Joy Damousi (Professor of History, School of History and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne– Professeure invitée au LARCA, février-mars 2020) : ‘Cecilia John and Florence Grylls: Shifting meanings of humanitarianism in Save the Children Fund, 1919-1960’ – Séminaire joint Histoire du politique et Genre

02 mars 2020 - 17 h 00 min - 19 h 00 min


Through a biographical framework, this paper considers the shifting meanings of the humanitarianism of Save the Children Fund (SCF) during the twentieth century. It does so by focusing on a branch of the SCF outside of its centre in Britain to chart the changing relationship of international branches to the imperial project of the SCF. The Australian branch of the SCF began in 1919 through the efforts of the feminist, internationalist, and pacifist, Ceclia John (1877-1955). Persuaded by the sentimental images of impoverished children, John saw Australia’s place firmly within the British Empire despite her earlier anti-empire sentiments. The war nurse Florence Grylls (1888-1962) led the Australian SCF from 1937 and transformed it from one which exclusively served its imperial forebears to one which began to shape an identity of its own by confronting national issues relating to children. By mid-century, the meaning of humanitarianism in the Australian SCF included Aboriginal children and child refugees from Europe. By focusing on biographical studies of John and Grylls, I develop three arguments.
First, the fundraising campaigns for Armenian, Russian and Greek children formed the core work of the Australian SCF in the inter-war years. The focus on national communities in post-1945 gave the Australian organisation a degree of independence, but only to a point. This paper argues that despite these shifts during the post-war period the SCF did not entirely shake its imperial beginnings. Instead, these found new expression through the promotion of assimilationist programmes which promoted white Britishness.
Second, a study of John and Grylls captures a generation whose connection to humanitarianism was formed during the First World War. They were born a decade apart, but they were both active in the war. A biographical perspective points to how this legacy endured long after the first decade after the war. It also suggests the SCF’s message was not static or fixed, but as an enterprising organisation it ensured it remained relevant, dynamic and contemporary.
Finally, this paper responds to the recent call for lesser known activists to be more fully studied in order to consider humanitarianism in action, develop a more nuanced understanding of humanitarians themselves and the remarkable adaptability of humanitarianism over time.

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