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Ruby Sophia Rich (1888–1988)

by Audrey Tate

This article was published:

Ruby Sophia Rich (1888-1988), Jewish community leader, feminist and pianist, was born on 23 June 1888 at Walgett, New South Wales, fourth of six children of German-born Louis Rich, storekeeper, and his Melbourne-born wife Ada, neé Bebarfald.  Shortly after Ruby’s birth the family moved to Sydney, where her father became a successful businessman and was prominent in the Jewish community.

Highly intelligent but 'hot-tempered when young', Ruby had a happy childhood.  She briefly attended a local kindergarten before being educated by governesses at home at Elizabeth Bay, learning to speak French and German.  Her father was indulgent, but his attitude towards the role of women reflected the times:  'to find husbands, and to be good housekeepers and above all good cooks'.  Her mother encouraged devotion to the arts, especially music, and Ruby showed exceptional talent for the piano, studying under Josef Kretschmann.  As a child she performed to acclaim at the Sydney Town Hall.  She aspired to be a concert pianist but her father strongly disapproved.  Following arguments with Ruby, in 1905 he took her and her sister abroad and she studied the piano under Artur Schnabel in Berlin and Raoul Pugno in Paris.  In London her father permitted her to perform publicly, but only on occasions such as a command performance for royalty or in fashionable drawing rooms, which she detested.  Contact with Britain’s suffragettes became the catalyst for the awakening of her social conscience and her commitment to women’s issues and peace causes.

After a brief visit home Rich returned to London in 1911.  During World War I she joined a Voluntary Aid Detachment and spent long periods in Switzerland, where she organised concert tours for the allied forces, in which she participated as a concert pianist.  When her younger brother was wounded in France in 1917 she returned with him to Australia and, following his death and that of his wife, adopted their young son, Charles.

Rich’s meeting in 1923 with Millicent Preston-Stanley, president of the Feminist Club of New South Wales, activated her politically.  As vice-president she honed the public-speaking skills for which she became well known, both in Australia and overseas, sharing the honours of 'star speaker' with Stanley.  She campaigned for both Stanley and Jessie Street in their bids to enter parliament and, together with Stanley, joined the Universal Co-Masonic Order.  After meeting Bessie Rischbieth, Rich joined the Australian Federation of Women Voters of which she became president (1945-48) and later honorary life vice-president.  A founder in 1949 of the League of Women Voters of New South Wales, she served as president in the 1950s and was later named 'president of honour'.  She was also active in the English Speaking Union.  To her surprise she was invited by Marion Piddington to form a society to promote sex education of young women and the prevention of venereal disease, at a time when such subjects were taboo.  In 1926 Rich became the first president of the Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales, the forerunner of the Family Planning Association.  She remained passionately committed to the family planning movement.  On stepping down as president in 1966 she was made life vice-president of the State association and in 1988 the Parramatta premises of the FPA of New South Wales were named after her.

In 1929 Rich took Charles abroad to be educated.  She lived in London for several years and continued her work for the status of women, representing the Australian Federation of Women Voters at the Women’s Nationality Conference (1931) at The Hague and sitting on various committees.  Deeply involved in the peace movements of the League of Nations and the International Alliance of Women, on one occasion in Berlin she addressed three thousand people at a peace conference.  En route back to Australia in 1935 Rich attended a conference of the International Alliance of Women at Istanbul, and acted as an official observer with the League of Nations.  She then visited Palestine to meet Arab members of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.

On 7 February 1937 at the Central Synagogue, Woollahra, Sydney, Rich married Moïse Aaron Schalit (1875-1959), a Melbourne medical practitioner involved in the family planning movement.  A widower, he was an old family friend.  She continued addressing international peace meetings and women’s groups, and threw herself into Jewish affairs.  From 1936 Rich-Schalit was active in the New South Wales branch of Friends of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, and in 1971 was the first Australian to receive the Torch of Learning award from the university, for her contribution to education and culture.  She was the first president (1937-40) of the Australian Federation of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation.  In 1961 she re-formed the Australian Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, of which she became honorary life president.

During World War II Rich-Schalit helped to found the Council for Women in War Work.  She served on the human rights standing committee of the United Nations Association of Australia and was a member of the Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women’s Association of Australia, which promoted the education of Indigenous women.  She continued working well into her eighties, attending international conferences and congresses.  During International Women’s Year in 1975 she spoke in Canberra at the Women and Politics Conference, receiving a standing ovation.  'A little bird-like woman of great charm', she admitted to 'having no dress sense at all'.  During her lifetime she was involved in over fifty organisations, wrote a play and some poetry, remained 'vivacious and always great fun', and valued the affection and loyalty of family and friends.

In 1967 Rich-Schalit was appointed MBE.  She was awarded the United Nations peace medal in 1976 for, among other activities, her role on the executive of the Australian League of Nations Union, and in 1982 the Anzac peace prize for promoting international understanding.  Survived by her adopted nephew, she died at Bondi on 10 May 1988, one month short of her one-hundredth birthday, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Brasch, Australian Jews of Today, 1977
  • P. Thompson & S. Yorke (eds), Lives Obscurely Great, 1980
  • L. Cohen, Beginning with Esther, 1987
  • J. Roberts (ed), The Astor, 2003
  • Healthright, vol 7, no 3, 1988, p 10
  • H. de Berg, interview with Ruby Rich (ts, 1975-76, National Library of Australia)
  • Ruby Rich papers (National Library of Australia)
  • A463, item 1958/2995 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Ruby Rich papers (Archive of Australian Judaica, University of Sydney Library)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Audrey Tate, 'Rich, Ruby Sophia (1888–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rich-Schalit, Ruby Sophia

23 June, 1888
Walgett, New South Wales, Australia


10 May, 1988 (aged 99)
Bondi, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.