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Rischbieth, Bessie Mabel (1874–1967)

by Nancy Lutton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Bessie Mabel Rischbieth (1874-1967), by unknown photographer, 1938

Bessie Mabel Rischbieth (1874-1967), by unknown photographer, 1938

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an8328137

Bessie Mabel Rischbieth (1874-1967), feminist, was born on 16 October 1874 in Adelaide, eldest of six children of William Earle, teacher, farmer and mining surveyor, and his wife Jane Anna, née Carvosso. Bessie and her sister Olive lived with W. B. Rounsevell and his wife, their aunt, and Bessie attended the Misses Stanton's School, New Glenelg, and the Advanced School for Girls, Adelaide. Discussions at home, particularly about Federation, made Bessie politically aware. She married Henry Wills Rischbieth, wool merchant, at Kent Town Wesleyan Church on 22 October 1898 and next year moved to Western Australia with her husband who traded as Henry Wills & Co.

Disappointed that she was childless, Mrs Rischbieth was a founding member of the Children's Protection Society in 1906. A public outcry about high infant mortality led to the formation of a league of women voters, the Women's Service Guilds of Western Australia, on 25 March 1909; she joined and was an inaugural vice-president and president in 1915-22 and 1946-50. Through the guilds, several social institutions were established. The King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women was opened in 1916 despite controversy over the concept, which the guilds supported, that the maternity hospital admit both married and unmarried women. Free kindergartens were established from 1912 and a training college was later opened at West Perth in a building bought with funds bequeathed by Henry Rischbieth, who died in 1925.

The Girl Guides' Association in Western Australia, women's prisons, old women's homes, basic wage and family needs, equal pay for women, women police, a prisoners' aid committee and many other causes were espoused by the guilds. Mrs Rischbieth was appointed in an honorary capacity to the Children's Court in 1915, and as a justice of the peace to the Perth Court in 1920, becoming inaugural secretary to the Western Australian Women Justices' Association in 1925. For a time the guilds had been affiliated with the National Council of Women's Western Australian branch, established in 1911, but they withdrew in 1916 over policy differences. The guilds wanted to propagate ideals of social reform, while the N.C.W. was then more concerned with the war effort.

Rischbieth was the prime mover in the foundation of the Australian Federation of Women's Societies (later Voters) in 1921 and was its first president until 1942. The A.F.W.V. joined the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and, in an age when conference delegates were not paid expenses, Mrs Rischbieth attended the triennial conferences of these two bodies, both interstate and overseas, almost continuously until 1961.

The State executive of the Women's Service Guilds established a monthly journal, The Dawn, in 1919. For thirty years Mrs Rischbieth was honorary editor and director of policy and contributed many articles. From 1921 The Dawn was a joint Federal-State journal, as the A.F.W.V. also recognized the need for an outlet. From 1949 when a printed journal became too expensive, The Dawn Newsletter was issued in roneoed form, the last issue containing obituaries to Bessie Rischbieth in 1967.

She was also active in other international organizations. A co-founder of the British Commonwealth League of Women in 1925, she became foundation vice-president. She was the leader of the Australian delegation to the Pan-Pacific Women's Conference in Honolulu in 1928; indeed she had sown the seed of the idea in America during a visit four years earlier. She supported the activities of the League of Nations and persuaded the Hughes government to appoint a woman as alternate delegate to attend the assembly in Geneva in 1922, being alternate delegate herself in 1935. That year she was appointed O.B.E. She had joined the board of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in 1926 and was a life member from 1955. In 1939 she had been stranded in England because of World War II, and remained there for its duration; she worked for Australian servicemen at the Boomerang Club, Australia House.

Apart from travel overseas to conferences, she had also travelled with her husband and to suit her own interests, especially in Asian cultures. She had been a theosophist (as her uncle Rounsevell was), probably since early in the century. The women's movement in Western Australia was closely linked with theosophical thought and Rischbieth has been described as 'the most significant theosophic feminist in Australia'. She was attracted to Eastern religions and stayed once in Gandhi's ashram. She was also a co-Mason. In later years in Perth she took up environmental issues, joining the fight to prevent a swimming pool being built in King's Park and the filling-in of the Swan River to accommodate the Narrows interchange. The former was successful, the latter was not; she protested, aged 89, by wading into the river in front of the bulldozers.

Bessie Rischbieth, while strong-minded, was a beautiful woman who dressed elegantly and lived in style at Peppermint Grove. 'She could have sat on a cushion and sewed a fine seam', said her sister Olive. Indeed, she had considerable artistic talents in art embroidery, copper-beating and other crafts and exhibited with the West Australian Society of Arts. Yet the driving forces of her life were social reform and the status of women. Her belief that these had to be achieved through legislation not revolution put her at odds with other feminists, particularly Jessie Street, whom Bessie considered too left-wing. She was committed to the non-party ideal, working for reform without politicizing the issues, and was respected by leaders of all parties. As feminists became more political and aggressive, Mrs Rischbieth became isolated in her views, except among older women. Although she never stood for parliament, she worked to have women elected and was behind Edith Cowan's success as the first woman elected to an Australian parliament in 1921.

In 1964 she published March of Australian Women in Perth. It is a detailed description of her life's work, with useful appendices, but lacks any glimpse of her own character. She was a woman of forward vision and indomitable spirit, the undoubted leader in all her activities. Bessie Rischbieth died in Bethesda Hospital, Claremont, on 13 March 1967 and was cremated. Her estate was sworn for probate at about $170,000. A portrait by Daisy Rossi is at the W.S.G. headquarters in Perth.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Hunt (ed), Westralian Portraits (Perth, 1979)
  • R. Pascoe, Peppermint Grove, Western Australia's Capital Suburb (Melb, 1983)
  • J. Roe, Beyond Belief (Syd, 1986)
  • Bessie Rischbieth papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Women's Service Guilds of Western Australia records (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Citizens' Committee for the Preservation of King's Park and Swan River records (State Library of Western Australia)
  • tape recorded interviews of relatives and acquaintances (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nancy Lutton, 'Rischbieth, Bessie Mabel (1874–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rischbieth-bessie-mabel-8214/text14373, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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