Global Feminisms

Remembering Bessie Rischbieth

This article is part of a series on Global Feminisms. Articles in this series explore how feminists have acted beyond the nation. How have global events, ideas and tactics impacted feminism, and vice versa? How have feminists worked across difference – for example, of race, nation, politics – more and less successfully? Read an introduction to the series here.

‘Radical’ is usually not the first word people use to describe the twentieth-century Australian feminist, Bessie Rischbieth (1874–1967). She is often remembered as a relatively conservative figure, especially in comparison to her contemporary Jessie Street (1889–1970), whose socialist sympathies earned her the nickname ‘Red Jessie’ (despite the fact she never joined a communist party). But Rischbieth was an important and even progressive figure in Australian and international feminist networks, especially during the interwar years. Like the many ‘teal independents’ who successfully contested the 2022 Australian federal election, she subscribed to a strong non-party feminist tradition. Yet beyond this she does not neatly fit into established categories: Rischbieth was a theosophist and an internationalist who simultaneously upheld imperialist logics and challenged the thinking of White Australia. Her life story therefore offers rich insights into feminisms past and present.

Portrait of Bessie Rischbieth, 1938. National Library of Australia. Reproduced with permission.

The evidence of Rischbieth’s activist life is abundant. Her archival papers – which include letters, handwritten notes, newspaper clippings, photographs, and various reports – take up over seven metres of shelf space at the National Library of Australia (NLA) in Canberra. Fragments of her words and writing can also be found scattered around the world in archives as far away as London, where her interlocuters saved her handwritten or typescript notes as part of their own collections. She was a prolific correspondent and in her letters she argued the case for Australian women to be better represented in political life.  She sent some of these to leading members of the Australian federal parliament, which was housed in Melbourne before moving to the nation’s newly established capital in 1927.

Rischbieth, like many of her contemporaries, felt that women had valuable contributions to make and that their active participation in politics as mothers, professionals, and experienced activists would help bring about further steps towards gender equality. Always with an eye cast towards the international, she pushed for women to be involved in Australia’s fledgling international affairs efforts, too. The textual traces of her life preserve the words of a forthright yet diplomatic campaigner. Despite the fact she was neither educated at a tertiary level nor professionally trained, Rischbieth was not deterred from asserting women’s right to have a say about the nation’s political life. Her emphasis on women as political actors was still a truly radical idea. So too was her confidence in establishing a dialogue with leading statesmen about this – one in which she adopted a persistent and leading part.

Spectators assembling outside Parliament House for the official opening of Parliament, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 9th May 1927. May Sibley. National Library of Australia.

Like many of her contemporaries both in and outside the women’s movement – including socialists, who largely operated in separate networks – Rischbieth was a committed internationalist. Liberal, middle-class feminists around the world had been working together across national borders from the late nineteenth century for suffrage, peace, and other women’s rights. As Rischbieth gained prominence in Australian feminist circles she worked hard to bring her compatriots into a more sustained dialogue with their ‘sisters’ overseas. She led efforts to form a federal feminist organisation in Australia in 1921 (which became known as the Australian Federation of Women Voters) and was involved in international feminist organisations such as the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship.

While feminists’ efforts to transcend state borders predated the First World War, the devastation wrought by the conflict prompted a more widespread turn towards internationalism. In January 1920 the League of Nations – the predecessor of the United Nations – was formed to prevent another major conflict, assigned the task of instituting collective security and disarmament. It coordinated work in a range of ‘technical’ areas too, such as communications and global health. Gender equality was officially included as one of the organisation’s central tenets, but women were largely absent from the League’s more powerful positions and had to find other ways to engage with the institution.

Salle de la Reformation. The official opening of the League of Nations. National Library of Norway/Wikimedia Commons.

One way to do this was to be included on the national delegations that were sent to Geneva each September for the League’s yearly Assembly. This event brought together representatives of all the member states alongside many observers, including lobbyists and journalists. From the beginning Rischbieth and her feminist colleagues demanded that the Australian government include at least one woman on its delegation. They had a striking degree of success; each year from 1922 an Australian woman went to Geneva, albeit as an ‘alternate’ or ‘substitute’ delegate with no voting powers. Rischbieth herself took on this role in 1935, coinciding with her trip overseas to attend international feminist meetings. Just like those who had taken on the role before her, she sat in on the more ‘feminine’ social and humanitarian committee, where she presented a speech about child welfare. While in Geneva Rischbieth met other women delegates, including the Soviet Union’s Alexandra Kollontai, and caught up with some of the many other activists who had descended on the city, such as her friend Ruby Rich.

Bessie Rischbieth and Ruby Rich attending the 12th Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, Istanbul, Turkey, 1935. National Library of Australia.

Australian feminists did not rest on their laurels after 1922 though, and Rischbieth’s own adventure to Geneva thirteen years later was the result of the ongoing pressure they placed on the government. Rischbieth’s consistent correspondence with leading politicians throughout the period indicates a level of mistrust in the government; a reservation that it may not always uphold this promise. In 1923, for example, she wrote to the businessman turned prime minister Stanley Bruce to urge that a woman be included in that year’s delegation as well, commenting that ‘it was mainly through your recommendation last year that a woman alternate delegate was appointed to the League of Nations Assembly’. Rischbieth assured him Australian women were up to the task. At the time she was in London, having recently led a group of women to a major feminist meeting in Rome and then to Geneva to tour the League and its affiliated organisations. ‘I am reporting this so that you may be assured that our delegates have taken every opportunity of informing themselves on these important public matters’, she wrote. Women, she showed, were ready to take on roles as serious political actors.

A few years later in 1927 Rischbieth advised the acting prime minister, Earle Page, to select a woman representative from a state that had not yet been offered this chance, suggesting Ethel McDonnell, an executive member of South Australia’s League of Nations Union. ‘The experience gained by an Australian woman alternate delegate’, Rischbieth wrote, ‘by being brought into contact with some of [the] world humanitarian movements at Geneva must prove of great value, not only to the individual, but to like movements taking place in each State, thereby obtaining a better chance of Commonwealth co-ordination’. She was not afraid to take an active role in advising senior politicians what they should do, harnessing (white) women’s newfound citizenship status to subvert deeply gendered cultural and political norms that demanded women be quiet. Rischbieth’s suggestion was not taken up in 1927, but, undeterred, the following year she again wrote to recommend McDonnell, who was selected to go to Geneva that September.

As a white settler-colonial woman, the other arena to which Rischbieth looked was the Imperial Conference, a forum which brought together the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions (former colonies that acquired increasing independence within the Empire–Commonwealth after the First World War). In 1926 she again sent a letter to Melbourne asking the prime minister to include a woman representative in an ‘advisory capacity’, arguing that the questions to be tackled by the Imperial Conference ‘concern women equally with men’. She suggested Marjorie Chave Collisson for the role, an American-born, Australian-raised feminist living in London. As Rischbieth pointed out, Collisson was a co-founder and the organising secretary of the British Commonwealth League, which the pair had formed the year before ‘when the fact became evident to both British and Overseas Dominion women that a new relationship had sprung up’ between them.

It is important to highlight the limits to Rischbieth’s vision here. As a follower of theosophy – a Western spirituality inspired by non-Western religions – she was deeply invested in creating, as the historian Jill Roe puts it, ‘a nucleus of universal brotherhood regardless of distinctions of caste, class, colour, creed or sex’, and worked to develop a deeper understanding of non-Western cultures. But her vision of women’s political participation was shaped by and upheld the values of her time. She presumed that white women would be best able to represent not only themselves but also the interests of their Indigenous ‘sisters’ – to speak for, not with, them. The category of ‘woman’ was yet to be interrogated as it would be later in the century, most notably by Black and Indigenous feminists such as Goenpul academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson.

Rischbieth was both radical for her era and shaped by the imperial ways of thinking that continued to dominate interwar Australia. Rischbieth’s story is evidence of a key moment in time in which some women sought to realise their political power, challenge authority, and reconstitute the norms of their local and international worlds. It helps us reconsider Rischbieth as an important and complex historical figure with much to reveal about this moment in feminism’s history.

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