Citizens of the world: Jessie Street and international feminism.
As one of those who worked for more than fifty years in these transnational networks of women's organisations, Street's story traces the role of transnational networks of women's organisations in the twentieth century posting of human rights on the agenda of governments. The outline of this work shown here reveals the power of the 'associative citizenship' learned and practised there. But the later period of Street's work shows the impact of the Cold War on erecting barriers that divided the transnational organisations, and weakened the political participation they fostered.
Rise of transnationalism
In 1889, the year Jessie Street was born in India, the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) brought imperial outposts in India and in the Pacific, East and Southeast Asia and Australia, into a growing network of unions in North America, Britain and Europe. Western imperialism and Christian evangelism helped the rapid spread of the WCTU, but it is another characteristic that connects Jessie Street to these pioneer networking women. The cohesive power of the WCTU lay in the broad reform agenda developed within the networked unions who saw 'home issues'--alcohol abuse, family violence, rapid urbanisation and unsanitary housing, and the needs of young children as political questions. The solution to these problems involved challenging women's unequal access to the protection of the law, and the fundamental promises of liberal democratic government--freedom and equality.
The 'white ribbon' that bound WCTU women together was an associative outlook that was as much political as religious. In Australia and worldwide, the WCTU branches lobbied for legislative and policy reform on apparently diverse issues, linking free inner-city kindergartens and rural sewerage facilities with women's suffrage, employment and education. The WCTU was organised in 'departments' including suffrage, labour and capital, peace and arbitration, physical culture, and rational dress reform to implement the 'do everything' approach of founder Frances Willard. This strategy crossed a theoretical boundary between private and public spheres as well as national borders, and through acting in common purpose women were 'translated out of the passive and into the active voice'. (1)
Two years after the World WCTU was founded in Canada in 1886, suffragists from Europe, Britain, India and the United States, including veterans like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, founded another transnational network, the International Council of Women (ICW). Many Australian women linked to this network while travelling overseas, among them Catherine Helen Spence while in the USA and Britain from March 1893 to December 1894, and Mary Windeyer, who attended the 1893 Chicago exhibition of women's work. In 1896 Mary Windeyer and Rose Scott founded the National Council of Women in NSW, the first Australian affiliate of the ICW. With its broad base of affiliated organisations, the ICW like the WCTU developed a wide and varied reform program through the 1890s.
To target what all agreed was a primary goal, the right to vote, Stanton, then aged 86, Anthony, then 89, and the 'born orator' Carrie Chapman Catt, organised a suffrage conference of delegates in Washington in 1902. This first transnational suffrage conference resolved to form a separate body to focus on campaigning for votes for women and the International Women's Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) was formally established at the ICW meeting in Berlin in 1904. (2) Among the delegates from nine countries at the Washington conference was Victorian suffragist Vida Goldstein. Her introduction to multilateral organisation was an outstanding success, with Catt observing that 'having Little Australia in our midst has bound us together'. (3) Vida Goldstein became a leading figure in the IWSA and her speaking tours arranged by the network helped weave the web of transactions through which enfranchised Australians exported their experiences, and imported new goals and strategies for shaping women's citizenship.
These multilateral organisations had many functions. They were 'outdoor parliaments' where women like Goldstein campaigned for political equality in international fora of rallies, lectures, conferences, executive meetings, and newsletters. They were travel agencies, particularly for the distant Australians, providing advice and arrangements for Goldstein and others such as journalist and labour reformer Mice Henry and writer Miles Franklin. They were training institutes, trading exchanges, lobbies, fundraising foundations and friendly societies. They were more readily accessed by women with wealth and leisure to travel, but those who earned their living were among the travellers, and even some who could only attend international meeting by raising money from supporters became delegates.
Jessie Street's entry into these developing networks was early, though indirect. As a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl in England, she helped suffragettes campaign a year after the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union in 1904, and again in 1911 during another stay in England. She attended her first international gathering in 1914, as one of six Australian delegates in Rome for the ICW's fifth conference, when more than six million members in 23 countries were reported. Fifty years later Street recalled, 'I enjoyed myself tremendously and made many life-long friends', among them IWSA leader Chapman Catt. (4) When she followed up the ICW contacts in New York in 1915, she found a job that gave her experience in rehabilitation programs addressing the causes as well as the effects when young girls were charged with prostitution.
The following year, newly married and living in Sydney, Street joined the Feminist Club, formed in 1914 to work for 'the amelioration of social conditions', where her new colleagues included Labor Party activists Annie Golding and Kate Dwyer. She was also a regular at the Elizabeth Street rooms of the Women's Club, founded in 190l by Rose Scott. At the age of 70 Scott, like Maybanke Anderson and other NSW suffragists, was still prominent in campaigns for women's citizenship. Just how broad was the agenda is evident in another activity Street featured in during 1916, when the return of hundreds of invalided soldiers made contagious disease a prominent public health problem. At a 'Sexual Hygiene' conference organised by the Workers Education "Association in November, she gave a paper on 'The place of the treatment of venereal disease in social reform'. Such an issue appears at odds with her own description of herself as a conservative voter, (5) sharing the views of her new husband, Kenneth Street, a lawyer and member of a prominent and conservative family. But venereal disease, like prostitution, was high on the agenda of the women reformers with whom Jessie Street associated in Sydney, as she had overseas.
During the war years, the attempts of Prime Minister Billy Hughes to introduce conscription gave added momentum to women reformers. Leading anti-conscriptionists like Emma Miller in Queensland, Rose Scott in NSW and Vida Goldstein in Victoria strengthened the existing synthesis of peace activism and feminist activism. A conservative reaction to the suffrage organisations these women had led in the Federation-Depression era twenty years before had produced the conservative Australian Women's National League in 1903. In 1917, women reformers on the other side of the conscription debate also formed new national groups, like the Catholic Women's Guild, founded by Melbourne lawyer Anna Brennan.
The detail of the origins, nature and operation of women's transnational networking obviously depends on their historical and geopolitical contexts, but associative citizenship is a common feature of the networked organisations discussed here. The emergence of this form of political participation was built on many levels of political relationship, between associates, between organisations, and within networks. The primary relationship in associative citizenship was not of individuals to a government, but a relationship between the governed. Their networks were multilateral in that they mediated the relationships of citizens to more than one government.
Before 1919, transnational organisations could only target campaigns through national constituents, to national governments. These were non-government organisations mediating the relations of member bodies, with no direct relationship to any government or government agency. This changed when the first international federation of governments was established by the Treaty of Versailles. The purpose of the League of Nations had been anticipated for centuries: the arbitration of national conflicts, the promotion of peaceful relations between nations.
For transnational organisations, this changed everything. The network of women's organisations--the WCTU, the ICW, the IWSA, and others including the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and the new Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)--established to link women's peace movements worldwide--were quick to realise what a transnational forum of governments, a parliament of member states, could mean. After Geneva was chosen as the location of the headquarters of the League of Nations, most of these established organisations set up permanent bureaux in the city, the sites of choice in the streets adjacent to the League's temporary headquarters in the lakeside Palais Wilson. This is the context in which the League and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) became key institutions in developing international rights and standards for women and for workers during the 1920s. And both institutions furthered the expertise already developed within the international non-government organisations. When Mice Henry wrote Women and the Labour Movement in 1922, she referred explicitly to 'international feminism'. (6)
The new institutions also meant building new alliances. Bessie Rischbieth, who had founded a union of West Australia's women's guilds, now established an Australian Federation of Women Voters (AFWV). This national network of women's organisations increased the power of lobbying federal government, but its purpose was to create a body for more effective liaison with the League of Nations, and the ILO. From the third General Assembly of the League in 1922, the AFWV's lobbying ensured the inclusion of a woman on Australia's delegation to the General Assembly of the League each year. Within Australia, the AFWV provided a federal umbrella body to liaise with the League as well as to lobby federal government on behalf of smaller bodies. After Jessie Street and Linda Littlejohn set up the United Associations of Women in Sydney in 1929, it operated as a NSW base for the AFWV.
While national governments were slow to recognise associative citizenship and the role played by transnational women's organisations, the League was not. While the Peace Treaty was being formulated at Versailles during 1919, ICW representatives from the allied countries met in Paris to argue for provisions in the Treaty to ensure the Covenant of the League explicitly accepted the equal representation of women in the Secretariat. Though honoured in theory rather than in practice, this provision had two important effects. Several women were appointed to senior positions, including Dame Rachel Crowdy who headed the Secretariat's Social Questions Committee. The second was the opportunity, for organisations to lobby their governments for inclusion of women on delegations, as was successfully done in Australia.
The first of Jessie Street's two visits to Geneva and the League was in 1930. Athough she was ostensibly on a rest cure after serious health problems, this was a lengthy round-the-world trip with a demanding itinerary, and of course many, many meetings in every country. With initial letters of introduction from Australia, including some from Bessie Rischbieth, and additions accumulated at every new stop, Street wove her way into these networks. By the time she reached Geneva in August, she had met birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger and renewed her acquaintance with Chapman Catt in New York; worked with National Women's Party founder Mice Paul at the Party's Washington headquarters; and in London had been welcomed into the IWSA network by its founder, Margery Corbett Ashby. (7) Street's last stop before Geneva was Zurich, where at Margaret Sanger's suggestion, she attended the world's first international birth control conference.
Geneva in September 1930 was a heady time. Ten years of lobbying the League had forged a powerful solidarity and strength in the networks of women, and effective relationships with the League Secretariat. Street made full use of her time there. Her first appointment was to address a new transnational body, the Open Door International formed the year before, on 'The iniquity of the Australian basic wage'. (8)
As usual, there were other Australian women in Geneva for the meetings of the transnational organisations arranged each September to coincide with the General Assembly of the League of Nations. West Australian MLA May Holman was Australia's woman delegate to the League that year, and among the Australian observers in the visitors' gallery was Catholic Women's Guild founder Anna Brennan, who on this visit brought the Guild into the international Catholic Women's organisation, St Joan's Mliance. By 1930 the transnational networks varied according to strategy, as well as church or party bases. After a division on the policy of seeking protective legislation or equality, the Equal Rights International was formed in Geneva that year to lobby the League for an international Equal Rights Treaty. Jessie Street was elected deputy chair of the new body.
As well as attending the Assembly and the networks meetings, Street spent several weeks using the League of Nations Library and resources in the central offices of the women's organisations. She was completing research on the proposal for a social insurance scheme she had been working on in the USA and Britain, later submitted to the Lyons government. After her return to Australia, Jessie Street spoke widely at League of Nations Union meetings, women's organisations and at open air public rallies against rearmament, and on the wide range of agenda items of the transnational organisations of which she was a member. She also campaigned for cooperative internationalism, arguing that technology had 'made the world a neighbourhood', where isolationist policies were impossible. She pointed out that non-government organisations were vital in the essential task of generating interest in international affairs as well as securing improvements in the status of women.
Eight years later Street was back in Geneva in Spring, for the 19th Assembly of the League of Nations. There were then eight transnational organisations of women with headquarters in the city; in Street's estimate they represented in total 50 million women around the world. (9) Although the diplomatic crises faced by the League of Nations in the 1930s--and the reduction of the Social Questions Committee--altered the previous relations, the women's networks had increased in experience and efficiency. There was now a central liaison committee through which the networks negotiated with the League Secretariat and with the delegations of member nations. Alliances at the national level like the AFWV were a key link in the import and export of reform goals, strategies and experiences and explain the parallel issues and campaigns at the local level and those at the League level. The example of the UAW in the 1930s demonstrates this parallel, in federal campaigns such as the removal of unequal conditions on married women's domicile and nationality or restoring the number of women selected for Australia's 1936 Olympics team, and on State government matters such as equal guardianship laws and equal rights and responsibilities for jury service. All were on the agenda of the liaison committee of women's international organisations. (10)
Jessie Street's stay in Geneva in 1938, like her earlier visit, was part of an extended period of travel. Before arriving in Geneva she had spent four months researching reform issues and making, and renewing, contacts in the USSR, Europe, and Britain. When she left Geneva she addressed meetings in England and the USA before returning home. With her place in the transnational network of women reformers consolidated, in Australia she took every opportunity to write and talk about her experiences, promoting the interwoven causes of internationalism and feminism.
Before 1919, feminist transnational organisations could only target campaigns through national constituents, to national governments, but between the wars they operated within the multilateral structure provided by the new international government organisations. The women's associations were prominent forerunners of the non-government organisations (NGOs) that now mediate the relations of states, citizens, and today's international government organisations like the United Nations agencies and the International Labour Organisation.
Although international socialist organisations, including women's associations, were well established before the League of Nations was founded, Street's network of contacts did not include any of these bodies before her first visit to the USSR in 1938. Although she identified the Depression years as the source of her socialism, it was only after that visit in the summer of 1938 that she began regularly to use the term in her speeches and articles. She frequently cited the USSR as a reform model and deplored the lack of information available, complaining strongly when a Sydney newspaper editor would not print an interview in which she described what she had seen during her visits to Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Yalta.
Street joined Sydney's Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR in 1939. Within months she was president, after the alignment of the USSR with Germany in August and the declaration of war in September prompted a wave of resignations of the Society's leading members. For two years she remained at the helm of the Society against an onslaught of condemnation that subsided when the USSR became an ally after the German invasion in 1941. From then until the end of the war she led the 'Sheepskins for Russia' campaign, with both government and popular support. The contacts she had made in 1938 and through the Society made her a key figure in the practical business of shipping aid cargoes to destinations in the Soviet Union. She was also very prominent in fostering cultural relations, arranging lectures, film and musical events, and lobbying for removing the wartime ban on importing Soviet newspapers. This public relations role was quite different from the 'associative citizenship' of the transnational organisations of women. Although these activities made her a constant surveillance target by both the wartime Security Service and the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, compared with her feminist transnational networking they appear less a form of purposeful political participation, than of communications and marketing.
Jessie Street's socialism had a lot of the social and not much of the 'ism'. It was the practical effect of Soviet reforms on the status of women, on social services and on living conditions that impressed her, not the theories underlying the revolutionary experiment. She was keen to communicate the examples, not the theories. She wove links between the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR and its Soviet counterpart, VOKS, but the key 1938 contacts in the USSR she built on were with women's agencies and about the status of women. These relationships were not primarily to develop understanding; their foundation was on the solid ground where association flourished in pursuit of common purposes. Like her participation in those networks though, she fostered relations with the USSR without any conformity of belief. She found many likeminded women colleagues, and wasted little time where associated effort for common goals was unworkable.
Where international, national and state organisations had purposes and strategies not consistent with an ideology or platform, the women's associations Street worked with sought to challenge the ideology, or change the platform. When the United Associations of Women sent their strategy for equal pay to political parties for comment, she rejected the change sought by the Communist Party of Australia. She pointed out that the UAW's purpose was to end wage discrimination against women, and could not be changed to fit the CPA's broader aim for wage increases.
Street's pro-Soviet stand was determined and enduring, but her socialism was certainly not of the dense theoretical sort. Her emphasis was always on practical outcomes; she drew strategies from anywhere to achieve reform goals and after 1938, Soviet Socialism became part of her vocabulary of reform. But that vocabulary remained feminist, internationalist, and essentially associative. This might have excluded her from membership of the main Socialist women's organisations, as she does not seem ever to have joined any of these.
In 1945 Street made her third working trip around the world, this time as a government official, the only woman appointed to Australia's delegation to the San Francisco conference to found the United Nations, as successor to the League of Nations. The four months of the conference were a concentrated regrouping of the international networks, focussed on women in the national delegations. A strong reformist group emerged, including Street, Bodil Begtrup form Denmark, and women from the Central and South American delegations. Supported by observers from women's organisations, this group devised strategies and lobbied for a raft of issues. Among their successes were the recognition of the equal status of women in the United Nations Charter, and agreement to create a full commission of the Economic and Social Council on the status of women. (11)
From San Francisco, Street planned an extraordinary itinerary that took her around the United States, to London, and then to Moscow, via war ravaged Paris and Berlin. In Paris in September she was on the steering committee for a postwar conference of women. She returned there from Moscow in November, with the Soviet delegates, for the meeting that founded the first new postwar transnational organisation of women, the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF). Like the Australian Women's Charter movement in which Street was a leading figure, this body aimed at promoting the role of women in postwar reconstruction and the cause of international cooperation.
For the next two years Jessie Street worked for these purposes in government as well as non-government agencies. In 1947 Australia easily won a seat on the United Nations Commission for the Status of Women (CSW) and at the initial meeting Street was elected deputy to Bodil Begtrup as chair. With the initial support of the Department of External Affairs, Street attempted to set up a series of local committees throughout Australia, linked by a national Status of Women group to liaise directly with the CSW. On her government-funded interstate trips to set up the committees, Street continued to integrate internationalism, feminism and her own version of socialism in her speeches and lectures. The new secretary of the Department of External Affairs, John Burton, terminated the proposed new organisation abruptly after the Department's own intelligence section reported the content of Street's speeches. This departmental surveillance was in addition to the Investigation Branch reports filed since her 1938 trip. Acquired by the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) established in 1949, these covert files were Cold War fuel.
In 1948 the Chifley Government refused to nominate Street for a second term to the CSW. She was also refused approval to attend the Paris meeting that year, where the CSW executive were to take part in the final drafting of the Declaration of Human Rights, and her participation was from then unofficial. (12) A member of the Australian Labor Party since 1939, Street left it--on pain of expulsion--in 1949, when the Chifley Government was facing its final election. In the decade of her membership, she had not changed her political views, but the electorate, and the Party had. Her core causes-internationalism, socialism, and feminism--had become code words for Communism.
In the Cold War climate, few forms of political association were above suspicion, but among the most suspicious was the swelling popular peace movement in Europe. This powerful and poignant expression of association was a signal statement of the only power left to people whose countries had been torn apart by the war. To the governments of the USA and Britain, and thus to the new government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies in Australia, pacifist association was synonymous with Communism. Surveillance documents, newspaper cuttings and ministerial minutes accumulated on Menzies government files titled 'Soviet Peace Offensive', as world peace congresses were held in Berlin in 1952, and Budapest in 1953. Street addressed both of these vast assemblies as a member of the World Peace Council. She was then based in London, having left Australia in 1950 after Kenneth Street's elevation to Chief Justice of New South Wales, when she was being headlined as 'Red Jessie'. She did not intend this to be the six-year exile it became, when from her London flat she travelled to Paris, the temporary home of the United Nations, to eastern as well as western Europe, to the Soviet Union, and to East and Southeast Asia. Her itineraries were still largely mapped by the transnational networks of women's organisations, but now the cause of peace was more dominant on those agendas.
Like the US and British governments, Australian officials erected every possible barricade against this association, the largest transnational movement in the world. Border controls were use to prevent visitors attending proposed congresses in the West, and to restrict the travel of nationals to peace congresses within the Soviet bloc. When Australia's Immigration Minister Harold Holt introduced new passport conditions to prevent a delegation attending the Congress, Street was still able to travel as her Australian passport was issued the previous year. Despite this, press reports implied she had travelled illegally and would be arrested. Holt's next strategy was to state in parliament that she had fraudulently obtained a British passport and that when she returned home her Australian passport would be confiscated. Street's was just one case yielding evidence of the crisis response of governments to the power of transnational association when relationships, and purposes, elude government control.
This is not to say that association for world peace after the devastation of the 1939-45 war was not influenced, and used, by Communist parties and by the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors. Street's address to an International Women's Conference in Moscow in 1949 was clearly a criticism of western governments, even given the considerable bias in media reports of her remarks, and of her activities in WIDF. But feminist transnationalist networks were neither homogeneous, nor so malleable as to become a Communist front. Where international, national and state organisations had purposes and strategies not consistent with a religious or political ideology, they tried to change the ideology, not their position. This was a key factor for feminist reformers, where the legitimacy of their cause depended on association and agreement outside existing institutions. For them political participation meant first building relationships based on common put-pose, and this usually meant associations of women. The history of feminist reform demonstrated how infrequently these women could establish common ground with institutions with entrenched male leadership, such as trade unions, political parties, or governments.
Transnational networking of women's organisations emerged at a time when gender conventions, and law and policy, functioned to relocate the civic from a political sphere to a private sphere. (13) These issues - whether citizenship for women is necessarily different from the male model; whether there can be a social space immune from politics; and whether citizenship can be human and states humane--remain problems for the twenty-first century.
The political ideals of liberty and equality suppose the separateness of citizens who need a liberal democratic government to pursue these ideals while protecting the property and person of each. The political relationship of citizens is routed through a government that gives this guarantee by a rule of law that upholds these ideals. Although our actual experience tells us society is not composed of isolated atoms only connected through government, the theoretical model dictates that all direct connections between citizens are outside the sphere of politics. In practice, active citizenship is probably always associative, always a primary relationship between people.
The activities of transnational organisations of women from the late nineteenth century coalesced in a multilateral feminist diplomacy after 1919, when the world's first international government forum, the League of Nations, was established. This diplomacy shaped the humanitarian work of the League of Nations in the 1920s and 1930s, the foundation of the human rights activities of the United Nations in the second half of the twentieth Century.
This is the context of the associative citizenship practised by Jessie Street. She was neither an individualist citizen, nor a singularly great woman. When we see her as she saw herself - as someone who drew on and contributed to association to strengthen the power of people to influence government--we glimpse what she also saw, the promise of feminist transnationalism. Socialism and Soviet practices became part of her vocabulary of reform, but that vocabulary remained essentially associative and borderless, and thus feminist, international, and socialist. Perhaps commune-ism is the closest ideological term that covers associative citizenship.
Associative citizenship challenges the model of liberal-democracy that assumes political relationships are always mediated by government, and that the primary political relationship is between the citizen-individual and government. With the onset of the Cold War, the progress of feminist transnationalism, and thus of associative citizenship, ran up against barriers raised between the Communist and non-Communist states and organisations.
Characterising citizens as free and equal meant giving everyone a reason to be governed. Extended to an international forum, this produced the concept of universal human rights. Associative citizenship in an international sphere, acting on institutions exercising international and regional power as well as on national governments, was a growing and powerful force for the first half of the twentieth century.
The key legacy of feminist transnationalism is the associative nature of this form of political participation. In this context, Jessie Street's comment 'when you are interested in world-wide movements, wherever you go you find friends', points us to the role of associative citizenship in transnational political activism. It also highlights the political nature of these friendships, the work through which they were forged, and their communal relations with governments. (14)
(1) Frances Willard Do Everything: A handbook for" the world's white ribboners 1895. Reprinted in Carolyn De Swarte Gifford The Meal of 'the New Woman' According to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union New York, Garland Publishing, 1987.
(2) Arnold Whittick Woman into Citizen Santa Barbara Ca, ABC-Clio, 1979. IWSA became the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, and in 1926 the International Alliance of Women.
(3) Janet Bomford 'That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman': Vida Goldstein. Melbourne University Press, 1993.
(4) Jessie Street Truth or Repose Sydney, Australasian Book Society, 1966, p.58.
(5) And indeed, Ettie Rout was ostracised in New Zealand for her work that attempted to control the infection of NZ troops overseas with VD. See Jane Tolerton, A Life of Ettie Rout, Auckland, Penguin, 1992.
(6) Diane Kirkby Alice Henry: The Power of Pen and Voice Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
(7) NLA: MS2683/1/239; 3/24 and 3/27.
(8) Penny Russell 'Jessie Street and international feminism' in Heather Radi (ed) Jessie Street: Documents and Essays Sydney, Redress Press, 1990, pp.181-91.
(9) NLA: 2683 4/412; 9/l02.
(10) Helen Archdale 'The women's movement in relation to general internationalism' Australian Quarterly 20, 4, 1948, pp.16-24.
(11) NLA: MS2683/5/540-45; 5/252-55.
(12) NLA: MS2683/5/56, 58, 54-55.
(13) Ruth Bloch, 'The gendered meanings of virtue in Revolutionary America' Signs 13, 1, 1987, pp.37-58; Rosemarie Zagarri 'Morals, manners, and the republican mother' American Quarterly 44, 2, 1992, pp.192-215.
(14) Jessie Street Truth or Repose Sydney, Australasian Book Society, 1966, p.103.
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|Date:||May 1, 2005|
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