Dear Bessie:

Dear Bessie:
A fond farewell
5 September 2017

Dear Bessie,

(I hope I can call you that; I feel I know you well. Ruby Rich affectionately calls you “Rischie”, but I wouldn’t dare!)

It has been a joy to spend so much time with your collection, and a special project to work on. You were a copious letter writer (which has become a substantial and treasured archive), so I’m responding in kind with a few words to you.

On numerous occasions, as I read through your papers, I had to pause and let the gratitude wash over me for what you and your peers achieved. You, Bessie, were a bold and strategic leader, with a vision of a more equal world. This vision drove you to persuade your peers and your political leaders towards political and social change. It is plainly evident that your work as an Australian feminist established a foundation from which subsequent feminists have been able to see further, and reach further.

You also had a bold vision for your collection. It occurred to me that in developing the “description” of your papers (an archivist’s role), I was now your advocate in achieving the vision you had for your collection. When you discussed the transfer of your papers with National Librarian Harold White, you wrote “It is my wish that they form the nucleus of a permanent history of the British Women's struggle for enfranchisement and citizen rights”. Your own collection is now fully described, and has 7600 digitised images available via the finding aid, but it is also listed amongst the Library’s similar collections in the new “Guide to manuscript collections on women's suffrage in the National Library of Australia”. While the British struggle is well developed in your collection, many Australian women are also included, and of course your own extensive personal papers that illuminate your work with the Australian Federation of Women Voters, the United Nations, and numerous causes. 

I thought you might like to know some details of what has been done to your collection over the last six months, as I and a small project team, together with our colleagues in Preservation and Digitisation have carried out the goals of the Suffrage Collection Project, made possible by the generous donors to the 2016 Tax Time Appeal – people who saw the value in your collection and wanted to see it be made more accessible.

As a way of selecting “highlights” I am unabashedly turning to a few favourite items, but also a few that stood out for other reasons.


Your copious records, notes and correspondence are a lasting testament to your tireless dedication to your fellow human beings. What have I gleaned from these letters about Bessie Mable Rischbieth? Helen Prociuk wrote to you, in response to a friendly letter from you: “[you] added a little bit of sunshine to my very low spirits” (MS 2004/8/715).

Some of your network were in aged care facilities when you were reaching out to them about collection items, and your shared correspondence showed great mutual respect, but also forms a documentary record of the lives of these women, who often recounted their activist days to you. It was not uncommon for your counterparts to see out their older years with little funds to live on and few remaining family members, and some were even carrying painful injuries from harsh treatment by law enforcement and prison officers. Even in these circumstances they did not profess any regret over their daring choices as activists to highlights wrongs and call for social change.


Letter from Letitia Withall to Bessie Rischbieth when she gave Bessie her Hunger Strike medal. MS 2004/3/37a


Your copy of the letter sent to Catherine Helen Spence, a leader of the South Australian suffrage movement, from attendees of the National Council of Women of the United States, congratulating the women of South Australia on achieving the vote in their state in 1895. South Australia was the first Australian state to grant women’s suffrage. Australian women were granted suffrage at the federal level in 1902. By contrast, the 19th Amendment to the United States constitution (granting US women the right to vote) was not ratified until 1920.

This disparity had a significant impact on you, Bessie. Much of your work in Australia was driven by the idea that Australian women had achieved the vote earlier than many international counterparts, and therefore Australian women had both a responsibility and the opportunity to impact change domestically, and to model the impact of the vote to the rest of the world. Through your involvement with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance and the United Nations, you demonstrated the power of the vote to a worldwide audience, and it is evident in your collection that your international counterparts took note. 


Letter from women of the United States congratulating women of South Australia on achieving the vote in their state. MS 2004/4/260(a)


A Bound volume of Australian feminist Vida Goldstein’s Victorian publication The Woman Voter that fill gaps in the Library’s previously digitised holdings. The Woman Voter explored feminism, pacifism, and other politics through a non-party lens. Vida was gifted this lovely bound and inscribed copy in recognition of her work as publication editor.


Bound volume of The Women Voter, 1909-1911. MS 2004/4/158


I particularly love coming across photos of you, Bessie. You had keen fashion sense; you certainly stand out in photos (and carry yourself in a way that hints at your commanding personality). I enjoyed the letters in which you describe your outfits for events to your sister Olive, and also when you discussed what British fashions you would bring back for Olive. By the way, your dress in “copper satin charmeuse, draped” sounds divine (MS 2004/1/10).  

A photo unfortunately degraded by time, (a low quality proof to begin with), but nevertheless, a gorgeous outfit can just be made out... MS 2004/5/2404

Letter from Bessie to sister Olive, including description of lovely early 20th century fashions. MS 2004/1/10


Your documented attendance as an Australian delegate at the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance 9th Congress, 1923, held in Rome, Italy - it serves as a reminder that human rights are vulnerable to politics and other forces. In 1923, Benito Mussolini pledged to the women of his nation, before the audience of international delegates, that Italian women would soon be granted suffrage (granted in a limited way in 1925). By 1928, however, women's suffrage had been revoked, and Mussolini’s facist dictatorship would reign until 1945. Italian women achieved full suffrage in that year.

Benito Mussolini presiding over the opening of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance 9th Congress, 1923. MS 2004/8/206

The Australian delegates to the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance 9th Congress, 1923, and Bessie’s caption on the back of the photo. MS 2004/8/207


 I frequently think of one of your "exhibit labels" (my very favourite item in your collection), and draw inspiration from it:

MS 2004/3/48

Thanks to the funding of the tax-time appeal, four other collections (MS 7493 – Papers of Ruby Rich; MS 1066 – Papers of Alice Henry; MS 6608 – Papers of Mary E Fullerton; MS 3341 – Papers of Lady Mary Windeyer) also had finding aids enhanced with a greater level of useful description, and are included in the Guide. MS 2683 – Papers of Jessie Street, was digitised in early 2017 courtesy of the Friends of the National Library, and with permission of the Street family, as a gift for our outgoing Director-General.

I have some more lovely news to share.

The Library will be exhibiting some of your collection in the Treasures Gallery in early 2018 to mark the centenary of British women achieving limited suffrage.  Many items in your collection were marked by you for your own “exhibit”. It is wonderful that some of these will be on display again.

In February 2017 the National Library building was lit with projected images of amazing, accomplished, strong Australian and International women (including women’s suffrage campaigners) during Canberra’s Enlighten festival.

Bessie, I mention these celebrations because I want you to see that we still value the work that you and your vast network of contemporaries, your predecessors, and your successors have done for women’s rights and equality.

Thank you for collecting this record of your own role in the women’s rights movement, and for seeking out others’ collections!

With fond regards,


Sounds like you've dealt with the collection with care and attention, Lisa. And thank you for bringing some pieces of the collection to Sydney during the fundraising period - I was ridiculously excited about it! Early advice about the Treaures Gallery exhibition dates would be great for those of us not in the ACT. Good luck with your future investigations, Kris
Wonderful! Heading for Canberra next month.
An important contribution to women’s history. Thank you Lisa Smith and the fabulous NLA!