Lifelong struggle for social renewal




8-5-1917 15-9-2012

JEAN McCAUGHEY, who has died after a short illness at the age of 95, was a modest woman of great capacity who had a major influence on Victoria.

She was a committed wife of Davis McCaughey a dedicated and joyful matriarch of a most creative family and simultaneously a leader in the struggle for social justice a researcher, author, organiser, public speaker and institution builder.

Jean Henderson was born to an Irish farming family in County Antrim in 1917. She was inspired by her father George Henderson's passionate political engagement and independence, for though a Presbyterian he believed in home rule for Ireland. From both parents she absorbed a Christian faith and from her father a concern for social justice: he was a campaigner for the rights of tenant farmers and the underprivileged and served a term in the Northern Ireland parliament.

She was an outstanding student and won a scholarship to Queen's University in Belfast, where she studied medicine.

It was there she met Davis McCaughey at a meeting of the Student Christian Movement. After their marriage in 1940 she went with him to Edinburgh, where he was completing his theology degree. Once James was born, her medical training was suspended and finally abandoned as Patrick, John, Mary and Brigid arrived.

In 1952 Davis and Jean decided together to leave London, where they had moved after the war, to live in Melbourne, where Davis had been offered the chair in New Testament studies at Ormond College. There she created a secure, welcoming home for her family and for visitors from the college, the University of Melbourne, churches and community organisations. She was soon working for the YWCA and, after Davis was appointed master of Ormond in 1959, became more deeply involved in the college and the wellbeing of its students and staff. Former students say Ormond was transformed by both of them.

Jean became more active outside the college in 1963 when she was appointed acting general secretary of the Student Christian Movement. She was a leading advocate for the establishment of a new women's college and was appointed to the council of St Hilda's College when it began, and later became council chair. While with Davis at Cambridge in 1966 she took one of the early computer training programs for which she was well prepared by her excellence at maths.

On returning to Australia she joined the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, where she was employed for 10 years, first as a research assistant and later a research fellow. She contributed significantly, while working there with Professor Ronald Henderson, to ground-breaking work on poverty in Australia that became a foundation for evolution of Australian social policy. This also led on to her co-authorship of Who Cares?: Family problems, community links and helping services, published in 1977.

While on the board of management of the Royal Melbourne Hospital she served on several subcommittees and supported improved working conditions and educational opportunities for nurses. She was also a member of a Victorian government social welfare advisory committee.

When the federal government established the Institute of Family Studies in 1980, Jean was invited to join the research program and undertook several studies, one of which was on domestic violence and poverty in the Geelong area, published as Social Support in an Australian Community. The summation of much of this research was the readable and successful book A Bit of a Struggle: Coping with Family Life in Australia, published in 1987.

In 1986 Davis and Jean were astonished when premier John Cain asked whether he could nominate Davis to become governor of Victoria. Evan Walker, who proposed the appointment, suggested they be appointed joint governors. This was impractical but Cain often said he had been given two for the price of one.

Though reluctant to accept, when appointed they were wholehearted about their responsibilities, introducing an egalitarian style to Government House, opening it for the first time to the public, inviting innumerable groups to tea, and visiting most towns in the state. Jean accepted patronage of more than 100 societies, which she chose because she valued their work. She enjoyed having a study of her own at home for the first time! Her capacity as an empathetic conversationalist, an attentive listener and discussant who was also open about herself, endeared her to many of those she met. In 1988 she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia.

After their retirement, Jean was free again to be an active advocate for improved community services. In response to the Kennett government's cuts she became joint chair of the non-partisan coalition of social welfare and faith-based community groups titled People Together. Jean's description of the aim of People Together was "to keep before the people of Victoria the image of a just, equitable and caring society". With Reichstein Foundation funding, one of its programs was to make social audits of the services available in four rural communities and two suburbs. At a culminating conference at the Melbourne Town Hall on the widening gap, Jean's address was given a standing ovation.

Her leadership of this campaign pointed up many of her qualities. She was a reformer committed to strengthening equity and ending exclusion, a fine writer, and a lucid, gracious speaker. When settled on a course of action she was quite determined.

The University of Melbourne and Deakin University both gave her honorary doctorates. The Melbourne vice-chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis, wrote that: "Dr McCaughey was a great Melburnian and a significant Australian. She demonstrated a lifelong passion as an advocate for the rights of the disadvantaged through her work on families, homelessness and communities . . . Her many important contributions to the university, and the state, are remembered with respect and appreciation."

She had learnt to balance her professional and public life with family activities and to maintain space for leisure. She concluded the purchase of a holiday house at Walkerville, which became a favourite place for relaxation with the family. She greatly appreciated the drama, art, music and education in which her children and their partners were leading professionals. She loved to talk with her grandchildren about their lives and was stimulated by their conversation. She proudly claimed to be the North Melbourne Football Club's oldest supporter.

The depth and strength of her Christian faith was the foundation of each part of her life: her love and admiration

for her husband, which Davis fully reciprocated her engagement with her five children, 11 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren her security and poise in public presentations and functions and her advocacy of stronger community life and services. As Patrick wrote: "She believed deeply in the communion of saints, which is now her dwelling place."

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