Page 1: Biography
Community worker and administrator
This biography, written by Sandra Coney, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Jane (known as Jean) Stevenson was born in Dunedin on 7 November 1881, the eldest of 13 children of William Stevenson, a grocer, and his wife, Barbara Irvine. Her father was a successful businessman, who went into partnership with her maternal grandfather in a jam-making and canning firm that in 1902 became Irvine and Stevenson’s St George Company. Her mother was noted as a singer and their home, Cranmore Lodge in Roslyn, became a popular social rendezvous in Dunedin.
After attending Albany Street School, Jean went to Girton College, the private girls’ school founded in Dunedin by Caroline Freeman, where she matriculated in 1899. She was not robust during her school days, but according to Frances Ross, a fellow pupil and later principal of Girton, ‘She had outstanding gifts of leadership. Groups of girls would surround her to hear what ‘‘Pet’’(as they affectionately termed her) had to say on any discussion or debate’. On leaving school Jean went to work in the office of the family business, where she learned bookkeeping and administrative skills. She also studied science and advertising. In 1909 she became the firm’s secretary.
In 1904 Jean Stevenson became the first secretary of the Otago district of the New Zealand Presbyterian Young Women’s Bible Class Union, and in 1905–6 served as honorary secretary of the New Zealand union. In 1911 she was recruited by Esther Anderson, an American who was helping to reorganise the Joint Young Women’s Christian Association of Australia and New Zealand along more professional lines. Stevenson worked in Adelaide and Bendigo before being appointed to head the new industrial extension department established in Melbourne. In 1917 a scholarship took her to the YWCA’s training school in New York. She then organised educational and recreational centres for women working in the wartime munitions industry in the Pittsburgh district.
Returning to Australia, Jean Stevenson became industrial secretary for the Australasian association. ‘Practically nothing’, she said, ‘is yet known of the general effect of the stress of industrial life on the health of women workers’. She organised health checks in factories and formed recreational and sports clubs for workers, and further developed this direction for the YWCA when she took over the general secretaryship of the Auckland association from Elsie Griffin in 1924.
Enlisting the support of city businesses, Jean Stevenson established two major sporting associations for women: the Auckland Inter-House Sports Association, which provided athletic competition for clothing factory and drapery workers, and the Auckland Girls’ Athletic Association, for young women in other forms of employment and churches. In 1925 she raised money from the Auckland business community to found a holiday house at Blockhouse Bay to provide young women with cheap vacations by the sea; she also led the mammoth public appeal to raise funds for a large new hostel, which was built beside Myers Park in 1927.
A constant stream of young women used the YWCA’s impressive premises in Queen Street for meals, classes and sporting activities. The YWCA at this time was the city’s most prominent women’s organisation, with a membership of nearly 1,900, and was frequently an advocate for women. Stevenson called for adequate wages for women and gave a spirited defence when they were accused of aping men by shortening their skirts and bobbing their hair. ‘I should be sorry to think that a woman’s ‘‘most precious quality – her womanliness’’ depended either upon the length of her hair or the length of her skirt’. Her views on women’s roles and conditions of employment were sometimes ahead of those of the more conservative members of the YWCA controlling board; however, ultimately they tended to bow to the need for change.
In late 1926 Jean Stevenson went back to Melbourne, returning to New Zealand to become national general secretary in 1932, just as the depression was taking hold. The YWCA and other women's organisations set up women’s unemployment registers and ran retraining courses. Jean Stevenson deplored jobless women working as servants for no or pitiful wages, as some of her colleagues advocated, but she saw the YWCA primarily as a religious and educational rather than a charitable agency. She cautioned that by taking up the cause of the ‘unprivileged and unstable type’ the YWCA risked alienating the ‘self-respecting girls’ who were its traditional focus. She fostered this constituency by establishing Business and Professional Women’s Round Table Luncheon Clubs for office workers, hoping that these would encourage women into public life. In 1939 the clubs formed a federation and became independent of the YWCA.
In 1937 Jean Stevenson was diagnosed with cancer and retired from the YWCA. The following year she went to Malaya to recuperate but remained as a YWCA worker. There were further posts in Burma, Calcutta, Delhi and Madras. She founded professional women’s clubs for Indian women and after war broke out organised entertainment for servicemen. When her cancer recurred in 1947 she returned to New Zealand. Jean Stevenson died at a private Wellington hospital on 19 April 1948 and was mourned as ‘one of the Dominion’s great women leaders’.