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Honouring Margaret Jones (1927–2019)

Margaret Jones, one of Redfern Legal Centre’s longest-serving volunteers, passed away last month, aged 91. Margaret was an extraordinary woman who always marched to the beat of her own drum. She devoted her life to social change politics, advocating for a broad range of issues including women’s liberation, the union movement and LGBT rights.

“[W]hat really stands out about Margaret is not so much her considerable wisdom as her boundless compassion for those who are in difficult circumstances. Her staunch defence of people who are impoverished, marginalised and alienated; her comprehensive understanding of human rights in a very practical context; and her willingness to befriend the most difficult of customers has been for many staff and volunteers at RLC a real eye-opener!” – Helen Campbell AOM. Photo: Supplied

As was typical for many Irish working-class families of her time, Margaret was removed from school at the age of 14 and sent out into the workforce to support her family. Without any formal training, she cut her teeth as a “Girl Friday” in law offices during the 1940s and went on to maintain a long and successful career as a managing clerk at various Sydney law firms.

She first joined Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) in 1977 as a volunteer office manager for our evening advice service, while working by day as a legal clerk at a Redfern law firm. She went on to volunteer at other organisations including Welfare Rights Centre.

An ardent feminist and self-described lesbian separatist, Margaret came out as a lesbian in the 1950s – an extremely brave move for a woman of her time. She was a founding member of CAMP Inc, the first gay and lesbian rights organisation in Australia, and attended the first Mardi Gras protest of 1978.

Margaret was passionate about advancing the rights of women and championing the achievements of women in public life. She was instrumental in putting many women forward for Australia Day honours, including Mary Waterford, Trish Doyle MP, Roxanne McMurray, and former RLC CEO, Helen Campbell AOM.

Margaret was also the biggest contributor of nominations to the Ernie Awards for Sexist Behaviour and is responsible for the most wins in the award’s history, earning her the title “Queen of the Ernies”.

Retiring at 60, Margaret showed no signs of slowing down. She immediately took up an arts degree at Macquarie University where she specialised in women’s studies. In 2006 she returned to RLC, where she spent the last 12 years deftly handling client intake on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, as well as being a mainstay of our drop-in JP service.

Margaret gained many significant accolades for her volunteer work. In 2011, she received the Senior Highly Commended Volunteer of the Year Award, presented to her at Parliament House by the Hon. Victor Dominello MP, Minister for Volunteering, as well as the MP’s Volunteer of the Year Award, presented by the Hon. Tanya Plibersek MP.

In 2012, film producers Rose Tracey and Spencer Austad made a documentary about Margaret’s life, Seeing Margaret Jones. The film highlighted Margaret’s many achievements, speaking to friends and colleagues including Tanya Plibersek MP, Sally McManus, Dr Mary Spongberg, Dr Meredith Burgmann, Helen Campbell AOM and Trish Doyle.

In 2018 during National Volunteer Week, Margaret was awarded the Counterpoint Founders’ Choice Award in recognition of her tireless volunteering work and her years of dedicated service to the community.

RLC staff and volunteers alike depended on Margaret’s many talents, including her razor-sharp proof-reading abilities (“Has Margaret checked this yet?”), her flamboyant, no-nonsense manner, and her immense knowledge of Australia’s legal and political landscape.
Margaret was a uniquely passionate and principled woman and the example she set remains an inspiration. She will be deeply missed by all of us.

Finn O’Keefe is Communications & Volunteer Manager at Redfern Legal Centre.

 

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