Dr Beatrice Bijon explores the British suffragette movement through the papers of feminist Bessie Rischbieth, followed by a viewing of the exhibition Deeds Not Words: Women's Suffrage in Britain.
*Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Beatrice Bijon (B)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 7 June 2018
K: Good afternoon. It’s a bit unusual to see you all here at 3:30 in the afternoon but it is lovely to see you here on this cold wintry day which has come very, very quickly and we all want to get home before it gets dark, I know. For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favelle and it’s my very great pleasure to welcome you here to the Library this afternoon. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, I pay my respects to the elders past and present for caring for this land that we’re now very, very privileged to call our own home.
I’m also very grateful for our general donors because two years go we sought your help to raise funds to research, preserve and improve access to Bessie Rischbieth’s papers. Now that appeal kind of knocked my socks off really because we had 400 donors who helped us raise $160,000 and in the process they told us – shared with us some amazing personal stories about their own experiences with mothers, grandmothers, aunts who had been suffragettes themselves or had been associated with the early feminist movements in Australia.
One memorably wrote to us that if he hadn’t donated the spirit of his mother would have been incredibly cross. All her training would have been wasted. What we uncovered through the process of the work that that appeal made possible has inspired the exhibition, Deeds Not Words, which was opened on the 6th of February which a jubilant evening of food, of course, wine, even better, but great, wonderful conversation as we marked the centenary of the passing into law of the Representation of the People Act which extended voting rights to some women and all men over the age of 21 for the first time in the United Kingdom.
This afternoon I’m delighted to introduce to you Dr Beatrice Bijon who is the Curator of Deeds Not Words and who really inspired all the work that came after her Harold White Fellowship in 2011. Beatrice opened up Bessie Rischbieth’s collection to all of us, showed us what amazing things were hidden in those boxes that sit on the manuscript shelves and led us to the appeal, to the preservation work and to the exhibition. Please join me in welcoming Beatrice Bijon.
B: Good afternoon, it’s good to see so many faces, great. First I’d like to thank the National Library, this wonderful Canberra institution that made this exhibition possible. I especially want to thank women and men within the Library for whom women’s rights matter. Staff in Preservation have done amazing work and they’ve got yeah wonderful work with the fragile material from the manuscripts collection and the designs for those of you who’ve already seen the exhibition, the design shows the objects at their best.
It’s been very rewarding to work with staff, I would say with women especially, most of them were women and women who understand the significance of making these things visible and who are aware of the politics involved.
Right, I’m going to start with a quotation by British suffragette Teresa Billington-Greig. This is a work that is waiting for us, by voice and pen to produce the change of spirit in men and women which will register itself in legislation and which will make for better condition in areas that legislation cannot reach.
So this was published in 1911 and Teresa’s – Billington-Greig’s vision encapsulated Bessie Rischbieth’s in fact. While Bessie Rischbieth was convinced that and I quote, her womanhood suffrage had proved the greatest force for women’s progress, at the same time she asserted that political citizenship could not be achieved by the vote only. For her as well as for many suffrage campaigners like Billington-Greig the vote was a necessary stepping stone but long-term advocacy was required to bring about and actualise deeper and broader changes. So this is what Rischbieth did her whole life, in fact. She was one of he founders of the Australian Federation of Women Voters and its long-time President and she was all her life an advocate for an equality of rights between men and women.
The exhibition downstairs in the Treasures Gallery celebrates Bessie Rischbieth. It also celebrates, as Kathryn was saying, the campaign for women’s suffrage. In fact the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain which gave the right to vote to a bit more than 8 million women, was about 40% of the female population at the time. We have this exhibition here thanks to Bessie Rischbieth and thanks to the time she spent in Britain, especially in London in 1913, when she was travelling with her husband.
At the time, 1913, Britain and London was abuzz with the campaign for women’s suffrage. The [hardship] 6:31 of the campaign, the charisma, the energy of the campaigners clearly marked her. In her notes and correspondence she constantly refers to this founding moment of women’s history and its trailblazers, the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain being for her the centrepiece of the struggle for women’s rights more globally.
So from 1913 until she died in 1967 she collected material on the suffrage movement and she formed what she called her exhibit. And for her it was a way – and I’m quoting her – it was a way of paying a tribute to this important milestone in human history. In fact she had prepared this exhibit and she had created curatorial labels saying for those of you who have seen the exhibition already have used three of them. I have done downstairs what she wanted to do all her life, that is exhibit these shards of memory that would bear witness to the skill and the intensity of the movement and to show in fact what it took to turn the battleship, to acknowledge the citizenship of women after decades of campaigning.
The exhibition downstairs is only a portion of Rischbieth’s archive. Like all archives there are gaps and mistakes and also surprises. One of the pitfalls of research is that archives do not always tell the truth and Rischbieth’s is no exception. As she described it it is indeed a mixed pie when you open all the boxes. Memorabilia, objects, photographs, postcards, pamphlets, plays, music scores, collages, press cuttings etc.
She remained a witness of the campaigning in London, she never got involved in the fights unlike other Australian women who were there and this probably accounts for her errors in dating and naming. Her archives is like a mosaic and the history of the movement needs constructing when you open the boxes. Some objects exhibiting in the Treasures Gallery downstairs are extremely moving when you unpack the stories behind them.
Some objects exhibited in the treasures Gallery – here are a few of them. So a prison brooch awarded to a suffragette when she came out of jail in 1908 and this brooch was given to her as a recognition of her sacrifice for the cause. A badge worn by a suffragette speaker. A purple, white and green sash worn along a white dress during a march. These three items belonged to Louie Cullen, a suffragette who migrated to Australia. And this photograph is downstairs in the exhibition and she’s here as an old woman in Australia wearing her speaker’s badge and her sash.
There’s also a hunger strike medal who belonged to a famous working-class woman, Letitia Withal. She was force-fed in prison. Next to Stuart you’ll see a letter that she wrote to Rischbieth in 1960, I think, to explain how she should read the medal. She also signed with her alias, Leslie Hall. A lot of suffragettes had aliases, it was a way of not being recognised by the police or sometimes they didn’t want to shame their husbands or their families so they used their aliases. And I tell you another story of an alias after the talk when we go downstairs.
So through this object you see that Rischbieth entered history through individual stories, in fact but she also stressed the significance of and the strength of collective action. And I have wanted to frame this exhibition like this, to give a sense of the individual and of the collective. When I first started researching this archive as a Harold White Fellow here in 2011 and I was trying to piece things together there were interesting moments when I could make connections that I think Rischbieth was not aware of. Just one example and this – I’ve kept this very fragile and very poor condition document. I want you to have this in mind when you go downstairs after that, it will give you an idea of the kind of work that preservation staff have done, just incredible the state it was in the first time I took it out of a box.
So the human letters, these two women called themselves human letters. Suffragette realised that they could post themselves so they decided to bring a message to Prime Minister, to Downing Street and they delivered these letters but of course the Prime Minister refused the letter, told them you're dead letters, you can’t be delivered, return to sender. And I realised that these two women, one of them was actually the person who owned the saucer and the plate that you see in the exhibition downstairs but it was not very obvious because in fact this plate and the saucer were given by a woman who was later in touch with Rischbieth so – and her name was really very tiny, very poorly handwritten so it was sort of you know these moment when you make connections in archive, it just make your day sometimes.
Regarding Rischbieth’s archive the bias of her archives in fact reflects what fascinated her in the campaign and what has fascinated a lot of people until today. In fact it is the militant side of the movement with its spectacular sights and its tactics of direct action. And this angle also ties in with historiography with the way the history of the movement was written until very recently. In fact until the 1980s – was very recent – the movement’s history had mostly been written from the perspective of the most radical campaigners, from the perspective of the most militant and starting of course with their own narratives that started as early as 1918 in fact.
So until the 1980 historiography had left in the background the work done by all those who campaigned more peacefully, the non-militant called suffragists as opposed to suffragettes. In fact they – the suffragists, the non-militant, the peaceful one, constituted the overwhelming majority of the campaigners. They had a very democratic organisation. Their main organisation was called the NUWSS, the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies with figures like Millicent Garrett-Fawcett as its leader, also [Ray Stretchy] 14:40, you might have heard of. So there appear – the non-militant movement appears in the archive but <inaudible> 14:36 there was no spectacular action so when you have in mind an exhibition it’s not visually rewarding to collect speeches, notes, letters that they wrote to MPs. And of course I’m not going to have time to talk about the code of colours but all these organisations have got – had a code of colours. These code of colours is very different from the one that has remained with us, the white, purple and green code. That was the code of the more militant.
So now a few essential facts regarding the British campaign that might go against the grain of a unified and homogeneous movement. So of course there was the divide between suffragists and suffragettes but among suffragettes some refused direct action and refused violence and they questioned the military organisation of the Pankhurst-led movement, the WSPU. So in this picture the main leader, the mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, is not actually there but on the right you have her two daughters, Sylvia first then Christabel. The woman in the middle was the treasurer of the movement with her husband and next to her is Amy Keaney, very famous, one of the few working-class women who became a leader, and on the left Lady [Constant] 16:02 Lytton, one of the few ladies who were imprisoned and fore-fed. And you’ve got her prison notice downstairs in the exhibition so WSP, Women’s Social Political Union, the main radical militant movement.
So unlike them suffragists campaigned peacefully, they lobbied MPs and politicians, wrote articles and along the years they gradually marched in the streets. Suffragists never stopped believing in the power of rational arguments and explanation. They condemned all forms of violence. Over the years some women moved – changed camps, some suffragist became suffragette, some suffragette from 1912 and ’13 you know were fed up with the violence so became suffragists. Also many of the women very often belonged to different organisations at the same time and they navigated between the sometimes very different agendas of the organisation. Just an example, you might see or you must have seen already, there’s a press cutting and there are women with umbrellas with no vote, no tax on them and in fact these women were members of the Tax Resistant League founded by an Australian, in fact, Dora Montefiore and these women didn’t see why they should pay taxes to a government for which they had no rights as citizen.
Along the years some antisuffragist converted and became suffragist but something that’s – sometimes we forget is that suffragist and antisuffragist crossed path when they worked in charities and philanthropic organisation. There were many, many different organisations, societies of actresses, writers, academics, teachers, men, some with religious affiliation, there were many interactions in fact between some of these groups, there were a lot of criss-crossing. I guess also like any militant organisation and largescale political campaign disagreements and rifts were frequent, power struggles and tyrannical leadership were not uncommon in the movement, often undermining the image of sisterhood people would like to imagine.
So to go back to my original quotation the pen and the voice were indeed instruments of the fight for suffrage. The pen pretty easy you know writing petition, first petition for women’s suffrage was written in 1866, presented to Parliament. Pamphlets were written, theoretical text, newspapers, letters, plays, novels, poems, songs, speeches.
Now the voice. So that’s where things get a bit tricky. There was a kind of ventriloquism in fact regarding female voices at the time. If you think about it in the early years of the 20th century women were either talked about by men or their voices could be apprehended only in the text they wrote you know [Woodson Craft] 19:37, Sarah Grimke in The States.
So with a few notable exceptions the public voices of women were largely silent. It’s important to remember again that at the beginning of the 20th century speaking in public was a male domain. The male voice was rational, powerful, respectable, respected, the voice of authority. The female voice was deemed frivolous, frivolous bubble even, trivial chatter and dignified drivel. So the first women who spoke publicly – I think it was in The States in fact, in the 1830s – they were thrown rotten eggs, herrings, stones, shoes, all you can imagine.
So from that perspective the fight for women’s suffrage marked a dramatic change in the way women occupied open spaces where hitherto it had been so often invisible. Suffragists and suffragettes started using their voices in all sorts of ways. Imagine them giving speeches outside factories, getting up on the soapbox at street corners and ringing a bell to draw a crowd or delivering speeches in strategic places in London. And don’t underestimate the boldness and the courage of these women. Many suffragists refused to do that, some were unprepared to exhibit their bodies as they saw it and after all Victorian propriety was still very much the rule.
Just going to quote what a writer, Margaret Nevinson, says about the first time she had courage enough to give a speech in public. At first I refused to speak outside at street corners, I could not overcome my Victorian prejudices. This seems so vulgar and I would wince in front of the rudeness and the violence, the rotten eggs and the rubbish. I started in 1906 outside a gas factory in the south of London and I still remember how terrorised. I suddenly felt dizzy as I stood up on the cart and I heard the shouts and the mockery as men outside the factory gathered around us by hundreds.
The suffragettes’ more obstructive way to use their voices was to sneak into political meetings and shout and interrupt the speakers. Heckling politicians became a systematic tactic for suffragettes over the years. There is the famous example of the two suffragettes, Helen Fox, and the Australian, Muriel Matters. They are remembered – they like to be remembered as the first two women to have spoken in Parliament in October 1908. In fact at the time women could go into the House of Commons but they could follow the debates only if they were behind a grill so they could hear but nobody could see them and of course they didn’t like that so to protest against that the two women padlocked themselves to the grill and shouted votes for women so it didn’t take much time for the policemen to turn up. And the policemen had to remove the whole grill to get them away, it was the only way. The way – I’ve seen the – what they used. It was not a tiny padlock, it was actually a huge leather belt, very thick with a huge chain so there’s no way they could you know unchain them so they had to take the whole grill away. So with this example we see that making themselves heard went hand in hand with making themselves seen, moving from silent to being noisy, from being invisible to being visually present.
Going out of the parlours into the street was part of the strategy to become as visible as possible, to perform in the public space what they were fighting for politically. So suffragette in fact turn the feminine body into a civic body. Women suffrage which was politically challenging for most people in the Edwardian period also became visually challenging through the marches, the parades, processions in the streets of London. In fact suffragettes created a spectacle, the spectacle that was carefully arranged, constructed, choreographed even so you all have in mind these long processions in the streets of London.
These women were impeccably dressed with their long white dresses and hats, demonstrating the absolute respectability of the cause they were fighting for and this was also I think undoubtably a response to stereotype of the ugly viragos they were supposed to be. These two postcards are not part of the collection but I thought they – they’re not – there were not a lot of anti-suffragette postcard but they really were the same.
So both suffragists and suffragette had been fighting with words for decades but from 1905 after decades of peacefully campaigning, of numerous false promises by the government and politicians the more ardent suffragettes felt that words and rational arguments were leading nowhere, the vote was still intangible. They felt that action was needed and hence the motto adopted by the WSPU, Deeds Not Words, and hence the title of the exhibition.
Suffragettes certainly know how to have the cause make the headlines in the press and the used it to keep a high public profile. Also have in mind that it was the time that press photography was really developing so they understood perfectly that any kind of publicity was good publicity so the human letters, imagine, this happened, the following day was on the headlines in the Daily Mirror. And so did suffragists attempt at defending herself with a whip. She had interrupted Lloyd George giving a speech in 1908 so of course the next day she made the headlines and she became the woman with a whip in the front page of the Illustrated London News.
Deputation to 10 Downing Street or Buckingham Palace, gatherings outside Parliament, marching, heckling politicians, interrupting meetings [resultive] 26:51 in massive arrest, hundreds of them were arrested. Trials, imprisonments. From 1908 suffragettes in prison started hunger striking and they wanted to be considered as political prisoners to have a better treatment. So as female bodies became a sight of resistance they also became a site of oppression.
This famous photograph of Emmeline Pankhurst being lifted from the ground by a policeman exemplifies their struggle. It was May 1914 and she had just come to Buckingham Palace to present yet another petition to the King. In this photograph in May 1914 Pankhurst was extremely frail and weak as a result of a hunger strike in prison and I think - I’ve always thought that this photograph illustrates the disproportion of means engaged by the state to quell the revolt. It was very common for women demonstrating to be mishandled by policemen who offered absolutely no protection when men opposed to women’s suffrage assaulted them. Women were beaten, trampled to the ground and frequently sexually assaulted.
In a diary a suffragette describes how one man came up to her with a knife and slit her coat from chin to toe and of course revealed her underwear. On that day in Wales like many other days things had been really rough. Lloyd George had come to his home town to be awarded the Town Medal and he started giving a speech. As a Liberal candidate he was one of these - as a Liberal candidate, yeah, he wasn’t one of these politicians who were quite disingenuous, saying that they supported women’s suffrage but when it came to put the vote they never did it. So they protested, women were assaulted, a woman even was thrown over a hedge.
So this was the context in which Rischbieth arrived in London in 1913. Police repression had gone crescendo, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison had died in June while trying to grab the King’s horse at Epsom Derby, had become a martyr and the force-feeding of prisoners had started a year earlier in 1912. They had started being force-fed through the mouth and through the nose. Just going to read one of the many description of what it felt like to be force-fed.
The sensation is most painful, the drums of the ears seem to be bursting and there is a horrible pain in the throat and the breast. The tube is pushed down 20 inches. I have to lie on the bed pinned down by wardresses. One doctor stands up on a chair holding the funnel at arm’s length so as to have the funnel end above the level and then the other doctor who is behind forces the end of the nostrils. The after effects are a feeling of faintness, a sense of great pain in the diaphragm or breastbone, in the nose and the ears. The tube must go below the breastbone though I cannot feel it below there.
The violation of their bodies came close to rape according to many descriptions. The way they were treated outraged the public, it outraged doctors and the clergy. George Bernard Shaw who was a supporter of the cause and delivered great speeches, some of them really funny, called force-feeding illegal. I’m quoting Shaw in one of his speeches, he’s addressing McKenna who was the Home Secretary at the time - not addressing him, talking about him. If he wants to break people’s teeth and force their mouths open, if he wants to wound their lungs, if he wants to run the risk of killing them, if he wants to inflict what is unquestionably torture upon them it is his business first to bring in a bill legalising these operations, making torture legal.
This is a poster that Rischbieth collected, the cat and mouse poster. The year is 1913 and a lot of suffragettes had been on hunger strike, thirst strike, some have stopped sleeping and they’re really in terrible states. And the government was afraid that one of them might die and of course the last thing they needed was a martyr so very quickly they introduced an Act nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act so according to this Act, when they realised that a woman too frail, too weak and might die she would be released temporarily to give her time to recover so she would be put on house arrest and of course with policemen outside her door and when she was fit enough she would be put back in prison to serve her sentence.
Sometimes when you read the reports you know some women were released for three days, put back in prison for half a day because they were in such appalling state that you know they were still as weak. A lot of them played hide and seek with the police and hence the Cat and Mouse Act. Some women never went back to prison.
This poster of course was a propaganda poster, quite realistic in a way you know the cat’s fangs biting into the woman’s body, just very emblematic of the state violence deployed at the time.
I find that this brings us to reflect on violence and I'm going to raise some questions which are for all of us to answer. When I was writing my book on the suffrage movement I often felt some sort of discomfort at the word violence or violent used to describe some of the suffragettes’ activism as I felt they were the one who were hurt and they were the one whose bodies were bruised and assaulted. So it’s absolutely true that the suffragettes’ militancy had escalated from 1911, the suffragettes had become outragettes as they loved calling themselves. So after attacking public buildings like railway stations, setting fires to churches, destroying the tea house at Kew Gardens they started damaging private properties, they spat on policemen, they provoked them, they attacked places associated with male pleasures, golf courses, racetracks, they cut telegraph wires, poured acid in letterboxes and smashed hundreds of windows of West end stores in 1912.
So what situation did we have here? On the one hand institutionalised state violence, torture with the complicity of some doctors. On the other hand activist violence, insisting that the argument of the broken pane as how they called it was the just and only response to the deafness and violence of the state, a just and only response. In one of her letters Rischbieth makes it clear that she opposed violence in principle but she felt that the state had left suffragettes no choice but to respond violently. Emmeline Pankhurst also argued that they were using violence reluctantly.
Terminology, another kind of terminology is also interesting and triggers reflection. Scotland Yard who had used bi-telecentric lens to spy on the suffragette – I think it was the first time they had been using – the first time they had this sort of camera so Scotland Yard called them terrorists and subjected them to state surveillance. Similarly more recently suffragette have also been regarded as terrorist or reformist terrorist by some historians but of course today the word terrorist or radicalised have become very loaded.
I would like to finish with a very famous pitch given by Emmeline Pankhurst in Hartford, Connecticut in November 1913. She had come to The States to raise funds for the cause. I mean I won’t have time to go into any personality but they are certainly very interesting personalities and Pankhurst was a cunning orator, she was ruthless, authoritarian and she used seduction. Sometimes when you figure out all this you feel it really fits the description of some of our politicians today. She was autocratic, she was fighting for democracy, there was no democracy in her – in the movement she was leading but in this very long speech, 30 pages, she presents herself as a soldier and explains that the British fight is a civil war and needs supporting.
Now that is the outcome of our civil war. You won your freedom in America when you had the revolution by bloodshed, by sacrificing human life. You won the civil war by the sacrifice of human life when you decided to emancipate the negro. You have left it to women in your land. The men of all civilised countries have left it to women to work out their own salvation. That is the way in which we women of England are doing. Human life for us is sacred but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it should be ours. We won’t do it ourselves but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death. Thank you.
K: Thank you, thank you. I’ve been listening, had the opportunity to listen to Beatrice a few times over the last few months and I'm always surprised and dazzled and intrigued by the way she manages to bring the archive to life and I think we heard a little bit of that researcher’s journey at the beginning of Beatrice’s presentation today before we got into the quite gory and terrifying Cat and Mouse Act which is an image that I could have quite happily never look at again.
I’d love you all to have time to go down and look at the exhibition again but before we do, if you have some questions we’ve got Aaron and Claire with microphones so pop up your hand and we’ll get a microphone to you and we’ll have a bit of a chat.
A: Thank you for an interesting talk. I’m interested in the slogan and the – some birth of it. You gave this in your talk but I wondered if you could expand a bit, who had the idea of shifting gear at that moment and it was – you said the WSPU so it was the radical side of the movement. Did it have any echoes elsewhere at the time? Did they find that statement from somewhere or is it completely created by the moment?
B: The slogan first it was I mean a change of tactics. It was also an address to the government you know Stop Talking Act. I can’t really trace the origin of the slogan. I think Martin who’s here, he had mentioned that it might have a connection with an anarchist’s slogan if you remember, it’s something I’ve never managed to trace, in fact. But – so of course at the time there was the fight for women’s suffrage in The States but it just didn’t compare, there was never any militancy in America as there was in Britain, it was really in Britain that there was this you know the height of militancy that we saw in the pictures. So what happened, there was – I mean they had been campaigning since the 1860s and they were you know it was not the only campaign for reforms, there had been suffrage reforms for men, there had been Josephine Butler campaigning for the repeal of the Contagious Disease Act, all these women worked together and you had all the chartists in the 1830s in the north of England. The root is just there in the north of England in Manchester.
The Pankhursts were in Manchester so it’s – all started in Manchester, trade unions, chartist you know all this agitation, 1832, the first reform bill, suffrage reform and I mean gradually it took momentum and so these fights lasted you know for decades until 1903 where the movement moved to London and the family, Pankhurst, three daughters, three suffragette and other women, not only them, other women decided that that was enough because I mean nothing was happening. The women’s suffrage kept being talked about in Parliament, Cabinet members made promises and it was never inscribed. People individually, MPs and some government members, supported suffrage but it is an issue that was never inscribed as such in a party, right so gradually, 1903, WSPU is created and 1904 is stated as the beginning of militancy when one of the daughters, Christabel Pankhurst, and Amy Keaney, the working-class woman who became a leader spat on a policeman and – to attract attention and they were arrested, it was chaos and was arrested and put to prison. And then gradually it escalated. It really started to escalate in 1908 when with the first – I mean there were really massive arrests and first hunger strike started and then ’11, ’12, the first forced feeding, 1913 was pretty wild. I don’t know if I’ve answered the question.
A: If I could just make a comment. Your parallel with terrorism I think is very apt. They used – as far as I can tell from what you're saying the government used state repression to solve – I mean you used that word – the problem of women and this bloody voting. Now today they use state repression to solve the problem of discontented youth of Muslim background, they’re all a bunch of terrorists and terrorism today has just as many injustices if we go back to rendition, Guantanamo Bay, there’s still men there. Yesterday a man was convicted of attempting a terrorist act or threatening a terrorist act. He got 12 years. He was just released from a psychiatric hospital the day before, had a long psychiatric problem, he took drugs and he was on some psychedelic drug and he threatened the pilot with a speaker box, he said with a bomb – there was nothing in it. He got 12 years. What’s changed? Thank you.
B: I’ve nothing to add.
A: I was just wondering when Rischbieth was making the archive how did she envisage it being housed? Was like a purpose-built museum that she had in mind or you know how – the labels. How was it going to be presented?
B: In fact – I mean there are two things. The collection - in the 1920s in Britain a former suffragette decided to create what was called the Suffragette Fellowship, still called the Suffragette Fellowship and to be a member of the Suffragette Fellowship you had to have been a prisoner. And it became a huge archive, it’s still in the Museum of London and I think Rischbieth had that in mind when she started collecting her material, doing something similar in Australia, in fact. And so she started collecting that s – you know as soon as – when she was in London, as soon as she came back to Australia until she died. She – so there was a lot of correspondence between former suffragette who were here and women in the suffragette collection in London and she wanted to – so she created what she called her exhibit and she wanted to have this material first exhibited in Perth.
It’s very difficult to find, I mean I’ve really looked into it – very difficult to find any traces of anything but more significantly she decided that the collection could be housed in a building in Canberra. And just a couple of weeks ago I’ve just found that this – well I knew that two blocks of land had been awarded to them and the block of land were at Melbourne Avenue so I’ve still got to do a bit more research but her idea was to have some kind of women’s museum, in fact, where all this would be exhibited and made accessible to students. It was very close to her heart to have this used as history. For her she calls it an epic struggle, she has – she was so marked by what she saw in England, the sort of energy it created. So the museum never happened obviously.
A: In Canberra.
B: In Canberra it was, yeah. There was – in her letters – I mean it’s very sparse, there are a lot of holes in the correspondence but it was really ’51 for the jubilee there was a women’s convention here in Canberra for the jubilee of the town and I’m exploring that at the moment so there was at the time talk about that women’s museum with Senators, there were four women Senators at the time and there were the one charge of [Lobeing] 47:06 to get it.
A: Did she reflect on the difference between Australia and Britain? Had women got the vote here? Had the vote here and Britain was more resistant to it?
B: Yes, she reflects a little bit on it. She’s quite critical of Australian women, saying they’re not aware of what they have because they didn’t have to fight for it. That was what she – keeps cropping up in you know little footnotes and she doesn’t talk much about it, she’s more focused on what happened in Britain. It was clearly very inspirational in terms of the energy, she was already a feminist, she was already a member of the Women’s Service Guild at the time so she was already a feminist. It’s more in terms of the energy and the strength and the charisma, what it took in fact for these women to get the vote.
A: This is such an interesting [tarpeg] 48:24, really it’s so great. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts about the effectiveness of these two approaches, I mean it seems like this is a dynamic in so many other contexts, the civil rights movement or the AIDS crisis where you have kind of people going a more peaceful route and then people saying that’s not enough. Do you have any feelings about how this played out in England?
B: Well I think there’s a lot of debates about you know what if they hadn’t become militant? What if there had been no violence? What would have happened? I think - I mean I'm a strong believer in the strength of collective action and I think it was you know it was not homogeneous at all as a movement, there was so many perspective and I think - my view is that it is the sort of convergence of and the accumulation of the – of action, in fact, that finally got them to get the vote. But I mean what is really interesting is that usually people remember these suffragette, they were really a minority you know the militant – in 1913 there were a few hundreds and you know they were despised and condemned by their all-time supporters. Keir Hardie, the Labour Party leader had finally given up on them you know calling them I don’t know, crazy or whatever but I think it’s difficult to know – I mean my view is that it is just the variety of the fight that finally get them to win the vote but also – I mean it’s interesting how very often – 1914 when the war broke out the WSPU stopped all action overnight, decided to contribute to the war effort.
Within the suffragist you know there was a sort of split, women like Millicent Fawcett that you saw on the slide wanted to contribute to the war effort and she was appalled that in her movement there could have been pacifists, right? So a new movement was created called the United Suffragists who campaigned during the whole war, still marching in Hyde Park and lobbying and campaigning. I don’t know if I – there’s no real answer, I think. And in The States there was no – it was very different in The States and in The States when Pankhurst and others went to The States American women, the most peaceful ones are very afraid that it might be contagious, that they would bring wrong models in the fight.
K: We might just take a last question from Ingrid and then you can all go down and explore the exhibition again for some of you, I suspect.
A: Thank you very much. Now I know that this is about the suffragettes but I’ve – still wondering whether there is any connection at all with the Jessie Street archives and papers?
B: There is some kind of connection, yeah, I mean they – Rischbieth and Jessie Street knew each other and they were both feminist but they fell out. Rischbieth stopped wanting to talk to her because she found her too Communist. So there’s the obvious – Communist. The obvious connection is that they were you know working fighting for women’s right and I was saying I think every bit helps when it comes to women’s right and any sort of rights.
K: And on that note I’ll send you all downstairs. If you’re free next Tuesday afternoon at 4:00 and you want to hear another story about the work of an amazing woman we are launching the Daisy Bates digital archive so we’d love you all to join us here for that event but could you join me in thanking Beatrice Bijon for a fascinating afternoon and a great exhibition.
K: And we’ll see you downstairs in the gallery.
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