Sarah Jane (Jennie) Baines (1866-1951) was a radical feminist and socialist who was a significant force in the anti-conscription movement in Melbourne and in the demonstrations that led to the so-called 'food riots' of 1917. She was a fearless campaigner, who was imprisoned on many occasions during her lifetime, and in 1919 was thought to be the first prisoner to go on a hunger-strike in a Victorian prison.

Jennie Baines grew up in Birmingham in England.  Her first job, aged only 11, was in an ordnance factory, but she later joined the Salvation Army and became a successful missionary. She joined the temperance movement and the Independent Labour Party. In 1888 she married boot maker George Baines and bore him five children between 1890 and 1899.

When her youngest child was about five, Baines joined the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union and began to campaign for women's suffrage.  She became a full-time organizer in 1908, travelling to organise meetings and marches and to form new branches. She was one of the first militant 'suffragettes' and was imprisoned 15 times. While in prison she went on several hunger strikes.

Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science image.
Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science image.

After her release from prison in 1913 she and her family escaped to Australia, travelling as the Evans family.  They settled in Melbourne, where Baines began working for the Women's Political Association.  She joined the Women's Peace Army in July 1915 and campaigned alongside Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst against conscription throughout 1916 and 1917.  Baines also joined the Victorian Socialist Party (along with Adela Pankhurst).

Throughout her life Baines's major interest was in the welfare of women. With Adela Pankhurst she led marches protesting against wartime price increases and food shortages and was sentenced to a prison term alongside Pankhurst in October 1917.  The Pentridge Prison Register for that period records the imprisonment of both women. In December 1918 Baines was again in trouble with the authorities for flying the red flag on the Yarra Bank. She refused both to pay the fine imposed and to sign a bond promising not to fly the flag, and was imprisoned again in March 1919. Baines promptly went on a four-day hunger-strike, refusing both food and drink, and after a special sitting of the Federal Cabinet (held on a Saturday) was released from prison.  This is supposed to be the first recorded instance of a hunger-strike in an Australian prison.

Baines was tiny in stature (the prison register records her height as only four feet, nine inches), but fierce in rhetoric and resolve.  After her release from prison she wrote:

I will not, nor will I allow the workers if I can prevent it, to be cowed and driven by the miserable curs and creatures of political superstition and treachery, supported by their equally depraved hirelings and tools, who will commit any atrocity against the intelligence and physique of humanity in the name of 'law and order' and for pay and position.

The authorities took on a determined warrior in Jennie Baines!

After the war she continued to work for both the Socialist and the Labor parties and in 1928 was appointed a special magistrate in the Children's Court at Port Melbourne. She died in 1951 and was survived by her husband and three children.

Baines became a heroine of the labour movement in Victoria. She is remembered in a  biography by Judith Smart in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and in many histories of the labour movement.

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