Jean Devanny was born at Ferntown, New Zealand, the daughter of a miner. She married Francis Devanny at seventeen and soon had three children. Through reading groups, she became familiar with Marxist and other theories of socialism, initiating her life of political activism; she also wrote a large manuscript on the history of women's oppression. Devanny left New Zealand for Australia in 1929, and by that time, she had published four novels, including The Butcher Shop (1926), which was banned for its descriptions of rural violence and sexuality.
The concern for the personal and political welfare of women in The Butcher Shop remained strong throughout many of Devanny's other novels. After arriving in Australia, she wrote more than a dozen novels, most dealing with sexual politics and many with class - most notably Sugar Heaven (1936), one of the most famous of Australian strike novels. Devanny's novels were all out of print by the 1970s, but several novels and plays were edited and published in the 1980s, including Devanny's last published novel, Cindie (1949), the first in a planned trilogy on the sugar industry, that carries on the interest in race and ethnicity that runs through many of her fictional works, and the play Paradise Flow. In these novels, set in the cane fields of North Queensland where Devanny lived the last years of her life, a concern for the welfare of women is prominent. As she became more attached to North Queensland, Devanny became more concerned with chronicling the history of the workers she met there, and published three books of travel journalism.
With Katharine Susannah Prichard and Egon Kisch, she founded the Writers League (later Writers Association) in 1935, acting as its first president. Devanny was a dynamic speaker who attracted many people to the Communist Party during her membership in the 1930s and 1940s. But a period of expulsion, possibly influenced by discomfort with her rising status as a female intellectual who called for sexual and racial equality, produced heightened political conflicts for her in relation to the Party. She resigned in the late 1940s but rejoined in 1957. Devanny died from leukemia in 1962.