Symbols of solidarity

Symbols of solidarity
Passionate advocates for change
6 July 2017

Ruby Rich (pictured below, third from left) was a fascinating and inspiring woman. She was a contemporary and acquaintance of Bessie Rischbieth, who was co-founder and President of the Australian Federation of Women Voters. She was a powerful advocate for the rights of women, as well as a leading figure in numerous feminist, family planning, peace groups and Jewish organisations. In addition to these remarkable pursuits, she was also a renowned pianist and composer, and wrote several theatrical scores and plays relating to peace and Judaism.

Image: Ruby Rich (third from left) and Bessie Rischbieth (centre), with other Australian delegates to the Jubilee Congress of the International Alliance of Women, held in Colombo, 1955 (MS 2004/8/711)

Ruby Rich joined the Feminist Club in Sydney in 1923 and spent the next 50 years working tirelessly to champion the cause of women’s rights. The NLA is fortunate to hold an extensive collection of correspondence, minutes, speeches, broadcasts, cuttings, publications, and interviews about her life’s work. 

Powerful symbols

While documenting Ruby Rich’s collection of material relating to the suffrage movement, I was surprised to discover several handmade broad arrow symbols. The suffragettes imprisoned for demonstrating and campaigning for the right of women to vote wore these symbols on prison uniforms. Members of the feminist movement later wore the broad arrow symbol to honour the original suffragettes.

 MS 7493 / Box 69 / File 433

Image: Handmade broad arrow symbol from Ruby Rich's collection (MS 7493)

The broad arrow symbol above, featured in a commemorative event held at the Feminist Club in Sydney in 1958. It was sewn onto replica prison aprons worn by Ruby Rich, president of the League of Women Voters, and Eileen Lord, who performed The March of the Women in recognition of the suffrage movement’s early  struggles. The event commemorated the 53rd anniversary of the first two women imprisoned for their “Votes for Women” campaign, and the centenary of the birth of pioneer suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. 

Image: Prison officer with a suffragette prisoner, c1910. Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Work on the NLA suffrage collection has uncovered many powerful symbols, serving as visual reminders of the solidarity and strong connections these women shared.

Collected by Ruby Rich’s acquaintance Bessie Rischbieth, the badges below (left and middle) are from the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the leading militant organisation campaigning for Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom from 1903–1917. The badge on the right is from the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), an organisation of women's suffrage societies in the United Kingdom.

Image: MS 2004-Papers of Bessie Rischbieth

Bessie also collected delegate badges worn at various women’s conferences. Below, at left, is a delegates badge worn at the 12th Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance held in Instanbul, Turkey in 1935.

The badge in the middle was worn by Bessie Rischbieth as chairman of the International Alliance of Women Golden Jubilee Congress in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1955.

Below right, is a delegates badge worn at the 25th Anniversary of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance congress held in Berlin, Germany in 1929, the peak of the women’s movement prior to the start of World War II. This congress was known as the "Victory Congress", to celebrate the large number of countries that had enfranchised their women.

Image: MS 2004-Papers of Bessie Rischbieth

Below is an illuminated address, which is held in the NLA’s collection. It was presented to suffragette Louisa Cullen by Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women's Social and Political Union (Great Britain), and acknowledges her sacrifice, which included periods of incarceration and tireless work in campaigning for the right of women to vote. 

The illuminated address features Angels of Freedom, which were popular symbols of the movement. Also seen is the broad arrow symbol (to the right of the text) along with the portcullis symbol (to the left), which is based on the gate of Holloway Prison in London, where many British suffragettes were imprisoned.

Image: Illuminated address presented to Louisa Cullen (MS 2163).

Working on the Ruby Rich collection has opened my eyes to the personal struggles that many early campaigners faced. Find out more about these inspiring women and their important contribution to the women’s suffrage movement.

The Suffrage Project has been made possible by donations from National Library Patrons and Supporters.

Congratulations on the project, the collection and this year's exhibition. Please can you tell me if you have any material mentioning Mrs Marion Holmes, nee Milner? She was my great aunt (b. 1867 and d. 1943 i.e. the year I was born -- her only brother, a scientist,m was my grandfather). Last year I located her hand-written Memoir in the Museum of the City of London Archives and have a digitised copy of it which I would be happy to make available if of interest. She was co-founder of the Margate Pioneer Society and later on the National Executive of the Women's Freedom League (also President of the Croydon Branch), edited "Votes for Women" and other magazines (co-edited "The Vote" and wrote both plays and biographical memoirs of pioneering women in the UK (of which I have collected a few second hand copies). Her best known publication is "An ABC of Votes for Women" (1913) which is held in the NLA. She was part of the group arrested for storming the Houses of Parliament on 28 October 1908 and was twice jailed in Holloway. NB this is a different Marion Holmes to the eponymous WA suffragette.