Speakers: Emma (E), Sharon Crozier-De Rosa (S)
E: – in the Collection Branch here at the Library. To begin at the very beginning I’d like to acknowledge Australia’s First Nations peoples as traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respect to the elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
This afternoon’s presentation is by Associate Professor Sharon Crozier-De Rosa, a 2020 – and yes, it is 2020 – National Library of Australia Fellow whose Fellowship has been generously supported by the Stokes family. Thanks to various lockdowns Sharon’s research has had to be completed in several blocks over 18 months so I think she wins the award for resilience in the fellowships. But we’re pleased and delighted that she’s now been able to complete the research for her project, Memory keepers, women activists, strategies to preserve history.
Sharon is an Associate Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. Her research focuses on exploring the tactics and tracing the memory of women involved in intersection nationalist and feminist campaigns across the British empire and United States from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century.
Sharon’s research at the National Library has examined the rationale, strategies and tactics that Australian women and women’s organisations employed to preserve their own histories, analysing how they acted as gatekeepers of their own memory until wider social shifts allowed the memory public visibility.
Please join me in welcoming Sharon to discuss her project further.
S: Thank you so much, Emma, beautiful welcome and thank you all for being here, it’s lovely to see all your faces her today. I too would like to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the lands on which we gather, the Ngunnawal people and to Indigenous leaders past, present and emerging as well as to any first nations peoples here in the audience today.
Okay on the 21st – I should also say that when I’m saying memory keepers, I’m saying women’s activists. For the most part I’m reflecting white women’s activists reflecting what is in the archive at the time that I’m looking at.
On the 21st of October in 1975 in a speech to the Canberra Woden View Club Sydney-born Joyce McConnell recounted a request from a society in Mexico which had invited her to speak on the topic of International Women’s Year. She was there in Mexico as one of the Australian delegates at the International Women’s Year Tribunal which ran adjacent to the much more fiery and contentious Women’s World Conference.
Now the organiser McConnell had noted had said – she said doubtfully and rather wistfully, I don’t suppose you could make it funny, could you? Now I have every sympathy with her, McConnell told her Canberra audience, we’re getting towards the end of International Women’s Year and we have harangued about it, exposed to all its facets. There have been conferences, and of course she was referring also to the Mexican conference, and the media has had a ball, she said, so have had the exhibitionists and the sensationalists. Mistakes have been made but there have been some very solid achievements.
However, and here she aligned herself with a rather more contemporary concept, that of the feminist killjoy and of course I acknowledge Sarah Ahmed’s work on this. So McConnell replied well, it really hasn’t been funny. Actually, she said, the subject of women is a pretty serious one. It’s very hard for a woman to be funny about other women, men sometimes are but then it’s usually unconscious humour on their part.
So I’m afraid, she continued, that International Women’s Year has to remain a serious event. But I’d like to point out that we seem to be missing a fact that it is an event. Certainly an important one but still an event in a long and continuing process. The process was of course the movement for women’s rights and it had been going on for much longer than one designated year.
Now this theme of generations of activists and the associated issue of how to transmit feminist knowledge intergenerationally is one that preoccupied many of the activists that I’ve looked at and it’s a theme that I want to pass on to you here today.
McConnell had been President of the National Council of Women of the ACT from ’62 to ’64, Leader of the Australian Delegation to the International Council of Women Conference in Vancouver in 1976 and President of the National Council of Women in Australia from 1973 to 1976. Her take on International Women’s Year was a mixed one. For the first half of the year and under the direction of Gough Whitlam’s special adviser to the Prime Minister on women’s issues, [unclear] 5:19 intellectual Elizabeth or Liz Reid, well under her hopes had been high however contentions arose at the International Women’s Year meetings and it seemed to McConnell as well as to others that radical women’s liberation feminism was set to hijack the Year’s agenda from its longer-running, less exhibitionist, less sensationalist feminist counterpart and precedent.
Precedent because the early to mid-20th century women’s movement was the movement that the current radical women’s lib was building on, whether they knew this or whether they acknowledged that. Counterpart because these women were still active, still working for gender equality. Still, as McConnell and others noted, the mainstream press was lapping up the division and contention and seemed to some to be only reporting on the radical wing of the International Women’s Year.
So despite her reservations about her more radical peers who seemed determined, she said, and these were her words, to be bitter and resentful where men were concerned, McConnell remained optimistic. Changes in the law and community attitudes and many external conditions have been necessary and will continue to be necessary for the liberation of women, she wrote, but I believe that true liberation is subjective, that every woman must achieve for herself for liberation comes from within and it comes from an acceptance of her responsibilities as a person, be she wife, mother, career woman, daughter and usually a combination of all of these. The woman who can successfully and happily combine all her roles is the one who is truly liberated.
Of International Women’s Year in particular and in a draft document entitled Review of International Women’s Year and consideration of hopes for the future, and I want to point out that future is the only word she capitalised in that title, their knowledge and understanding of temporality comes out in almost everything they do and say. She wrote an addendum and this was her handwritten addendum at the bottom. It is a year we shall all remember, it is up to all of us to make sure that what has been achieved doesn’t slip through our fingers.
McConnell was by no means alone in her hopes for a feminist future. She was also not alone in knowing that assuring a feminist future meant two things. One, not only keeping momentum going but two, also preserving a feminist past, a past that she and others could then pass on to future feminists.
So it’s here I draw your attention back then to my point about whether 1970s feminists knew or acknowledged their predecessors. How did mid-century feminists imagine ways in which future generations would get to know about them and their struggles and their achievements and that’s a key question that my project addresses.
So in this presentation today I want to convey to you how the women’s papers which managed to make their way into the National Library articulate women’s dreams for preserving a feminist past but also their visions for a feminist future or I should say feminist futures. In many ways what feminist historians have very appropriately focused on in recent decades is recovering the history of women’s activisms that aimed at securing a more gender equitable society but in this project I’m more concerned now at this point with plotting a history of archives and memories. How did women activists aim to inform and inspire future generations while of course retaining a record of their own generation’s work?
So by very, very brief way of background, historiographical background, it’s widely recognised that GLAM so galleries, libraries, archives and museums in Australia and globally represent mainstream masculine culture much more than they do that of women and diverse communities, although moves are underway to try and rectify that and that’s been going on as you can see from the Museums Australia policies for the past two decades.
UNESCO has now categorised this challenge to rectify cultural representation as a human rights priority and that was in their 2014 gender equality report. Scholars recognise that diverse communities, including women’s or feminist groups, cannot form robust memory cultures, those which will underpin and support their identities if their history is not known or visible. This is a globally acknowledged priority but it’s not a new issue, as I hope to go on to provide a peek into a much more expansive story. Throughout the 20th century Australian women were aware that lack of accessibility to their histories, they’re aware that there was a lack of accessibility to their histories but they were prepared to devote considerable time, physical and emotional labour, to try and correct what they thought was mass oversight.
Those that make it into the presentation today were somewhat successful. Through their papers we can access their histories but this doesn’t mean that they were successful in shaping the nature of or access to those archives they levered to put together and here I refer specifically to the dream of a dedicated women’s library.
This is a dream that many of our protagonists shared whatever their generation or their place on the ever-shifting feminist spectrum. They were also connected by their intense desires to not only record their own achievements but to do so to inform, unite, inspire future generations of activists and you’ll probably see this most ardently when we get to the figure of Ruby Rich.
So for the rest of the talk I want to visit Ruby Rich and her ideal of what a memorykeeper was, have a look at Bessie Rischbieth, Ruby Rich, Harold White and the dream library, turn to 1975 and the International Women’s Year once again, delve into the diverse nature of feminist holdings and then end on this concept of persistence. What I want to do is bring what some memory scholars called hidden memory practices into view.
Some of these texts - these are text-heavy so what I’ve done is I’ve put a little bit of blue text in where I want to draw your attention to key points.
So let me first turn to Ruby Rich. For those of you who are not familiar with her she was a feminist and organiser and activist. She had been Vice President of the Feminist Club of New South Wales, President of the Australian Federation of Women Voters, Founder and later President of the League of Women Voters of New South Wales among others. She represented the Australian Federation of Women Voters at the Women’s Nationality Assembly at The Hague in 1931 and she sat on various committees and she was deeply involved in the peace movements of the League of Nations, an international alliance of women. This was an impressive level of national and international engagement.
She was a feminist activist. She was also an archival activist. She’d collected her papers and press cuttings about other women and she petitioned women to deposit their papers in places like the NLA and I’ll come to that a little more later.
Between 1975 and ’76 she recorded a series of interviews with Hazel de Berg for the NLA. Now while you can listen to the recordings you can also turn to her draft transcript. I mean that which was sent to her to amend before the final was published. There are therefore handwritten notations which really personalise the text itself. It’s here that we can piece together from later and earlier recordings from her responses, her ponderings, her musings about how she understood herself as a memorykeeper and please keep that phrase, piece together, in mind because we’ll come back to that a little bit later.
Later in the series for example Rich articulated what she thought was de Berg’s question and then she responded. I want to answer your question, your question I take it to be, why am I associated with all this? What has impelled me to make that collection of great women? What impelled me to run around the world not always at my comfort and ease and pleasure but always with a feeling of doing my duty, what impelled me? I’ll tell you, I was always brought up to think that we have not paid our debt to the past unless we leave the future indebted to us. Will you remember it? She said. We have not paid our debt to the past unless we leave the future indebted to us.
She had an acute understanding of the relationship between past and future, between giving and taking. Earlier in the series she’d begun an interview with I am Ruby Rich, I feel very happy to be talking to those who will come after me. I have so many things I’d like to say to them, not by way of a lecture, not by way of trying to show how wonderful we’ve been in this age but rather to be a record of history that I have privilege to live through, just a little touch of history and I should say here that Ruby Rich was born in 1888 and died in 1988 so her little bit of history is rather more expansive than she says here.
At another stage she elaborated more on her motivations for leaving an historical record. I hope it will all come over very clearly because I have a lot to say and some of the things I will say could not be said by anyone else. There is a reason. I was at the birth of very many organisations, some still exist, some have just gone out of existence and it’s because I was always holding a position, and here in these bits I'm putting in her notations in grey. Because I was always holding a position, I think that’s true to say, an officer of each one of those organisations, I always knew a little of what happened behind the scenes as well as that which came to public knowledge.
Therefore many of my friends have said to me let us have a record, we want to know how it all began. Did you have a fight? Did you have to struggle? Were people sympathetic? Did they oppose you? All such questions came up and are still being put to me so I’m now really determined in a very nice spirit to do my best to bring up memories of the past, to tell the facts, to say how I remembered the things that did take place, the feelings that were evident in regard to the things we were trying to do, not only in regard to the subject about which I'm going to begin my talk today but also in many other subjects.
Rich told de Berg, people forget that we have great women. I have a drawer full of famous women I have met and have many Australians in that drawer. I feel they are very often forgotten.
Now she was both literal and metaphorical. So here’s for instance her literal. She did collect cuttings and newspapers, anything and you’ll see that but she also – that went through her whole existence of all of her activisms and you’ll see by her – I loved looking at her self-archival notations. These are photographs of women involved in women’s organisations and then she’s got notations about how she wants people to be remembered.
So she was literal, she physically kept recordings but she was metaphorical in that she also held their memory and advocated for their visibility.
She declared yet again at another time in the interviews that she wanted to talk on the great women that I’d been privileged to meet, to know and in some instances privileged to work with. She did, she talked about people like Viola Smith and Linda Littlejohn and Jessie Street who she said really deserve a chapter on their own, each one. Each one had very much to give and I find her envisioning each woman’s life as a chapter of Australian women’s history, a very evocative way of imagining Australia’s feminist history.
Now she spoke about – and she preserved the cuttings on doings and so many more.
Regarding talking about the late Viola Smith here who had been women’s lawyer and representative at the United Nations, Rich returned to feelings. She said to de Berg, I hope you’re feeling Viola’s presence, I want you to feel her presence.
Rich articulated her imagined archive. This was a series of interconnected pasts brought back to life, as it were. These women and their histories were to be felt, she was to be the conduit for that feeling. Through telling her stories and those of her peers and then of course directing her listeners about how they should receive those stories, directing them about how they should emotionally respond to the memories that she was raising, Rich conflated two forms of activism, her activist work in the past with her memory activism in the present.
Like so many other feminist commentators Rich was aware that women were being forgotten at the very time that they were making history. So for example in 1902 Australian suffragist Rose Scott told the male politicians who were gathered before her at the time that their names would, she said, not only live on in the history of Australia but in the world where the names of the women who campaigned for the vote would be forgotten.
In Ireland over 40 years later republican suffragist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington wrote, and this was in the final years of her life, many of my comrades have gone, some have fallen out. Much of the toil and passion of the years will never be told or it’ll be lost in old newspaper files or dusty museums. Worse still, this is the nightmare, tthe successful politicians at home or patronising visitors from abroad will write us up and distort the facts. It has already been done. Not that I’m without prejudice, on the contrary, but at least it’s up to me to leave a personal record of a life that has been chequered but which has had its moments.
It was, as Sheehy-Skeffington asserted, up to her to leave a record of her life, her activism as well as that of her peers and as we’ve just heard this was also what Rich believed in.
So this is where the NLA features heavily in our story today and by the NLA I don’t mean simply that this is where we are and this is where Ruby Rich’s recordings were kept but the building itself, the dream of the library.
In March 1961 National Librarian Harold White wrote to Ruby Rich about his intentions for a Women’s Collection in the newly envisioned National Library which was to be established via the National Library Act of 1960 and this is a great photo of Bessie Rischbieth with Ruby Rich and Harold White here.
I am deeply conscious, he wrote, of the important part which women have played in human affairs and in the development of our own country in all its aspects, a part of which I feel has not yet been adequately recognised in any form. He wanted, he said, to make a really serious attempt to document the achievements of women. His letter made it clear, however, that he couldn’t secure manuscript and pictorial records without the direct participation of women such as herself.
The adequate development of such a collection must depend on the sympathetic understanding and support of the women themselves and this can only arise from amongst them, he said. Anything which you or others with a similar understanding may be able to do will be welcomed.
He then proceeded to advise Rich on her approach to her honorary role as collector of women’s materials. It may be necessary in some cases, he said, to allay the fears, the natural fears of those who may feel that by depositing manuscripts they may be revealing to the general public the story of other people before this could be properly due. Such fears could be allayed, he wrote, by assuring potential donors that they could dictate the conditions of access.
There are two main points that I want to make here. White was attempting to construct on the run, as it were and in negotiation with Rich, a women’s collection process which reminds us that it wasn’t common practice for memory institutions and certainly not national ones to prioritise collecting women’s papers.
Secondly, Rich with a friend, perhaps much better known, Bessie Rischbieth, had tasked herself with collecting news stories about women and then petitioning women to donate their papers to archives and now here she was also tasked with collecting on behalf of the pending NLA. Even more than that she was helping to construct what I’m terming an emotional collection methodology, one which paid attention to emotions like fear or anxiety or sympathy, a methodology which White thought would help her to succeed in her collection activities. She did this unpaid as so much women’s memory work still is as many of you in the audience are very much aware.
Now Bessie – I assume that many of you will know that Bessie Rischbieth’s papers, that of the suffrage movement, particularly the British suffrage movement as well as Australian aspects have been digitised which is fantastic for getting feminist projects in our high school. It’s project era. But I want to focus a little bit more on the lesser known Rich although this will invariably draw on her dear friend, Rischie.
So how did women like Rich and Rischbieth envision the future of their papers, the expansive archives of feminist documents that they were both endeavouring to construct? Well as the editor of the Dawn newsletter which was the organ of the Women’s Services Guild of WA, the League of Women Voters. In a brief section entitled Dream Library Takes Place – this was the April/May 1966 issue – Rischbieth noted that Rich and herself had been invited to the unveiling of the National Library of Australia foundation stone.
From time to time over past years Ms Rich and I have had conferences with the Director, Mr Harold Write, Rischbieth wrote, and we are pleased to report that a portion is to be set aside for the archives covering the contribution of Australian women to Australia’s development.
It wasn’t without some feeling of pride, immense pride that Ruby Rich noted in her later interviews with de Berg that her papers were going to, she said, the National Library in Canberra so anything you want to see a little later on well they’ll be there, she said, for you to look at.
Then thinking of her colleagues who deserved remembering she told de Berg I want to be sure that in 50 years, maybe even more, you’ll be visiting our National Library in Canberra and you’ll say well I’ve got an hour to spare, I’ll go in and see if I can get hold of some literature on - and she mentioned in particular the Racial Hygiene Association and I’ll spend an hour with those courageous people. She followed this with I address these words and they go down in print and I hope they’ll be remembered, hope, memory, inspiration, intergenerational transmission of knowledge, all of it was here.
However if we are to return to the previously mentioned April/May 1966 issue of the Dawn, the one where with the Dream Library article then we can see troubling signs already brewing. On the back of that issue found in Ruby Rich’s papers I found this pencil scribble set of words and I’m not sure if you can make it out from there but it says the future of our past, use this in reference to lack of records on women’s history.
We've been trying to figure out whether she wrote it at the time or wrote it later when she was putting her papers together. Her writing is a lot less shaky than it is later so perhaps she did write it at the time.
In and on this one stapled paper document we find a conflicting history of dreams and emotions. From the rational optimism of Rischbieth’s report that a section of the newly built library would be dedicated to women’s history to Rich’s more ambivalent notation, [what will I mean] 25:22 – well at the same time that Rich was radically imagining the future of hers and other women’s struggles and achievements, the future of our past. She was also observing a distressing phenomenon, the lack of records on women’s history.
So where did Rich, Rischbieth and White go from here? It’s here I want to stop for just a moment to think about the nature of women’s archives so brings me back to this word, piecing. To piece together the story of Rich’s dreams, its inception, her feelings about it, archivist decision-making, different generational reactions to this archival dream, it required constructing and tracing in a weblike fashion the connections existing between different boxes and here I mean individual boxes, those of Rich, Rischbieth, McConnell, Arlene Greenwood, Liz Reid but also organisational papers such as the Australian Federation of Women Voters and the National Council of Women of Australia.
Organisational papers were found in manilla folders in personal boxes and personal letters were found in organisational archives. Each were incomplete. There was no secretary collecting, collating, cataloguing, ordering, describing women’s papers, individual or organisational. However through following correspondence finished in one box but traced by another, many with reports and petitions and statistics attached, I could thread together this very rich tapestry of women’s aspirations and labours for a central archive devoted to Australian women’s history. My fellowship enabled me the time and resources to do this. This would be a very frustrating endeavour had I not had three months – yes, albeit spread over nearly two years – in order to be able to follow these rich threads.
So what this taught me then was that Rich and Rischbieth’s imagined feminist archive, one that pre-dated White’s callout, his reach out to them, was very different to White’s, the idea of a devoted women’s section of the NLA was disappearing or was ephemeral at least or was it even promised in the first place? The chasm between their conceptions and White’s was an intensely emotional one, at least on the side of the women. So when a folder dated 1959 to ’67 in the papers of the Australian Federation of Women Voters there’s a draft of an undated and unsigned letter obviously intended for the NLA on behalf of herself, Ruby Rich and her friend.
Not only has this life been particularly hectic for me since then but I wanted to take time to refer to the great hope held by Mrs Rischbieth and myself and many others regarding the housing of books, manuscripts etc on women’s achievements. For many reasons we feel that it is essential that there be established in the National Library and then she scribbled out the and put our National Library, a specific women’s section because the emancipation of women is in fact a specific step in human evolution which in the various directions has been initiated by women themselves. This fact, which is vital for the inspiration and the encouragement of present and future generations of women, would be lost sight of if materials relating to the women’s emancipation were to be embodied in a general section. Here yes, she has these idealistic and emotional aspirations but she has a very practical outcome, she wants them gathered together so that they can be discoverable. Therefore, she said, we would be relieved to know as soon as possible if it’s decided to establish a specific section in the Library.
It was becoming apparent to campaigners like Rischbieth and Rich that their original wish, their belief even that there was to be a separate room or separate section devoted to women’s history in the newly built library was dwindling.
Given the depth of the emotional and physical labour that they put into this crusade, and it was a crusade to establish a women’s repository, it’s not surprising that they reacted emotionally when their imagined archival futures were not brought to fruition.
I want to give you a brief insight into the rollercoaster nature of Rich’s emotional reactions in particular as she dedicated herself to the role of feminist archival activist. This is very blurry but I really wanted to have her words sitting there rather than just me reiterating them.
In August 1966 when the decision about whether or not to establish a separate section in the Library still hung in the balance, in a letter to dear Rischie, Rich sounded desperate, a little anguished, leading to her issuing an ultimatum which she didn’t stick to.
I shall continue to work for the National Library if we have a women’s separate section, not otherwise. I shall then work for the Fawcett Library or the Amsterdam Archives. There must be places that will perpetuate in a big way the women’s revolution as documented in publicity material, books and poems etc, etc.
Just two days later she wrote to her friend and fellow campaigner again and this time she said she was planning to retire from all her organisations in 1968. The one thing she remained dedicated to was the women’s library. If the women’s library section is decided upon in the affirmative I might choose that as my one and only hobby until my ticket of departure is given me. Another word hobby drawing attention to her collecting efforts, lack of professional recognition, of course.
Then again in 1968 she expressed hope in a letter to Elizabeth Long, and Elizabeth was the Chairman of the Lady Aberdeen Women’s Library and member of the National Council of Women of Canada. After explaining that it seemed that there was going to be no women’s room after all she said I retain the hope of establishing somewhere and somehow a library entirely devoted to the social revolution brought about by the development of women since the time of [Miriam Woolston-Crest] 30:57. So Rich here is exposing herself as a revolutionary memory or archival activist.
Now the labour was voluntary, it was unpaid. More than that, and as seen here in these two pieces of Bessie Rischbieth’s documents, it was at considerable cost to the women themselves both in terms of time but also financially. For example here in this Commonwealth National Library one on the far left we have Rischbieth’s pleas for funds for secretarial support as she collects archival materials and writes up her history. This is from Harold White who says well we don’t have any funds and I can’t even think where you can go to get some – this was in 1956 so she’s early collecting for the newly envisioned library but what he suggests is that she brings all her materials to the National Library and she works from there so that staff at the Library can help her.
Then here we have a portion of her will which directs funds for she says sorting, packing and transporting her materials to the NLA and that these funds were to be taken out of her estate. The dream unrealised as it was by Rischbieth and Rich’s generation was not a fleeting one, indeed it was intergenerational. So while digging through Rich’s papers I found one from Liz Reid to Rich in 1974 asking her for a history of the women’s library and I loosely describe it as kind of women’s library movement and so that brought me to Reid’s papers.
As previously mentioned 1975 was International Women’s Year, the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appointed Liz Reid as Special Adviser, Women’s Affairs and Activities associated with the International Women’s Year. In that role she convened the Australian National Advisory Committee for International Women’s Year and there’s just some fantastic material imagery that is retained in Liz Reid’s collections.
The National Advisory Committee or the NAC called for submissions for funding from individuals and organisations across Australia and one suggestion which was repeated across submissions from various women’s groups was for a central repository for women’s papers. In response to submissions received Reid had proposed the establishment of a women’s resource centre and she wanted that to be in Canberra.
Now as you can imagine this was much more in line with Ruby Rich’s envisioned archival future and that White for example had held. The Department of the Special Minister of State which was responsible for the International Women’s Year Committee met to discuss the viability of Reid’s proposed women’s resource centre.
The record noted that Departmental views about the proposed – sorry, she attached a record of that meeting to her letter to Rich so this is from Reid to Rich. The record noted that Departmental views about the proposed women’s centre were largely negative including statements such as discrimination for women should be avoided as well as discrimination against women and it was likely that the centre would be supported, utilised by and serve the privileged few and do little for the average woman in the home which I think was the point, that she wanted to get women out of the home and into this centre.
Then also Jean Whyte, representative of the National Library, opposed the move to establish a women’s resource centre on the grounds that the NLA was already building, she said, a comprehensive collection of manuscripts and papers belonging to women’s groups and that this just needed to be communicated to the public much more clearly. We have always recognised women as people, she said, hence their incorporation into mainstream archives.
Now as you will gather from this record, Reid wrote to Rich, the concept of and the need for a women’s resource centre was just not grasped. She then asked Rich to again provide her with a history of the idea of a dedicated women’s library, a resource centre in Australia which she said would help her to, quote, continue the fight which you and others have started, and again this is real intergenerational connections and exchanges.
Here Reid was feeding directly into that key aspiration of Rich, was to ensure the intergenerational transmission of knowledge, ensuring continuity in the women’s movement. It has often been said for example that each feminist movement starts again as if it has had no precedence such as the difficulty of ensuring the knowledge of past movements that it is preserved and communicated through generations.
So Rich obliged. In January 1975 she wrote to Reid explaining that the idea of a women’s library or section stemmed from a resolution that was carried at the 12th Congress of the International Alliance of Women in Istanbul in 1935 which she had attended and which successfully petitioned the League of Nations to devote a section of its library to the women’s movement. She confirmed that she and Bessie Rischbieth had proposed the idea to Harold White as early as the 1950s. To that aim she had worked to collect materials related to women’s activism from across Australia but also every time she travelled overseas and she also gave directives to White to send somebody, an interviewer, to somewhere in London to record somebody who knew something about Australian activism etc so she wasn’t backward in coming forward about what she thought White should do.
However, she wrote, to the great surprise and disappointment of the late Ms Rischbieth and myself, we were informed that the plan for a special women’s section at the NLA was not to be fulfilled. Sad to think, she continued, that just when a new library was being built this opportunity to emphasise what women had done for national development was being passed over.
The result was a prevailing fear, as Rich expressed it, that materials detailing the history of women would be, she said, irrevocably lost unless, she said, something was done about it.
Now Reid pushed ahead with the idea of the women’s centre. A May 1975 NAC report stated that the NAC felt strongly that a national women’s resource and documentation centre was perhaps the highest priority for International Women’s Year. More explicitly in a meeting to discuss the provision of a women’s documentation and resource centre on the 3rd of June in 1975, and it was held at the National Capital Development Commission, Reid had said that she wanted a resource centre established, furnished with women’s materials so that school curriculums could be informed.
Three hundred libraries, she said, had already been contacted in an attempt to centralise women’s resources. Even at this early date we are, she said, confronted with people holding material which they are anxious to give to an appropriate institution. Her solution was to establish temporary repositories until such a time when and if such an institution would be established.
This is a rather long bit but I’ll just summarise for you. Later again in August 1975 she wrote about her conception of a women’s resource centre again. Without these sources Australian social history will be incomplete and the greater the time which elapses with no effort being made to seek them out the more likely it is that they will be irrevocably lost. Here of course she’s mirroring directly Rich’s words.
This next slide is just further evidence of how Reid imagined the materials she wanted to collect and how she wanted greater accessibility. Again without these she said that the social history would be irrevocably lost.
So in 1975 – sorry I’ve jumped ahead a little bit – in 1975 at least the resource centre was not to be. Whatever else intervened to oppose the women’s resource centre, public opinion, media sensationalism over Reid as an unconventional adviser, well after pressure Reid resigned in October 1975 and Whitlam was dismissed in November.
There was a last hurrah as such but before getting to that I want to give a sense of the other things in women’s papers. Now I want to emphasise here that this next section is not like a sideline project, this is part of our archival archivist’s story and it’s one that I wish I had more time to really go into today but I do want to give you a sense of some of the things that women kept in their boxes so you can see how diverse some of their holdings were.
This one was one of my favourite. In the National Council of Women of Australia they collected the United States Branch newsletter which is called – they’re celebrating their 75th anniversary and they call it From Suffragettes to Astronets and the whole point was, they said, in 2013 there’ll be so many astronets and women in space that that’ll be a revolutionary movement. By the way on the serious side they were very worried that the space race was going to take off and then – so it was going to become a battleground for international peace activism. But I do like the bit that they said that they thought that the 125th anniversary conference could be held on a space satellite. So again this is reimagining futures that I didn’t think I would find in this archive.
Rischbieth definitely kept an eye – this is in 1966 – so she keeps in her folder any invitation she gets anything to do with the National Library, there’s a real sense of pride in all of this. She keeps the brochures intact.
In 1972 a few years later then the Australian Federation of Women Voters were also keeping their eye on developments on the National Library so they were collecting and documenting the development.
So again just to really give a sense that this appears on their papers time and time again, whether individual or organisational.
Alice Henry who I don’t have time to talk about but I wanted you to see the mass Australian press cutting agency usage that she did in order to amass collections and reports on women. I know that at times National Library and others, when they’ve had the funds or time they’ve hired librarians to cut out press cuttings and to store these, these women were doing this simultaneously.
Then there’s Ruby Rich’s scrapbooks and I have this particular fondness for looking at these scrapbooks, the juxtaposition of the childlike covers of where she kept so many of her more important ephemera, her articles, articles about her, articles about other peers but also all of these beautiful handwritten notations which give us some idea to contextualise around the press cuttings that she’s collecting.
But also she wasn’t – well I mean she wasn’t shy about collecting her material, this was part of her story. Especially as she turned 90 there was a proliferation of articles that would interview her. You have the lady as a maverick or Ruby Rich at 90 looks forward, again this temporality of backwards and forwards. Women, get out of your homes and work. She’s still telling people what to do at this stage.
Then of course there’s the notion of legacy and legend, legend in her own time. Always phenomenal because as an Irish historian coming to Australia but have written a book on Australian women’s papers I didn’t know Ruby Rich and so here I am being astounded by what I'm finding. She was acknowledged as a legacy in her own time so why do we not know enough about her?
I think this is Joyce McConnell’s and I do believe she might have stolen it from her daughter because it looks like it’s a high school one with all the little notations written on it. But I wanted you to see the layer upon layer of what was collected, whether it’s nuclear disarmament to entry permits to Darwin to women’s issues and so on and these are all collated and lovingly restored. Then of course stuff on Reid in here.
This is from the Schlesinger Library up in Harvard and you have to be onsite to be able to access it but I wanted you to see. I know we’re all in the digitisation moment and we know that we want greater access and accessibility and in many ways this democratises knowledge and spread of knowledge because we can get access to it if we can. But the flatness of the digital process here is I think really apparent when it comes to the women’s collections and as an historian of emotions then I find that these do not convey what it was that I wanted to get out of other papers.
But this shows also that in 1974 the British TV show Shoulder to Shoulder produced a 50-page introduction to its TV show, something I’ve never seen in recent decades about a feminist TV show. We’ve had the movie Suffragette and all the contention that came out around it but certainly not this kind of ephemera that we could keep. Then I saw this in Ruby Rich’s and I’m like yeah, that’s okay, it seems like a generational thing, that’s okay. Then two days ago I saw the same thing and Liz Reid’s so I’m like I thought Liz Reid was a bit cooler, that she wouldn’t have collected this but it shows again the connections across their papers.
I didn’t put this up for Farrah Fawcett, what I did put it up for is if you look you can see very clearly up in the right-hand side it says page 94. Oh broke my heart. There’s a wee tiny bit about Ruby Rich on page 94 and this again is her archiving her own publicity and her own movement.
But she also collected educational documentations so she bought – and these were Jackdaw series that came out, Women in Revolt or more on the history of democracy and the vote and so on and this was just – when these were coming out, these little track source collections and so on so she’s championing feminist education, she’s very much aware of it.
Reid and Reid’s boxes, of course she’s keeping an eye on everything that’s going on, the publicity around it in National Women’s Year but she’s definitely keeping an eye on Germaine Greer and she’s facing a lot of competition on this. So you find this torn out piece of a magazine with Greer’s disgust over the fashionableness of feminism in the west and you can see why Reid who was having an uphill battle at this time is starting to collect all of this.
These were in Joyce McConnell’s so she was keeping an eye on everything as well. Ms Greer is not Germaine and so this was one where a Nigerian delegate accused her of more – what does she say? Intellectual imperialism. She said we don’t need any more great white hopes so Germaine, can you go away? So there was all of this.
But then there’s one on the side which really records Reid and the Australian delegation as being at the very forefront of contention at International Women’s Year conference because it’s here that Reid is saying she wants the World Action Plan altered and she wants things like to divorce women’s achievements from national [gold] 45:51 including reproduction and happy families and so the contention that arises from that is the so-called third [world] 45:57 versus west and Reid really wanted to champion an overlay of western feminism over developing practicalities and so she caused a stir.
But of course in among all these boxes there’s ephemera from United Nations, the International Women’s Year badges that were kept by Joyce McConnell and here you have the suffrage song and this is Ruby Rich, it’s a picture of her dressed up and at a big commemoration. These little black ribbons, they put all over them and I can’t see if you can see the picture clearly but she’s trying these black ribbons and that was the suffragette prisoners who would put those over their uniforms when they were imprisoned to show that they were POWs rather than ordinary decent criminals and so on. But what you have here is layering and layering of generational activists from suffrage right through to the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond.
So to bring my talk to a close, the last hurrah, I'm going to bring you to the 1980s. I’m going to bring you, I’m sorry, to the dream. Actually I’m not sorry, my job is to show you how the dream ended. The dream was not forgotten however.
In July 1983 former New South Wales Mitchell Librarian and feminist activist Jane Arnot wrote to Harrison Bryan who was now the Director General of the NLA so you can imagine what story I’m going to revisit.
Attaching a copy of Harold White’s 1961 letter to Ruby Rich, and here we have crossovers between collections, this letter has been kept for 20 years, she reminded Bryan of the NLA’s aspirations to build a distinctive collection of women’s papers. If the NLA were to establish a separate collection for women they would be following, she said, the precedent of libraries such as the Fawcett Library in London and the International Archives for the Women’s Movement in Amsterdam. So here she’s talking about things that I don’t have time to go into right now but mass concerted efforts from the 1930s right through to the 2010s to organise international archives but also to keep those archives from precarity, to keep them being funded.
Now referring to herself and to Rich she says – and this is the quote I have up there – we are two old campaigners and I am sure many others who have been active in women’s affairs feel that it is essential for the purpose of research that the existence and location of records relating to the women’s movement in this country should be known and accessible.
These are great photographs – and at the time Ruby’s in her 90s and she’s been asked about bra burning and all of this and so it’s all of this generational and intergenerational and so these were just some photos of her that were based – that she kept but the articles were based on – there’s quite a few articles on her and Arnot.
So Bryon wrote back to Arnot confirming that along with Bessie Rischbieth, Rich had indeed approached the Library as early as 1953. The proposal has subsequently been put to the Library from time to time since then, he wrote, over the years my predecessors have given careful consideration to it. They have formed the view, and it is a view that I share, that the very separation and segregation of research collections assembled by women, documenting the activities and the history of women in this country from other collections would tend to diminish the research value. We believe that integrating these collections with complementary materials has indeed enhanced the research interest. The Library, he said, had continued to honour Harold White’s commitment by continuing to give, he said, strong emphasis to the activities of women. I hope I will not disappoint you too much if I say now, Bryan continued, that I believe we should not deviate from our present and historic practice with respect to women however you have my firm undertaking that we shall continue to devote considerable energy and initiative to developing these collections.
Now in a letter to Rich - this was going back just a little bit in 1976, Principal Librarian of Australian Reference, Graeme T Powell, here at the NLA explained that the Library would be honoured if Rich were to decide to place her papers there. He explained what papers were, they were letters, diaries, research notes, lectures, manuscripts, cutting books, photographs and the like, materials, he said being unique is obvious value to biographers, historians and research workers. As you know, he continued, the Library holds the records of several women’s organisations and he lists some of them and also individuals like Rischbieth and Goldstein and Ivy Burkes and they’ve been studied by a number of historians in recent years. In view of your long outstanding service with many organisations your papers would be of great interest to researchers and so he asked could he send a librarian to her to explain more?
However disappointed Rich was by the specific nature of the storage and display of women’s histories Ruby Rich like Bessie Rischbieth before her donated her papers to the NLA. In our files there’s this fabulous photograph of her in the NLA’s Fay Smith who as Rich wrote on the back of the photograph entitled Me and My Papers, My Sorter and Placer of Papers.
Rich’s efforts by the way to correct misrepresentations of women’s history didn’t stop here, she even extended it to contextualising visual representations because she wrote at the back, and you can see it here, of Smith in the photograph, she is better looking by far than she is in this photograph and that was January 1981.
So by way of some very brief concluding thoughts. Maryanne Dever wrote in 2017 that when considering the place of archives in current feminist research it is important to remember that futures and often uncertain ones at that have been essential historically to the conceptual underpinnings of the archive as they have to the emergence and unfolding of feminism’s intellectual and political projects. The value of archives is not bound in any idea of the past, rather it is to be found in their productivity and their potential.
Relying on Derrida’s theorising Dever continued if we want to know what a feminist archive is, what feminist archiving looks like or what archival tools and theoretical dispositions feminist researchers might require then we will only know in times to come.
Throughout the 20th century women like Rich, Rischbieth, Reid were imagining women’s archival futures that archivists at the time were not. Importantly they fought for archives that would record their histories in such a way that would do honour to the struggles and the achievements of themselves and their peers but even more importantly what comes through again in this weblike fashion as we trace desires and aspirations, emotional reactions across their personal and political papers is that they wanted their archives to be easily discoverable, they wanted the contributions of women specifically to national and global development to be understood apart from and away from men’s, from masculinised narratives which had dominated the public memory culture.
But they also wanted future generations to access, know about and build on their histories, a kind of uninterrupted feminist trajectory. Had they been successful each successive wave of feminism would not have believed itself to be the first of its kind and feel that they were beginning a new and unprecedented uphill struggle.
In January 1974 Irene Greenwood welcomed Liz Reid to far away WA with the words that Bessie Rischbieth would have been proud of Reid’s achievements as these mirrored her own unrealised aspirations for women. Intergenerational knowledge, goals, connections were highlighted.
The archives that Greenwood, Rischbieth, Rich and now Reid imagined and fought for, these were intended to record the past and in doing so would fulfil the fierce game of inspiring future generations of feminists to keep on making a difference. However what Greenwood had said back in 1974, and you can see it here at the bottom of her quote, and what Sarah Ahmed continues to articulate for feminist killjoy work is sure, we’ve come a long way, baby, but there is still a long way to go. I think I’ll leave it there, thank you very much for listening.
E: Just a quick thank you to Sharon, absolutely wonderful, thank you so much. As an old archivist myself, just hearing your weaving of a narrative through the papers of women of our past and our future and their search for identity through their own papers and through archives, just incredible. So before I go on too much longer any questions? I ask you to wait as we’re being recorded and for those of us with hearing problems to raise your hand and a microphone will be passed to you.
A: Hello, I’m Vera Mackie from Wollongong. I was really struck by Germaine Greer’s comments on International Women’s Year as feminism has become too fashionable because this is something we hear all the time in the 21st century too and it struck me as another way of debates which recur from decade to decade but it also struck me it’s about particular feminists or maybe each strand of feminism wants a kind of purity, they want to be purer than thou. It’s very ironic for Germaine Greer to be saying that she’s worried about feminism being fashionable because she was the most skilled user of the media in the 1970s so I just wondered if you had any comments on that.
S: Thank you, Vera. I agree and I suppose one of those flip – if we were to flip what I’m saying is that they wanted to be – they thought they were beginning anew, is that there was also a quest to have something that was quite unique about each movement each time. It’s interesting about Greer’s because for that year and Reid’s really recording it but there’s also an interview between people from all across the world that was centred in New York and Reid and Greer were both on it and you couldn’t get any more diametrically opposed comments about western feminism.
So what she’s saying is western feminism is really fashionable, everybody’s just checking in on it but she’s saying she wanted developing [world] 56:13 feminism to be their feminism that was now fashionable. As you saw with the Nigerian thing, could you go away because you’re not actually understanding? So there were real chasms that were appearing everywhere. But then of course it always has been fashionable, suffragettes fashioned themselves as feminists right through to the fashionings of individual women leaders as you know so that’s a really multilayered I think development between the fashion and –
A: Sharon, lovely to hear the accents and the country person giving this presentation. Thank you for that. These are tremendously rich collections in all sorts of ways. I’m very struck as an ex-teacher and that’s a long way back for me now, back in the ‘70s when I stopped in 1983 being an actual high school teacher, I noticed you mentioned teaching twice, high school once and curriculum second time. Back at that period some of us were making a lot of effort to get archival collections actually used by teachers, to get things out then get teachers to start thinking about how do they use not just a textbook but original archival material. I have four granddaughters and I remain a little bit depressed about the fact that actually it’s not just a question of digitisation and making it accessible, it’s a question of changing consciousness among the teaching generation as to how you actually use this stuff.
Now you as a prof at Wollongong, do you have evidence of seeing around the high schools in particular of how material like this is actually getting out there and teachers actually physically using it to change perceptions of women’s history? If you do I’d be interested in hearing it ‘cause I don’t see much evidence of it in my own granddaughters now, four of them, actually getting the message if you like.
S: Yeah. No, look, it’s a very pertinent issue. The only way I can do that without talking about my sons who’ve been dragged across the world to Seneca Falls and to the Women’s Library and to everything else. They even got their Women’s Library badge so there’s this but what happens for instance at the university that I’m at is we have things called Discovery Days which target Year 10s and then we have other days which target Year 11s and then we have Historiography Days which target Year 12s but they’re only for our state schools in the region. It depends on who is put in charge of that as to which historical material gets out and unfortunately there’s a bit of a - because the War Memorial is the most heavily funded and therefore resource-heavy then it tends to go to that and therefore universities tend to, because we're under so much pressure, cater to a narrative that allows continuity for that.
However if they come to my talk on that day which let’s say is not overflowing then they do get a bit of gender history so it’s there. I’m not really sure how much is on the – I don’t know that but I do know by the time they reach 100 levels at history then it is interwoven but I don’t know about school. What I’m happy about is if Bessie Rischbieth’s papers are the Australian Women Voters papers which are now going to be digitised then maybe publicity and reach-out to teachers will allow us to – because as you saw she was collecting little paper documentations and sources so I hope so.
A: I’ll be brief. I’ll identify Richard Reid as the last speaker too just for the sake of the tape, okay? Coming from the Film and Sound Archive, that’s obviously an important thing.
Just a quick question about continuity, one of the reasons I’m in Canberra at all is that back in the 1960s and ‘70s I was teaching kids about looking and listening to material and discovering the history not only in books and documents that are paper documents but also in other forms and trying to get them to understand those things. Discovering of course that access to earlier material is impossible for lots of reasons, the technology’s changed, there were times when things weren’t recorded but I noticed towards the end the Arnot photograph that you had with the two pictures, on the righthand side it appeared to be a picture of Mary Lee on their table which is exciting for Richard and for yourself, I’m sure, given her place of origin but that history is still emerging. It really hasn’t been consolidated as it might if you use all of the resources.
Melba was an extraordinary feminist, trying to register the colours of the women’s movement as racing colours, failing to do so. Now I know that the Library is interested in these things so I just wondered about the connections back through people like Mary Lee and right back to Adelaide Ironside in the 1850s. There are wonderful connections all the away through there.
S: Thank you, Geoff, and look, there is and in fact I was talking to Emma the other day about the collection of the march for justice rally brochure and one of the banners is a 1975 banner made in Tasmania that has suffragette stuff on it that was used in the ‘70s women’s lib stuff but that was also then used in 2020. There’s layers of history that connects but it’s interesting if it is Mary Lee. But I should also say that people like Margie Byrnes etc, there is a lot of digital and pulling in of resources that is now happening over the past at least 10 years so Margie, I don’t know if you wanted to say something about –
M: Yeah, I wanted to say two things. First of all I’m originally from South Australia although I’ve spent most of my career now over east and a women’s studies resource centre was established in 1975 and that was in Adelaide and it was very long-running and it’s largely been overlooked by the advocates for a national women’s library in the Jessie Street Library. Eventually it was very generously funded through the Education Department in South Australia and ran for many years. I’ve forgotten when it was closed but just relating that to that imperative to set up a national women’s studies resource and documentation centre, it did at least get taken up in one state and that’s an often overlooked part of that history.
The second thing I want to say and many of you know I’ve done a lot over the years to build collections of women’s papers in the libraries that I’ve worked in but I knew Jean Arnot who was the head cataloguer at the State Library of New South Wales which was probably in the triumvirate of the most important - intellectually seen as the most important positions in her time. Being the head cataloguer was how you made collections discoverable, the others obviously being Mitchell Librarian and the head of the State library itself.
I find myself wondering if Jean had lived to today how she would have – they could never have foreseen what was possible with not just digitisation ‘cause I too share some of your reservations about the flatness of the digitised object but more importantly the creation of rich online records that enable what are often judged to be things hidden in the dusty vaults to be visible and to see those overlapping networks. So I’m sorry, that’s a comment rather than a question but I don’t think women like Ms Arnot, as of course we always thought of her, would hold the same view today.
S: No, thank you and I think also one of the things that you’ve brought up there is that when I was going through the papers people were torn, women were torn as to whether or not to donate to the NLA or to their state-based libraries because of accessibility. But also the duty that they owed the region in which they had conducted their activisms and so on so that went to the rationale about where they deposited their papers as you’ll know but you’re right and whether it’s digitised or not it’s the discoverability, it’s the descriptions written around and the cataloguing, isn’t it? That will allow – but I think we can make it easier and we can make it easier on the high school students, I’m desperate to – like has anybody seen Suffragette? It’s like oh gosh, just anything so thank you, that’s wonderful.
E: I think we’re running past time so that’s all we have time for. Just an announcement for those researchers among the audience, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that applications are now open for the Library’s 2023 fellowship and scholarship programs. If you’re an experienced researcher, a PhD student, a creative writer, a creative artist or folk practitioner and you wish to use our collections to advance your projects there may be a fellowship or scholarship available and suitable for you. Applications close next Tuesday, the 26th of April  so if you’re interested please see the Library’s website for further details. For now though please join me in thanking Sharon once again for today’s fascinating presentation.
Throughout modernity, women have led movements for reform. Yet, women activists are less well remembered than their male counterparts in the historical record and collective memory. Their memory has fallen victim to patriarchal structures and a male-dominated public narrative. What is often overlooked is the immense, time-consuming and often costly project of documenting, organising and maintaining the record of women’s activism for these recovery projects to be possible.
2020 National Library of Australia Fellow, Associate Professor Sharon Crozier-de Rosa, examines the rationale, strategies and tactics that Australian women and women’s organisations employed to preserve their own histories, analysing how they acted as gatekeepers of their own memory until wider social shifts allowed that memory public visibility.
Sharon Crozier-de Rosa is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. Her research focuses on exploring the tactics and tracing the memory of women involved in intersecting nationalist and feminist campaigns across the British Empire and United States from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth-century.