Lady Helen set up the Australian Red Cross in 1914, just nine days after the outbreak of WWI. She quickly turned her own home, the ballroom of Melbourne’s Government House, into the headquarter of the Red Cross. She managed to recruit thousands of volunteers that organized themselves and dedicated their time and energy to provide comfort for the AIF overseas and help families to get information about their missing family members.
Through her custody and direction of the Australian Red Cross, Lady Helen set an example for her own gender by demonstrating that a woman can lead a federated national organisation, oversee large budgets and chair finance committees dominated by men, both on the national and international stage. She saw the Australian Red Cross as the domain of women and wanted to ensure that they would have leadership roles at all levels in the organisation. This was unlike the British Red Cross, where all the leadership positions were filled by men, and the Canadian Red Cross, where women were barely included in the leadership structure.
To reach her goal, Lady Helen sent messages to the wife of each state governor in the country and invited them to establish local societies in their state as well as making them members of the newly established central council. All accepted. And so the Australian Red Cross branch became an organization led by women. ‘Undoubtedly these women are the heart and soul in the war’, Lady Helen wrote to a friend, and ‘the Red Cross has hitherto given them a chance to show their capacity’.
When Lady Helen returned to Europe in 1920 she kept up with the Australian Red Cross by representing the Society at the Red Cross’ headquarter in Geneva, Switzerland, for many years. She died in 1941.
As the daughter of a viceroy and governor-general’s wife, she was made Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire.
“The women of Castiglione nursed and soothed the wounded soldiers, ut when the Red Cross was born, no women were in attendance. Today women are still nursing the wounded... But are they in on the decision making?”