Jessie Mary Vasey (nee Halber), BA(Hons) , OBE, CBE, 1897 – 1966
When Jessie Mary Vasey’s husband, Major General George Vasey, sailed for the Middle East in 1939, she dedicated her energies to the war effort, becoming involved with the Australian Comforts Fund, and serving as secretary of the Australian Imperial Force Women’s Association.
Following her husband’s death in an aeroplane crash during the war, Mrs Vasey wrote to all Victorian war widows, urging them to attend a meeting to form a craft guild. From the humble beginnings of a craft guild teaching weaving and other handicrafts to members so that they could augment their inadequate pensions, the War Widows’ Guild of Australia was formed, with Jessie Mary Vasey elected as the inaugural president. It is ‘no mean destiny to be called upon to go on for a man who has laid down his life’, she declared.
Mrs Vasey campaigned for an increase in the war widows’ pensions, which were payable to former soldiers and their dependants and had remained unchanged from 1920 to 1943. In 1947 the pensions were increased, largely due to her efforts, as she lobbied politicians and organized rallies in order to have the war widows’ pension tied to the basic wage. An inspiring and relentless leader, Jessie Mary Vasey was appointed O.B.E. and C.B.E. for her services to war widows.
The Guild continues to promote and provide companionship, counselling and support for its 27,000 members. In 1988, the Board of the War Widows’ Guild of Australia decided to ensure the work of its founder, the late Jessie Mary Vasey, would be recognised for years to come. In a memorial well-suited to the War Widows’ practical founder, herself an Honours student in History at The University of Melbourne, the War Widow’s Guild of Victoria established the Jessie Mary Vasey Prizes in Women’s History, to be awarded on the recommendation of the Head of the History Department, to the best essay on a Women’s History subject submitted as part of any third or fourth year History subject by Bachelor of Arts students.
The recipient of the 2014 Jesse Mary Vasey Prize for Women’s History, Augustus Viola, reflects on what it means to him to receive this award and the experience of meeting the War Widow’s guild.
War Widows’ Guild State President Margaret Milne and 2014 Jessie Mary Vasey Prize recipient Augustus Viola
Earlier this year, I was honoured to be awarded the Jessie Mary Vasey Prize for Women’s History. The award is presented annually by the War Widows’ Guild of Victoria to 3rd year students, and provides extremely generous support and recognition for trainee historians.
The War Widows’ Guild was established by Mrs Jessie Mary Vasey following World War I as a support organisation for the thousands of Australian women left generally without income. Mrs Vasey led the Guild to become a major lobby group in Canberra, securing many crucial support measures for disadvantaged widows of the war. In the vein of Vasey’s work, the Guild maintains the Vasey Prize to encourage recognition of the experience and achievements of women in Australia and globally.
To receive the Vasey Prize is an honour, however it was eclipsed by its added perk: being invited to share tea and sandwiches with the Guild’s current board of management.
The Guild’s current board members (themselves widows of later 20th century conflicts) were uniformly inspiring. They continue the work of Mrs Vasey in providing housing and other means of support to Australian war widows.
The Guild represents the often forgotten cost of war, and is testament to the human capacity to endure and flourish in hardship, and to care for one another. At the ANZAC Centenary, it is fitting to recognise and applaud the work of the War Widows’ Guild.