Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jean Mary Daly (1897–1986)

by Anne O'Brien

This article was published:

Jean Mary Daly (1897-1986), women’s rights activist, was born Jane May on 10 December 1897 at Strathfield, Sydney, eldest of six children of Walter Edmunds, barrister, and his wife Monica Victoria May, née McGrath, both born in New South Wales. Jean was educated at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield, and the University of Sydney (BA, 1918). While studying law, she was associate (1919-21) to her father, then a judge of the Court of Industrial Arbitration of New South Wales. On 6 October 1921 at St Martha’s Catholic Church, Strathfield, she married Harry John Daly (d.1980), a medical practitioner and later a specialist anaesthetist. She did not continue her law degree after her marriage.

In her early forties and childless, Jean Daly became the secretary and then president of the Navy Club of the Catholic United Services Auxiliary New South Wales. In 1943 she was one of a small number of Catholic women, mostly graduates, who formed the discussion group Altair to present the viewpoint of Catholic women. Their first task was to make a submission to the Department of Post-war Reconstruction stressing the importance of family structures in population policy. Wanting to present women’s perspectives to the Church as well as the government, Altair criticised Catholic Action’s The Family: Social Justice Statement, 1944 because it lacked `the woman’s point of view’.

With Mary Tenison Woods and other members of Altair, in 1946 Mrs Daly founded the New South Wales branch of the St Joan’s Social and Political Alliance to encourage women to play a more active part in public affairs as Catholic citizens. Cardinal (Sir) Norman Gilroy advised Catholic women that membership was contrary to his wishes; the Catholic Weekly refused to advertise its functions. The alliance, with Mrs Daly as president, joined the revived Liaison Committee of Women’s International Organisations Australia Group, a body sympathetic to countering communist influence in women’s organisations. She served as treasurer (1948) and secretary (1950-52) of the liaison committee. After the Federal government had established the Australian National Committee for the United Nations, she was elected treasurer of the New South Wales council in 1948.

In 1949 Mrs Daly accompanied her husband to the United States of America, and used the opportunity to attend UN sessions, to inspect the UN’s work in Paris and Rome, and to participate in conferences and meetings in Amsterdam, New York and London. On her return she organised the Australian delegation to the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association conference at Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1952. She represented Australia on the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 1951 and 1955. In 1954 she was elected president of the Australian Association for the United Nations, New South Wales Division. She attended the International Federation of University Women regional meeting in Manila in 1955 as an observer, and remained for the PPWA conference. In 1957 she was an observer at the UN seminar, held in Bangkok, on civic responsibilities and increased participation of Asian women in public life.

Though staunchly anti-communist, Mrs Daly was opposed to B. A. Santamaria and the Catholic Social Studies Movement, which she criticised in a letter published in July 1956 in the English magazine the Tablet. She saw `the Movement’s’ penetration of the political sphere as disastrous and considered that some of its methods `were not dissimilar’ to those used by the communists. Her letter referred to articles by Santamaria published in June 1955 in the Examiner newspaper of Bombay (Mumbai), India, in which he had claimed the authority of the Church for his organisation. She received `abusive’ correspondence from Melbourne, but some Sydney clerics, including Cardinal Gilroy, privately commended her. In December the Catholic Worker also criticised Santamaria for his statements in the Examiner. Mrs Daly did not want the St Joan’s Alliance to become part of Catholic Action; she feared membership would mean an unhealthy loss of autonomy.

In the late 1950s and the 1960s Mrs Daly spoke frequently at schools and university seminars, and contributed a regular column, `The Things That Matter’, to the Catholic Weekly. Her theme was usually the importance of women taking their place in public life. She argued to a colleague that women should be seen as `human persons together with men rather than placed in the narrow category that stems from medieval philosophy and canon law’. In 1967 she was appointed OBE. A woman of courage, energy and intellect, she was encouraged by her education and experience to work for social justice. Described by her friend Edmund Campion as `redoubtable’, she was supported by strong family ties and a loving marriage. She died on 23 November 1986 at Bayview and was buried in the Catholic section of the Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Kennedy, Faith and Feminism (1985)
  • E. Campion, A Place in the City (1994)
  • B. Duncan, Crusade or Conspiracy? (2001)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Apr 1951, p 4, 27 Nov 1986, p 4
  • Sun-Herald(Sydney), 26 Sept 1954, p 68, 1 Jan 1967, p 64
  • private information.

Citation details

Anne O'Brien, 'Daly, Jean Mary (1897–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Edmunds, Jean

10 December, 1897
Strathfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


23 November, 1986 (aged 88)
Bayview, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.