women, in 1942 when she was appointed director of consumer services by the Civilian Defense Volunteer Office, New York. She envisaged a wide-ranging approach to consumer education, through publications, through courses adapted from those she taught at Queens, and through the use of volunteers to monitor goods and prices. Campbell resigned in 1943, giving as her reason the introduction of summer semesters at Queens, but later wrote of the obstruction she had encountered. Her terse comment on the reluctance of some officials to recruit housewives reflected the importance she placed on women's role as consumers. She was later to urge women to acquaint themselves with standards and use their purchasing power to create a demand for labelled goods. Taking a broad view, she included such subjects as housing, medical care and life insurance, in addition to the government's role in the economy, in her massive textbook, The Consumer Interest (1949).

In 1948, 1949 and again in 1951 Campbell was adviser on consumer affairs to American delegations to Food and Agriculture Organization conferences of the United Nations. She had long advocated the creation of a department of consumer affairs, capable of providing services to consumers, in the same way that the Department of Agriculture gave research and marketing advice to farmers. In January 1955 Governor Averell Harriman of New York State appointed her to his cabinet as consumer counsel. Although she had limited success with protection legislation (securing little more than a prohibition on 'bait' advertising and an Act that covered general instalment buying), by publicizing consumer issues on radio and by meeting business groups she was able to secure promises of self-regulation and some change in business practices.

At Queens, Campbell chaired (1960-65) the economics department. She published a biography in 1960 of Mary Williamson Harriman, whom she had met while investigating the consumer advisory board of the National Recovery Administration. As chairman of the American branch of the Pan Pacific and South East Asian Women's Association, Persia attended their conferences in Tokyo (1958) and Canberra (1961). The recently formed Australian Consumers Association thanked her for the 'assistance and hospitality unstintingly given [it] by [the] Consumers Union of United States'. She also helped to form the International Organization of Consumers Unions (1960), of which the American and Australian associations were constituent members.

Following the election promises of J. F. Kennedy, in 1961 Campbell drafted the proposal to establish a consumer counsel with a staff of lawyers and economists representing consumer interests in proceedings before regulatory agencies and formulating broad economic policies. In addition, she suggested that consumer advisory committees should be set up in federal departments. The proposals foundered. She was appointed to the Consumers Advisory Council which lacked both executive power and staff. It endorsed the truth-in-packaging and truth-in-lending bills, then before Congress, as being 'in line with the historic exercise of Government responsibility to provide a framework within which the American economy can operate rationally, in terms of honest competition and intelligent consumer choice'. Both bills were obstructed. In denouncing the denial of consumer rights on the ground of race, the council reflected her continued opposition to racial discrimination. A Democrat, Campbell served on President L. B. Johnson's committee on consumer interests and he appointed her to the national advisory committee to the president's representative on international trade negotiations. In 1968 she sat on Mayor Lindsay's Consumer Affairs Advisory Council, though her interests were shifting increasingly to the Third World.

A delegate to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization conference on adult education (Montreal, 1960), Campbell was keen to develop radio and television programmes for low-income earners. She had faith in consumer organization effecting higher living standards in developing countries. To her Australian audience in 1961 she said, 'if the wage-earner has to pay unduly high prices for consumer products, he is virtually handing back to the manufacturer a proportion of his weekly wage-packet'. After retiring from Queens in 1965 and taking an honorary appointment at the University of North Carolina in 1966, Campbell travelled widely outside America. She chaired the international aid committee of the International Organization of Consumers Unions and represented it before special agencies of the United Nations. In 1966-70 she was a columnist on United Nations economic and social programmes for the International Development Review. A delegate to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972), she was party to the recommendation that the United Nations establish a permanent organization for environmental action which was implemented that year.

Persia Campbell was a member of the American Economic Association. Survived by her children and stepchildren, she died on 2 March 1974 at Booth Memorial Hospital, Flushing. A fellow director of the Consumers Union of United States recalled the discipline she had brought to meetings and her insistence on the union's place in a larger consumer movement.

Select Bibliography

  • Notable American Women (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • Public Administration Review, 4, 1944
  • Australian Consumers' Association, Choice, Feb 1961
  • Consumers Union of United States (New York), Consumer Reports, 1959-74
  • United States Congress, Congressional Record, 24 Mar, 2 May 1961, 15 Apr, 29 Aug 1962, 26 June 1963
  • International Office of Consumers Unions (The Hague), International Consumer, Spring 1974
  • New York Times, 22 Feb, 30 Apr 1942, 2 May, 13 July 1943, 3 Mar 1953, 24 Dec 1954, 20 Jan 1955, 10 Oct, 13 Dec 1957, 9 Jan 1958, 19 July 1962, 14 Aug 1964, 27 Oct 1968, 3 Mar 1974
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Jan 1972.

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Citation details

Susan Hogan and Heather Radi, 'Campbell, Persia Gwendoline (1898–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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