Jennie George becomes the first woman elected ACTU President

In September 1995, Jennie George became the first woman to be elected as President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

After migrating to Australia from Italy as a 3 year old, Jennie grew up in the Surrey Hills Housing Commission in Sydney.

She completed an Arts degree at the University of Sydney and won a scholarship to the Teachers’ College.

She went on to teach English and history at high school.

 She first got active as a unionist with the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation .

After teaching for a number of years at the Bankstown Girls’ High School, Jennie became the Teachers Federation’s Welfare Officer in 1973. 

Hers was a career of firsts.

In 1979, she was elected to serve as General Secretary of the Federation – the first woman in this role.

In 1983, she was the first woman elected to the ACTU’s national executive.

Four years later, she became a Vice President of the ACTU.

At this time, Jennie served as the Teachers Federation’s President – the first woman in the role.

In 1991 she became the ACTU’s first Women’s Officer, as well as Assistant Secretary – the first woman to serve as a full-time officer of the ACTU 

Jennie was elected at the 1995 ACTU Congress, which took place at Wilson Hall at Melbourne University.

Ross Martin captured the scene in his report from the Congress:

When the time came for Bill Kelty to move his resolution, he made the bare statement that he was asking Congress to ‘endorse’ Ms George as a ‘president-elect’ – then the cheering overwhelmed him. The delegates stood and applauded as the hall was invaded by masses of balloons in the suffragette colours of purple and green (with an added touch of white). The cheering and applause went on and on. It was almost five minutes before the secretary could resume and talk of ‘an historical day for us all’, ‘a new day’. His seconder, Sharon Burrow (Australian Education) [President of the AEU], upped the diurnal ante and spoke of ‘a day that is hugely symbolic’ – because ‘if it’s possible to shift the male culture of the trade union movement [in this way], then it’s possible to shift anything!’ The applause following this remark swelled again to greet Ms George herself as she moved to the rostrum… Twenty minutes later, after a speech marked by a skilful blending of the personal and the political, there was more cheering, another standing ovation, and delegates sang along to a recording of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”

Elected in 1995, Jennie’s term in office began in 1996 and she served until 2000, when she was succeeded by Sharan Burrow.

After being elected as ACTU President, Jennie was integral to the trade union leadership that had to grapple with the difficulties of representing working people in the Howard era, such as the MUA despite of 1998, where Jennie played a leading role at the dock-side protests.

After her time with the ACTU, George was elected to the NSW Federal Seat of Throsby in 2001, serving her constituency for nine years. 

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