The Shrieking Sisterhood
Stories of the Suffragette Movement
Talks / Lecture
Dr Anne Summers AO and Dr Béatrice Bijon discuss the suffrage movement in Australia and early 20th century women's suffrage material held in the Library's collection.
Dr Anne Summers AO is a best-selling author, journalist and thought-leader with a long career in politics, the media, business and the non-government sector in Australia, Europe and the United States. She is author of eight books, including the classic Damned Whores and God’s Police, first published in 1975. A new edition was published on International Women’s Day 2016.
Dr Béatrice Bijon is an Adjunct Fellow with the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. Her edited publications include In-Between Two Worlds: Narratives by Female Explorers and Travellers 1850–1945 and The Production of Strangeness in Postcolonial Literatures. She was a Harold White Fellow at the National Library of Australia in 2011. A publication resulting from the fellowship, a documentary history of British and American women’s suffrage campaigns, will appear in France later in 2016.
Transcript of ‘The Shrieking Sisterhood: Stories of the Suffragette Movement’
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (A), Dr Beatrice Bijon (B), Dr Anne Summers (S)
Location: National Library of Australia
A: Now I wonder if I can drag those of you who are at the back of the room to your seats? I promise you there’ll be time at the end where you can return to the wonderful items from the Bessie Rischbieth collection. Can I say a really warm good evening to you, our dear patrons and our dear friends? It’s an enormous pleasure to welcome you to the National Library this evening. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich and it’s my please to be the Director-General of this very wonderful library. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders on our collective behalf ... elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
Tonight it is a thrill for my colleagues and I to highlight the wealth of material in the Library’s collection about the history of women’s suffrage, and to launch our 2016 Tax Time Appeal to raise funds to preserve, digitise and increase access to this material. The National Library has held a Tax Time Appeal since 2009. The Appeals raise funds to assist with vital preservation, documentation and digitisation of unique collection items such as the Library’s medieval manuscripts and currency. This is work that would not otherwise be funded, often because we need to secure external expertise to help. The funds raised through these appeals meant that we can better reveal the extraordinary stories held within these walls.
The Library’s collection is full of surprises, and tonight we’re delighted to share with you a few of the surprises that we’ve uncovered in the Bessie Rischbieth collection. I hope that we will inspire you to learn more about the extraordinary women who fought for the vote using every tactic from genteel persuasion to violent confrontation. In England, more than a thousand suffragettes were imprisoned for insisting that women should have the right to vote. I also hope that we will inspire you to make a decision to donate to our Women’s Suffrage Appeal so that the struggle, the solitary confinement, the hard labour, the broken health and even death but most importantly the victory of these women will continue to have an international impact.
Now to tell us more about the Bessie Rischbieth collec ... and her collection, I would like to introduce you to Dr Béatrice Bijon, an Adjunct Fellow with the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. Dr Bijon was a Harold White Fellow at the National Library in 2011, using our collection to research the fight for women’s suffrage, collecting links between the British and American movements and the Australian movement so as you can see she knows our collection extremely well. Please welcome Dr Bijon, who will tell us more about the early years of the women’s movement both in Australia and internationally. Welcome, Beatrice.
B: Well thank you for coming here tonight and it’s great to see the interest that so many people are showing for the fundraising but also for women’s suffrage. So you will see on the slide this quote from a letter by the social justice campaigner, Bessie Rischbieth, and it’s a quote that competes with and uncannily anticipates Malcolm Turnbull’s claim that there has never been a more interesting time to be an Australian. And indeed as this long election campaigns grinds ever onwards it seems appropriate to visit some interesting times when the campaign for women’s right as citizens was at its height.
What I’m going to do this evening is to take you on a tour of the Bessie Rischbieth papers housed here at the NLA, and I’m going to take you inside the collection and explore its treasures. And also through its treasures we’re going to learn something of the maker of the collection, Bessie Rischbieth. She was an advocate for social reforms and a feminist who in gathering all these things wanted to leave a monument. So all the images I’m going to use, the items, the texts I’m going to show and talk about, they’re all from the collection. You’ll see that some of the pictures, I think most of the pictures have been digitised by the NLA staff and I really would like to thank them now because they’ve been really helpful these last few days. Others are photographs I took and I stored in my computer, so I suppose you’ll see the difference and maybe it will be a bit more relevant to see how it’s important to donate to digitise the collection you know when you’re researching, having access from you know when you come from a far away country and it’s good not to have to make all the trip here to have all these you know documents digitised and more accessible.
Right, I would like to read a poem, to read you a poem which originally appeared in Votes for Women, that was the official newspaper of the WSPU before 1913. WSPU stands for Women’s Social and Political Union, and it was the main militant organisation in the British campaign for women’s suffrage. So having been printed by the WSPU the poem was reproduced on the 7th of May 1910 in the Australian Women Voter. Now Women Voter was a monthly letter of the Women’s Political Association and that’s a monthly ... was edited by Vida Goldstein. So it’s one of the many examples of the way information about the fight for women’s suffrage was disseminated across the continents.
So let’s have a look at the poem. In fact this poem was originally written by a Canadian poet and for reason other than suffrage. How did you fight? You beat into earth. Well, well, what’s that? Come up with a smiling face. It’s nothing against you to fall down flat but to lie there, that’s disgrace. The harder you’re thrown why the lighter you bounce. Be proud of your blackened eye. It isn’t the fact that you’re licked that counts, it’s how did you fight and why.
So this poem in fact encapsulates what the militant campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain was developing into in 1910. And of course the situation was very different in Australia at the time. White Australian women had been granted franchise in 1902. Of course only white Australian women because all ... well universal suffrage in Australia was only achieved in 1962 so women ... white women could vote. They were also allowed to stand for Parliament. Australia was the first nation. But they were still interested in women’s suffrage, in the fight for suffrage elsewhere and especially in Britain which was still regarded as home by many Australians.
So in Britain, however, things were very different. So 1910. Right. So, 43 years before 1910, 1867, was the first time that women’s suffrage had been debated in the House of Commons in Parliament and defended by an MP, John Stuart Mill. And in 43 years nothing much had happened and since then, since the 1860s, suffragists, as the peaceful campaigners were called, they had petitioned Parliament, they had lobbied MPs, organised public meetings, marched in processions, nothing had happened. Each time women’s suffrage was debated in Parliament it was laughed at, ridiculed, dismissed by the majority of MPs. But suffragists were resilient, they were very patient and they trusted these men’s voices.
Millicent Fawcett who was the main leader for the suffragists or they were also called ... these peaceful campaigners were also called constitutionalists because they were supposed to respect the constitution so these women believed ... and I’m quoting Fawcett, they believe in the principle of supporting their movement only by argument based on commonsense and experience and not by personal violence or lawbreaking of any kind. Fawcett was convinced that their job was to win the hearts and minds of the countrymen to the justice of the cause and that this could never be done by force and violence.
So you see that these peaceful strategies were a far cry from the blackened eye you may get campaigning and the pride you may get out of it and that is evoked in the poem. But gradually more and more some women were finding that these tactics chosen by these quiet, gentle, ladylike suffragists asking nicely for the vote, they were finding that they had ... these tactics had failed to produce any results. So gradually from 1903, really, as a result of the backtracking and the stalling of the government, as a result of the inertia of politicians and also as a result of the growing disappointment, rougher tactics emerged and this is the side of the British women’s suffrage movement that is best remembered today. The militant side of the movement, what was very spectacular, in fact, with its main leaders. Emmeline Pankhurst, the mother, she was one of the leaders of the WSPU, the main militant organisation. She had three daughters who were all ... the three of them were suffragette. Christabel, she’s wearing ... she had a law degree and she’s here wearing her gown. She was very close to her mother in terms of the politics of the movement. Sylvia Pankhurst and she was an artist. She was a socialist, very close to the Labour Party and along the years a lot of disagreement happened between her and her sister and her mother.
And photograph taken from one of the ... for the album that is behind you on display there. So starting from the right Sylvia Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst. In the middle Emmeline Pethick Lawrence with her husband, Frederick, they were the ... they put their fortune to the service of the cause to ... and they were also one of the leaders of the WSPU. On the left, Annie Kenney, she was a worker from Lancashire and on the far left, Constance Lytton, she was an aristocrat and she had a very early death in 1923, probably as a result ... she had a very fragile health and a weak heart and she was force-fed and probably she died as a result of the treatment she underwent in prison. Charlotte Despard, also a militant but she first belonged to the WSPU but then along the way there were disagreement as there you know I would say always is in politics but she created her own militant organisation called Women’s Freedom League. She was an Irish.
So deeds, not words became their motto and they did turn to action. It went from sneaking in at political meetings and systematically interrupting politicians’ speeches to heckling them in the street and you can see here young Winston Churchill. The heckling here is going fine, a few years later he is going to be attacked by a suffragette. The suffragette had a whip and she wanted to whip him and he managed to grab her hand and nothing happened but gradually this activism intensified so from 1912 there was a lot of window smashing, destroying golf courses or some greenhouses at Kew Garden, burning churches or stations, setting fire to letterboxes, using explosive devices, attacking private property and many other things. It was rather radical.
So you can imagine that in 1910 when the poem was published many women were starting to get black eyes from either the police or hostile crowds and they were certainly beaten to earth but to bounce all the better. So it is this side of the movement, this spectacular side of the movement that truly fascinated Bessie Rischbieth. Bessie Rischbieth was born in Adelaide in 1874 but she moved to Perth when she married Henry Wills Rischbieth. She travelled a lot with her husband. Her husband was a wool merchant so they travelled around the world, Hong Kong, Japan, Britain, America and in fact they were in London in 1908 when ... and it is in 1908 in fact that she attended ... she first attended a suffrage meeting. And it is later in 1913 when they went back to London that she said in her correspondence the place was in an uproar. Oh, this is an interesting place and an interesting age to live in. That’s what she wrote to her niece in Australia.
What she saw and what she heard there in 1908, 1913 had a determining impact on her for her future. She went and listened to speakers at suffrage meetings. She listened to Americans for instance involved in the American campaign, for instance the writer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman who wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, or Anna Shaw but she also listened to British campaigners, Annie Kenney we saw in the photograph, Emmeline Pankhurst, of course, Lady Frances Balfour, Lord Lytton, husband of Constance Lytton we saw a moment ago, Annie Besson, the famous socialist and feminist.
Here is what Rischbieth wrote again to her niece and I wanted to show you her handwriting and ... it’s a very long letter so I just could select two pages. So I think she starts ‘round here and then we ... ‘round there. She’s talking about Shaw and Perkins Gilman. ‘They are both giant in capacity, they speak right and from the vital standpoint of things. Both seem to be filled with a great force. Humanity means human standpoints and not either only man standpoints or only woman but for the great humanity that is being builded up. Mrs Perkins Gilman is wondrous, so powerful, so sweet to look at, a woman of 45 with a most logical brain. She brings the point out along the biological lines, going back with the past evolution shown how it is only where you come and the human race that emphasis is laid on sex to the detriment of our whole civilisation. And that is just where we are today and why we have the present outcry. It’s absolutely necessary for future progress that women should be humans first, share a common humanity before they are females. That is that the whole economic condition of women must change, the sexes must be coequal.’
So what was London like at the time when Rischbieth was there and what is it that she saw? What is it that she talked about and what is it that she read? So she was not in England in 1911 but she must have seen ... I mean it’s not nice. I know she saw some of the procession, 1908 procession, she saw some of them and these beautiful parades of women all dressed in white with the sash and the WSPU colours, white, purple and green. She heard suffragette leaders addressing crowds. This is in Trafalgar Square. Keir Hardie, the leader of the Labour Party, who was in favour of women’s suffrage, a staunch supporter of it although the Labour Party never put it officially on the ... in their political program. You can ... just behind Keir Hardie, Emmeline Pankhurst, on the far right an Australian, Nettie Martell, and next to Nettie Martell an old campaigner from Manchester from the north of England ... what’s her name? Wolstenholme Elmy.
Well you know the photograph now. They advertised, they advertised meetings doing that. Rischbieth may have seen these drawings, these cartoons done with chalk on pavements and a lot of the drawings and slogans were used in postcards, in fact. She may have heard or maybe come across these headline and why not ... what is in these headlines? These two women are human letters. In fact at the time they realised they could post themselves. So they posted themselves with a message to deliver to the Prime Minister and on the left you can see a young postman so of course they were expelled and the message was you are dead letters, send back home.
Bessie Rischbieth knew Muriel Matters. Muriel Matters was born in Adelaide and she was a militant, she went to England, not to fight but once there in London she got caught up with a fight and she socialised with Bessie Rischbieth so they must have talked about these caravan tours Muriel Matters initiated. And of course ... I mean you read that in Bessie’s letters, she was deeply shocked by what happened when Emily Davidson tried to grab ... in fact she didn’t throw herself under the horse but she tried to stop the horse, to grab it and of course she was badly injured and died. So Bessie Rischbieth ... that was the sort of landscape she saw in London so these are photos that she collected when she was in Britain but also after, when she came back to Australia when she collected material.
I think it’s important to say that Rischbieth was never involved in the women’s suffrage ... in the fight for women’s suffrage, of course neither in Australia nor in England unlike other Australians who were in London and who became militant. So you recognise Vida Goldstein of course who ... I mean was a campaigner in Australia before being one in England and Muriel Matters here. Nellie Martell on the right here and I love this photograph, you can have a lot of hypotheses about you know what are they staring at? Who ... yes, who are they staring at? Possibly a woman photographer. That's true, yeah. Yeah, I think it’s important to say that Rischbieth was a witness in London and she was no doubt a sympathiser as it come across in her letter but she was a witness and the witness of ... was for her a historical movement. She keeps talking about, and I quote her, the epic struggle. That’s the way she calls the British campaign so she collected when she was there but also when she came back in Australia.
What is interesting but I find also intriguing is that she collected material related to events that she was not part of although she could have been part of it because she was in London when it all happened. And it’s also intriguing that she did not believe in militant methods, she makes it clear in her letters but it is that side of the movement that she chose to document. She was perfectly aware of the politics of the period you know saying that, and I quote her, the government are hiding behind the militant methods and break all their promises and have been most dishonourable. And she was aware that it was precisely the government's stalling that necessitated militancy and the escalation of violence was the result of the deception and the false promises of the government, she was fully aware of it. But what is manifest in her letters is her admiration for these fearless women. When reading her correspondence you can hypothesise aspects of Rischbieth’s personality and indeed when it come to Rischbieth you can hypotheses, you need to have because she doesn’t say an awful lot about herself.
The historian, Jill Roe, refers to her as a shadowy figure and in a way it’s true because for instance she doesn’t say anything about her being a citizen already, being you know ... being allowed to vote. She doesn’t say anything about her reaction as a colonial visiting her ... the mother country. But I think we can go a little bit beyond the shadow in fact and we understand that she socialised a lot with her husband. They were a well to-do couple, they had money and they visited London, met with Australians, travelled in the country, went to receptions and in a few letters she describes the beautiful evening dresses that she wears and her excitement is really perceptible.
I just wanted to take up two lines from a ... with which she ends a letter again she was sending to her niece. ‘Well, my dear, must fly and dress to go out. I do wish you could all have a peep at things here.’ So I think these two line again really encapsulate the mixture of her socialising and being outside the movement and at the same time you know having a thrill at peeping into the movement. And I think all this is interesting because I’m sure that some people may think she doesn’t really fit the pattern you know of the committed one-track-minded feminist. And I like this image of spectators peeping in the place because in fact her collection, the collection she built can also be regarded as an invitation for us to peep into this agitated time.
In one of her letter Rischbieth calls her collection a mixed pie so what is this mixed pie made of? So obviously photographs, invitation to demonstration, pamphlets. You’ll see I’ve selected a few items in the state they are in, was very cautious with them but I think it’s important to show you that these items need preserving. In fact they need work to be done. Badges and again it’s interesting these badges, there’s a whole story behind all these badges. The badge, the red, green and white badge is a WSPU badge but because of the colours we know ... you see they’re not the traditional ... what we usually associate with militancy and with the WSPU, the purple, white and green but in fact before 1907 they were the colours, I mean they had all sort of colours and it is in 1907 that they decided on these three colours, purple, white and green so this badge here predates 1907 and is actually ... it’s in between 1903 when the WSPU was created in 1907. And beautiful little item that is in the collection, a needle book.
This is actually a setup, it’s not real you know the guy is a friend of theirs and they loved re-enactments, they loved it, they played with that. Some militants didn’t agree with it you know because they thought it was really debunking and downgrading the whole prison experience but that’s a setup, there were many setups like that. This is a napkin and again advertising the cause but this napkin is not from the WSPU. If you have a look at what it is written, it’s great law-abiding so the constitutionalist, the peaceful campaigners were very keen to differentiate themselves from the militant so each time they could do it they added law-abiding to their pamphlets. A postcard, you’ve got two other postcards at the back but not this one.
Okay. So some archives are accidental, others are meticulously curated and Rischbieth is the latter, so meticulous. There are notes on many images she collected and it’s clear that she had a focus of sorts when she gathered material in Britain and in the subsequent decades of her life in Australia. So a photo album, and that’s at the back, entitled ‘A Pictorial History of Suffrage Movement in Great Britain,’ and the dates here just really shows that she’s focusing on militancy, 1906, 1913. And it’s interesting because the way she collected things, it’s as if the photos selected were some kind of counter discourse to the one advertised by the press at the time. She writes in her letters about the lies of the press, about the manipulation of facts and the fact that the press was basically playing the ventriloquist of the government. The Daily, The Times was notoriously anti-suffrage and until 1910 so was The Daily Mirror and the press tried hard to represent the suffragettes as the attackers and the police as the victims.
A quote I found in one ... in The Daily Mirror, police were struck with umbrellas ... well quite possible ... several helmets were knocked off ... wow ... and a few officers were carried off their feet by the mad rush of women ... unlikely, I think. The reality of it was that women were frequently beaten up or even sexually molested by the police and male opponents. The police certainly gave them if any very little protection. There are many examples of suffragette having a narrow escape and this is an example here and I think this is extremely interesting, the only one that’s looking at the photographer is the woman and look, there’s only very few policemen in sight. They didn’t get any protection, they knew what was going to happen but it was ... each time it was the same thing especially on ... when there was a ... of results of by-election or election when the Liberal candidate was defeated, usually they had a hard time and Emmeline Pankhurst and Nellie Martell had a very narrow escape one ... at one point in a northern town of England.
So in a way you see this perspective, the perspective that she gives, it seems that it’s aimed to set the record straight. Another point of her focus, in 1913 when she was in London militancy was at its height. The spectacle of the suffragettes was ubiquitous and it was indeed a spectacle that the suffragettes had wanted to create, to make their fight and also to make women visible, sometimes at all costs. And it was everywhere in the press from 1912, 1913. And it no doubt would have been part of the discussions that Rischbieth had with her friends and with the people she socialised with.
Like many people at the time Rischbieth was undoubtedly impressed by the determination and by the stamina of the women who would rather go to prison than pay a fine when they were tried and she was impressed by the hunger strikers, of course. She was extremely shocked by the repression of the movement. From 1912 in prison hunger strikers were force-fed. The last thing the government needed was a suffragette dying in prison who would become a martyr. This force-feeding was horrendous. Constance Lytton, I mentioned earlier, wrote a book about her experience of force-feeding and nothing to do with a sort of medical force-feeding that can happen in hospital. A tube was actually inserted in their nose and sometimes the food and the liquid that was inserted went straight to the lungs. Nobody ... there was no ... I mean it’s a miracle that there was no death at the time but presumably a lot of women were really weak and they had an early death later.
This practice equated to torture by doctors, by the clergy, by a lot of the press that sort of changed their mind. It revolted the public and it aroused sympathy for suffragettes who were injured by these procedures. As a result the Home Office introduced in April 1913 what is called the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act also known as the Cat and Mouse Act. In fact the government ... they were afraid that the suffragette might die in prison so what they invented through this Act, a prisoner who was considered too weak could be temporarily released to give her time to recover. And to be fit enough to go back to prison. So women were under ... they were released from prison, they were then under house arrest and it’s rather obvious that a lot of them didn’t go back to prison and went into hiding, playing mouse to the police cat.
A copy of The Suffragette was ... became the official newspaper of the WSPU after 1913 so a copy of The Suffragette of August 1913 relates the effect of the Cat and Mouse Act on Emmeline Pankhurst. So she’d been condemned to three years’ imprisonment in April 1913. She was released on April the 12th then arrested again on May the 26th then released four days later then rearrested two weeks later then released again two days later etc so in fact she was so weak that she could be kept in prison for only a few days. And Rischbieth mentioned that in one of her letters. A lot of people thought that Rischbieth [Pankhurst] was going to die, she was absolutely skinny.
Now to carry on with Rischbieth focus, two items which are on display tonight behind you, a prison brooch and a hunger strike medal. So this is Louie Cullen’s prison brooch sent to Bessie Rischbieth when she was still gathering material. Louie Cullen ... here she is ... was born in 1866. She ... in England ... she joined the WSPU after hearing one of the leaders, Annie Kenney, speak in 1906. She was an organiser of ... in the movement and she was a speaker as she explained in her letters, was very proud to have been a speaker at the June 1908 Hyde Park demonstration, it was a huge demonstration and you can see here she’s actually wearing the speaker ... her speaker badge with of course the sash, WSPU sash. But a poor health resulting from her commitment to the cause ... she was in prison ... she was never forcefully fed ... she was imprisoned for six weeks. It forced her withdrawal from political activism and she emigrated to Australia in 1911 with her husband. So in fact the prison brooch were designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, the artist of the family and it is the symbol of the portcullis of the House of Common, the gate and the arrow is the convict symbol and these brooches were given to commemorate women’s courage and sacrifice. So Louise Cullen with her badge and with the illuminated address signed and given to her by Emmeline Pankhurst as you can see here. She was given that by Pankhurst as a former prisoner as a thank you.
In the collection too is this photograph of a sketch and in fact it’s the photograph of her prison cell as described to and sketched by a friend of hers, in fact. So the second item is Letitia Withall or Wit-hall ... I don’t know how you pronounce it ... hunger strike medal. Withall was born in Australia, she went to England with her parents as a chi ... I think she was eight and she became a suffragette with the WSPU. So this is the letter, and again this is behind you, that she sent years later in 1961 to Bessie Rischbieth. So like many suffragettes she had an alias as you can see under her name, Lesley Hall. She said in another letter that she had taken up that nickname because she was getting into trouble and she didn’t want to upset her parents and she didn’t want this to have any you know she didn’t want her parents to have any problems. But very often in fact suffragette had a nickname as a way of escaping being traced by the police. And in fact in her letter if you can see ... it’s here ... she’s explaining how it works so she talks about the plain silver bar which means that ... it means imprisonment and ... but on hers, if you can see there are two coloured bars which mean that she was force-fed twice, in fact, maybe more actually. And of course you know in her letter on the second page there she expresses her pride at having been part of this struggle.
Now very important finally is the transnational dimension of the collection. The protagonist of the collection overlap countries and continents as we’ve seen, Australia, Britain, America. Vida Goldstein for instance was invited in 1911 by the Pankhurst to give speeches and you know just to show a citizen, a female citizen what it was like to have a female citizen. She also ... 1902 ... she was in America and she contributed to the creation of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance with Cat, the American campaigner, Cat. And of course Rischbieth herself was the maker of many transnational connections through her many trips throughout the world, through her relationship with the suffragette fellowship in London which help her complete her collection. Also through the personal connections that she had with former suffragettes but also that she initiated between a suffragette.
So Rischbieth collected material from the time she was in England but also until the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when Louie Cullen sent her material before she died in 1960. And this really bears witness to this transnational network. And also the Bessie Rischbieth papers really engage researchers to create connections with other archives in the Library. With Adela Pankhurst for instance who ... the younger Pankhurst daughter who emigrated in Australia in 1914 and the Pankhurst-Walsh ... her husband’s name, Walsh ... papers are here at the Library. You can also connect Rischbieth with the papers of Ruby Rich, also with the papers of Jesse Street although Rischbieth was a bit conservative, didn’t much like Jesse Street. And of course you know numerous books and pamphlets written by American, Australian, British suffragists and suffragettes.
So after a few month researching the collection in 2011 when I was a Harold White Fellow here I began to think of the archive as a mosaic and not all archives are like that and it is both a mosaic and a lense through which to see a period in history. And I think Rischbieth was very much thinking about the future when she made her collection and I felt in a way I was completing the mosaic through my own lense and filling up the gaps that ... quite a few gaps, she destroyed a lot of things ... filling up the gaps, assembling the pieces and joining the dots, also with the backstories I was familiar with. In a way some would argue that her collection flattens the British campaign for women’s suffrage and deprives it of its complexity you know it may be argued that her lense in fact has reduced the movement to its militant side. You know off the militant stage a lot was going on. The non-militants who were numerous ... they were much more numerous than the militant ... they contributed a great deal to the first victory in 1918. It was the first instalment of the right franchise in England when women over 30 with property qualification could vote and then 1928 when universal suffrage eventually happened.
What comes across in her correspondence is her intellectual honesty and her acknowledgment that she needed assistance with her collection. We get the sense that she knows she’s not the historian but now thanks to an elaborate historiography dating from the second phase of feminism but also more recently people have been able to mine these sorts of archives in new ways so in some ways we can now she more than she did even though she was a witness. And at the same time in the mosaic with these fabulous fragments from the movement she does bring us closer to things.
These are things I’m grappling with, having begun my own book about her and her papers. I’m particularly interested in the way image and words work together, in the way photographs both hide and reveal, in the way a speculative narrative can be woven thanks to the historical backstory. I want to show you a few favourite vignettes of mine. I found this is a beautiful photograph, I’m particularly fond of it. There’s no title. I think we can ... could trace that in the Museum of London, I’m sure it’s in the Museum of London and we would know what it is but don’t know, maybe this policeman is standing in front of a house where a woman is under house arrest, recuperating you know the cat making sure the mouse won’t escape. At any rate I like the way these photograph shows you know two worlds apart, not looking at each other.
Another vignette. This is 1908 set ... it was actually the beginning of the procession, the coronation procession we ... I show you a minute ago. And so you recognise starting from the left Christabel in the background, at the back Adela, to Emmeline Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and there are many photographs like this one where Adela Pankhurst is in the background behind her mother and her sisters and this one is blurry and it’s as if there was something emblematic, I want to read it like that, the way it can be read as emblematic of her position in the family or at least the way she was sometimes regarding by her sisters and her mother.
Final vignette and again a favourite of mine. You know can you imagine yourself and ... in her position nowadays? And I’m wondering what might she have been thinking and feeling more than a hundred years ago? You know men often threw eggs and rotten tomatoes at them. So the event that is happening tonight is important in different ways so the issues of women’s right is still as valid as it used to be. Some women in the world still ... are still not citizen and if an equality of rights has been achieved legally in the western world, in practice it hasn’t. Raising money to make such a significant and original collection accessible to researchers, to students and also to the wider public is essential but also closer to the heart of Bessie Rischbieth there is something equally significant and this is related to the way she regarded her collection as an exhibit, she uses that term all the time and you may have noticed the way photographs for instance were annotated or had stickers. There are also multiple notes in cardboards like cue cards, there are loads of them like that, to explain images, not always accurately, there are quite a few errors and very awkward very often but it’s there. So her endeavour can be traced in the letters she wrote to friends, to Harold White, the first Director of the National Library and to Prime Minister Menzies.
So after first thinking about creating a Museum of Women’s Suffrage in Perth where she lived, she then proposed a hall to commemorate pioneer women and their contribution to the building up of the Commonwealth of Australia and she proposed that such a hall should be erected in Canberra. For her, and I quote Rishbieth, the creation of a pioneer hold should prove an inspiration to the present day women of Australia to take a greater interest in public affairs. She wrote this on the 5th of February 1958 ... ’54, sorry. And with a few gaps in her correspondence we learn that she finally decided to bequeath her collection to the National Library.
So the event tonight when we think about it is making her exhibit happen and it’s ... maybe made to be a bit bold there, maybe the prelude to a true exhibition of her material in the future but now at last with the research and curatorial assistance she was seeking. And maybe 2018, the centenary of the principle of women’s suffrage in Britain, could be celebrated with her exhibit here in the Treasure Gallery.
I’d like to finish this presentation with two things, first Rischbieth’s book, The March of Australian Women which she finally published in 1964, aged 90, and which retraces her 50 year campaign for women’s right as the President of the Australian Federation of Women’s Voter, as a member of the International Alliance of Women’s Suffrage and Equal Citizenship an d many other things. Second, I’d like also to finish with Bessie Rischbieth words written to Harold White on the 22nd of June 1956, which reveal how significant the British campaign for women’s suffrage was in the for women’s rights, for freedom and for democracy. To relay the exhibit in my possession as a living memorial and appreciation of the epic struggle for human freedom made by the women of Britain, their demand to participate in the civic affairs of their country, for their recognition of women’s right to vote, to enjoy political rights on an equal footing with men will take its rightful place in history. The great struggle that swept these women into prison, 600 of them, has already proved to be a foundation stone led by them for the ever widening claim known today as western ideology, self-determination, self-government in contrast to totalitarianism. I fervently hope out of the heaps of files, photos, books and papers which I possess to pay a tribute to this important milestone in human history. Thank you.
A: Thank you so much, Beatrice, for introducing us to Bessie Rischbieth, for telling us about the development of the movement in Britain and the connections elsewhere, and giving us that gorgeous peep into the collection itself. It’s now my pleasure to welcome Dr Anne Summers AO. Dr Summers is a bestselling author, journalist and thought leader with an influential career in politics, the media, business and the nongovernment sector in Australia, Europe and the United States. I can’t imagine that there is one of us in this room who has not read Anne Summers. She’s the author of eight books including the classic, Damned Whores and God’s Police first published in 1975. I’m delighted to say that she is represented in the Library’s collection through her publications and her personal papers. Please welcome Dr Summers.
S: I’ll put my timer on, try and remember to look at it. Thanks very much for introduction, Anne-Marie, and Beatrice, thank you for that amazing introduction to Bessie Rischbieth and as you were talking, and one of the things that I’ve been thinking about when I knew that I was coming down her to do this event, was I was trying to remember whether or not I had ever looked at the Bessie Rischbieth collection myself when I was doing research here and I checked the footnotes of my book and I couldn’t find any reference so I thought well maybe I hadn’t but then when I looked at some of the photographs and some of the other items that you’ve reproduced and I know that I have copies of them at home and I know there’s only one place I could have got them, it was from that collection so yes, I did use it.
Now look, I was ... that would have been in the early ‘70s, 1973, ’74 that I looked at it so I’m glad someone’s finally coming along and done something useful with it so the rest of us can have access to it. I was asked to talk about the modern day women’s movement and the relationship of that to women’s suffrage and I’m sort of going to talk about that a bit. Certainly when the ... when we call it the second wave women’s movement or the modern women’s movements, is a little bit of a misnomer because it is over a generation old now and there’s a whole new movement today, I’m very pleased to say so in a sense the people of my generation are at kind of in between the first wave and what is now third or fourth wave. But when we started our radicalism and our activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s and one of the first things that we realised is that we knew nothing about our history. In fact we didn’t even know if we had a history and one of the thing ... I was very interested in history and one of the things that I became very obsessed about, and it was one of the motivations for wanting to write Damned Whores and God’s Police, was to try and discover if we had a history and if so what it was and so my story for most of my life and particularly for that period during the early 1970s up until 1975 when Damned Whores was published was an ... kind of a mixture of activism and research.
And trying to reconcile the two things and that’s what I’ve sort of done all my life because I like to know what the story is but I also like to be out there trying to help change the world. But one ... I guess the two big points that I would like to make tonight, one is that what happens to our history, I mean we had a huge amount of discussion, a lot of writing, a lot of publications, a lot of things in the 1970s where we said oh my god, who knew about the history? Well now we’ve found it we must never forget it. And of course it’s completely forgotten and now along comes Suffragette and everyone says oh my god, fancy that. So I guess one of my issues tonight is how ... we have to try to find ways for the history of women’s struggle .. not just for the vote but for ... in all other aspects of our history ... we have to find ways for that history to be incorporated into the main history of the country.
And it shouldn’t be that hard but it obviously is because we haven’t managed it and just ... if I can just segue just for one little moment to the point that Beatrice made at the end about hoping that there might be a museum of women or some memorial established in 2018 to perhaps house the Rischbieth collection and celebrate women’s activities, I think it’s pretty relevant that we’re sitting here tonight in the week that Hilary Clinton has been nominated, the first ever woman to be nominated for political you know to lead a political party in the United States to run for the presidency and she has ... well who knows if she’s going to win or not but she has a very good chance on paper at least of winning. And I think what’s very significant about the way in which she made her announcement and how she claimed victory this week, and if you haven’t seen it I do recommend you run home tonight and have a look on you know on whatever social media you use, to see the video that she released celebrating the announcement because she has firmly anchored her candidacy in the history of women’s struggle.
And she’s made this film, it’s about five or six minutes long and it starts with women suffragettes, it starts ... I mean they’re probably the American ones so they’re not suffragettes but women suffrage fighters. It shows the women in white marching for suffrage and she traces the history of women’s struggle and places her own accomplishment this week firmly in that tradition. Secondly she made the point in her speech the other night when she claimed the victory, that it was the anniver ... her mother, she was mourning the fact that her mother was no longer alive and not there to see her daughter achieve this amazing milestone but her mother was actually born on the day that American women were awarded the vote which I think was in 1924, was it? 1924? ’24, I think.
And thirdly she wore white, she wore white and she never wears white so I mean I think it’s very significant that we have the first female candidate for President of the United States and possibly first female President is somebody who knows that history, acknowledges it and will hopefully not let it be forgotten. And secondly Barack Obama announced not so long ago the creation of a new museum in Washington and that will be a museum of women’s politics and history so they’ve done it and it’s about time we got on with it, I think.
One of the things ... I’ll just make two final points ‘cause I know we don’t have a lot of time left but one is that when I was doing my research I spent a lot of time in the Mitchell Library and in this library reading documents, reading papers and kind of doing primary research partly because I wanted to be able to tell a story of what had happened, how Australian women got the vote and was it true it was given to us on a plate? And it turns out that while we didn’t have to horsewhip cabinet ministers or slash paintings in the national gallery or get up to some of the things that the suffragettes got up to we were in fact ... we did fight for the vote, it wasn’t just given to us so I wanted to be able to tell that story and that was one of the reasons I would have been looking at the Bessie Rischbieth papers and many other papers.
And one of the things that I think is interesting about the history of the women in that era and subsequently is they were very conservative, most of them ... as you’ve made the point Bessie Rischbieth was very conservative as was Rose Scott and as were many of the other women and me as somebody in my 20s reading all this stuff was pretty ... kind of thought oh really you know I don’t really see any connection between them and me because they were so fuddy-duddy and they were against booze and they were against sex and they you know and they didn’t seem to have any relationship to the radicalism of the women’s liberation movement but in fact when you kind of consider the political framework in which they were operating and also historical era in which they lived some of what they did was in fact quite radical even if it was different from the way we see the world today.
I mean for example in the 1920s Rose Scott in Sydney and others sta ... you know began the first family planning clinic in Martin Place in Sydney. Now okay it was called the Racial Hygiene Association and there was a bit of a eugenics tinge to what they were doing but nevertheless they were helping women to control their fertility and as we know that is one of the fundamentals to women’s independence, to be able to control your fertility. So it was very interesting to me to sit in this Library and to read these papers and just to be ... sort of to be confronted with the words and in case ... from the case of some of the papers like Bessie Rischbieth’s, the actual you know souvenirs if you like or the memorabilia of these earlier struggles.
And I’ve become kind of quite addicted to doing that and even when it hasn’t been strictly relevant to my own research I’ve done quite a lot of it and I just wanted to give you ... finish up by giving you a couple of examples of why I think it’s so important that the collections of papers exist and I’m so glad that there’s such a priority given to them by this library and I’m so pleased you’re trying to raise money to digitise the Bessie Rischbieth collection and make it accessible to a wider audience because you know it is true, when I was doing my research in the ‘70s you know every time I wanted to look at something, I did have to come down to Canberra and that was not easy when ... as a student, I didn’t have the money, it was very difficult, I didn’t have a car, all that stuff. Today when you jump on your computer and read stuff you know in libraries all around the world is such a fantastic resource that it’s something that we should be very ... and the ... I'm so upset about what’s happened with Trove because the digitisation of newspapers project has been such an absolute boon for me people like me who research constantly online so I really hope we can turn that around.
I wish we didn’t have such barbarians in charge of this country. But just one of the things that I will never ... will never kind of leave me, I mean you can’t actually digitise some of the ... you can digitise photographs of the For Valour badge but you can’t actually you know have the three-dimensional copy but I just wanted to let everybody know something that I only myself discovered a couple of hours ago when I went and had a quick visit to Old Parliament House as I persist on calling it ‘cause I used to work there, in the area that used to be the parliamentary library ... those of you who are familiar with the building will remember that ... is an exhibition space with lots of stuff there. You’ll see Quentin Bryce’s dress that she wore when she swore in Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. That’s there which I didn’t know which was a nice surprise but also they have a ‘For Valour’ badge belonging to somebody else. It’s in beautiful condition. It’s there in a ... and it’s the badge that was given to women who underwent hunger strike so I think that’s nice to know that there are ... you can actually go and physically see these things.
Can I just finish with two points? One is about, you know, sitting up there in the manuscripts room as I did for many, many a day and a week looking through people’s papers, you come across not only surprising information but there’s just a thing about being in contact with the papers that people actually used I find is very ... there’s a lot of meaning in that you know you learn things that you wouldn’t expect to learn and just to side-track for one second, just to give you an example of how somebody else is treated as impor ... I interviewed Cate Blanchett a few years ago and one of the things that she told me, that when she was preparing for the role as Elizabeth I, and I’m sure we’ve all seen that wonderful movie, when she was preparing for that role she not only read lots of biographies of Elizabeth and did a lot of research and you know studied up on English history but she went out and found copies of Elizabeth I’s letters and she actually bought one, she actually owns a letter written by Elizabeth I, but she wanted to study the handwriting and she said you can learn so much about a person and their character from the way they write and for you know is their writing scrawly or is tight? Is it you know whatever and I just thought ... just to hear her describe what she was able to get in order to make ... create that character for that role from a letter I think was wonderful.
And I’ve got just two examples of my own ... not quite as good as that, I’m afraid but one ... I can’t even remember why I was doing this now but not so long ago I had a look at the papers of Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, upstairs in the manuscripts room and I was ... I think it was when I was researching my book, The Lost Mother. It was in fact because Keith Murdoch and his wife, Elisabeth Murdoch, were art collectors and they collected the artist that I wrote a book about called The Lost Mother. And so I was just going through all his papers and just hoping that I might just stumble across something that might be useful and there was all ... all this wonderful stuff about invitations to the palace, and you know, who sat next to who at dinner, and all that stuff and it was all very you know completely irrelevant to what I was doing but it was just interesting and I just enjoyed doing it so I kept on looking. And then I looked at one of the folders which was about his ... well the time when he was basically running the Melbourne Herald and I came across this ... I can’t even remember now whether it was a book or a ... just a set of papers but what it was, it was the mechanism that he used to evaluate the paper every day so he’d get the paper every day and he would mark it up and he had this little sheet where he’d marked up what was wrong with every single headline, story, placement, whatever and then send it down to the editor. Like father, like son.
And the final example I’ll give you ... I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac here but this is from my own papers and I came down here last September and spent a couple of days looking at my own papers because I was running a conference last September to mark the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Damned Whores and God’s Police and so I just wanted to go and sit down with the papers and reacquaint myself with the manu ... you know what I’d written and how I’d done it and whatever, just to kind of immerse myself in it and what I found so ... I found ... learnt two fascinating things from doing that because there is actually a huge collection of ev .. I think everything to do with that book is in this Library, more than you’d ever need but one of the things that I had completely forgotten about was galley proofs. Remember you used to have galley proofs? God knows why we ever had them but anyway these proofs that are like this long and you had to correct them and then you’d send them back and then you’d get page proofs and then you had to correct them and you send them back and then you get a you know a bound copy of the book or a proof copy of the book, I mean it was just insane, the level of production.
So that was pretty interesting but the thing that really got me was looking at my original manuscripts, and this book of course was written on a type ... electric typewriter, I was very flash, I had an electric typewriter but into every chapter was written at least six or seven times, at least and what I used to do you know was the original cut and paste you know you’d type it up and you’d cut out that sentence and you’d paste it on the page before and some of my pa ... my manuscript papers, honestly, it’s like spaghetti and it’s all these little bits of pa ... and anyone is welcome to go and have a look at them if you want to see what cut and paste used to be like before computers and it just was another one of these things, there was just no substitute for looking at the actual papers of anybody, be your own Rupert Murdoch, Rose Scott you know Elizabeth I or Bessie Rischbieth so I would encourage you all to immerse yourself in that collection and thank the Library very much for doing this work. Thank you.
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