A living memorial
The Bessie Rischbieth papers
3 June 2016
I do wish you could all have a peep at things here.
Bessie Rischbieth was in London when she wrote this to her niece on 29 May 1913. What was she inviting her to peep into? London, and the whole of Britain, had been alive with the campaign for women’s suffrage for a few decades, and 1913 was swept up by the militant actions of the suffragettes: charismatic women giving fiery speeches in packed halls and huge processions in the streets of London, but also window-smashing, arson, attacks against private property or golf courses, prisoners on hunger strike force-fed. The whirlwind of the suffragettes’ struggle was at its height, and it fascinated Bessie Rischbieth.
The Rischbieth papers—held by the National Library—are a record of the formidable campaign for women’s suffrage. They are also a rich personal archive from a tireless campaigner who believed that getting the vote was but a stepping stone in the pursuit of social and political equality. From her years in England until the 1950s in Australia, Rischbieth collected material related to the ‘epic struggle’ of British women, as she called it: photographs, pamphlets, paper cuttings, suffrage periodicals, postcards and suffragette items. It took her years to patiently gather material. Through her personal connections and her correspondence with the London Suffragette fellowship, as well as with former suffragettes, some of whom had moved or returned to Australia, she managed to give her collection a transnational dimension.
It was five years ago as a Harold White Fellow at the Library that I first made my way through the pages and objects that make up the archive. I was struck by the mosaic-like effect that Rischbieth created. Now it was me assembling the fragments of this mosaic. Photographs, captioned with varying degrees of accuracy, show the suffragette Katherine Douglas Smith standing on a soap box addressing an all-male crowd; a bold Miss Fargus intercepting young Winston Churchill in the street; Australians Nellie Martel and Jessie Baines giving speeches in Trafalgar Square. More than a century later, the images of these women, frequently surrounded by a sea of men, are still impressive. And so are the photographs of women being harassed or even beaten up by police and other men for claiming the rights of citizenship. Rischbieth’s handwritten notes document these photographs, while numerous pamphlets and speeches give the backstory to the images and convey the strength of the suffragettes’ arguments.
Why did Bessie Rischbieth do this? Was she a vicarious suffragist of sorts? When going through the mass of material she collected, you get a sense of her fascination. In a letter, she wrote that in listening to Annie Kenney, one of the militant leaders, she ‘gained courage and freedom from her.’ By joining the dots through reading her correspondence, it is clear that, for her, the British campaign was a watermark in grounding other fights for women’s rights elsewhere in the world.
When she decided to bequeath her historical ‘exhibit’—as she called her collection—to the newly founded National Library of Australia, Bessie Rischbieth wrote of it as ‘a bridge over the British and Australian demand for the vote.’ She viewed the campaign and her collection as a source of inspiration to present-day women of Australia. This ‘living memorial’ helped make her a prominent figure in Australian and international feminism, breaking new ground in the fight for women’s rights.