Bessie Rischbieth

Bessie Mabel Rischbieth (1874-1967), theosophic feminist, was born on 16 October 1874 in Adelaide, elder child of Jane Anna (born Carvoso) and William Earle. With her sister Olive, Bessie grew up at Glenelg in the home of her uncle, William Benjamin Rounsevell, a prosperous wine merchant, prominent politician and theosophist. She was educated at the Advanced School for Girls, Adelaide. On 22 October 1898 Bessie married Henry Wills Rischbieth and moved to Perth where her husband had already established Henry Wills & Co., wool and skin buyers and shipping merchants. From 1904 they lived at 'Unalla', in Peppermint Grove, Perth. The marriage was childless allowing Bessie to take an active part in social reform and she was left in a comfortable financial position on Henry's death in 1925.

Bessie was a dedicated theosophist, a member of the inner, esoteric section which concentrated on mysticism and revealed truth. Theosophy provided the direction and emphasis of her life's work: to raise the status of women; to promote an understanding of 'the child'; and to provide an environment wherein 'the inherent good in the child' could be accomplished. Theosophy linked indissolubly the idea of the child as the key to the future and the enabling power of women to liberate their spiritual qualities in motherhood. Bessie believed that humanity was on the threshold of a new era of 'reconstruction' when 'woman will claim her place in the sun in the new social order'.

The focus of her activities to 1920 was the child in Western Australia. Afterwards it was the status of women nationally and internationally. From 1906 Bessie was a member of the Children's Protection Society of Western Australia but she found a more suitable organisation for the realisation of her theosophic beliefs in the Women's Service Guild, founded on theosophic inspiration in 1909 'to support from the standpoint of women any movements to protect, defend and uplift humanity'. She was vice-president from 1909-15 and president from 1915- 20, when it was reconstituted as the Women's Service Guilds of Western Australia. She was state president in 1920-22 and again in 1946-50.

Under Bessie's leadership the Guild emphasised training of children and dissemination of knowledge of child psychology and educational theory. It sponsored the formation of the Kindergarten Union of Western Australia (1912), the Girl Guides Association (1915) and several conferences related to child development and child care, to which the foremost experts of the day were invited. She held office in both the Kindergarten Union, which she believed 'absolutely contains the spirit of the new age', and in the Guides. Mrs Rischbieth was appointed a justice of the peace (Perth Children's Court) in 1920 among the first West Australian women so appointed.

In 1921 assisted by Elizabeth Nicholls in South Australia, Bessie Rischbieth established the Australian Federation of Women's Societies (later the Australian Federation of Women Voters). The objective was to secure a significant national presence for women and an Australian voice at International congresses, notably of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. Under her presidency (1921-42) the Federation's priority concern was the status of women. It gathered information about their legal situation, publicised anomalies and discriminatory measures and lobbied for legislative reforms. The Dawn, the monthly journal of the Women's Service Guilds, which Bessie Rischbieth edited and directed throughout its lifetime (1920-47), was the medium for disseminating this information.

Bessie was elected to the board of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and helped to establish the British Commonwealth League (1926). She was a delegate to the first Pan-Pacific Women's Conference, Honolulu, in 1928 and substitute delegate to the League of Nations in 1935. Her work was recognised during her lifetime: she was appointed OBE (1935) and honorary life member of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (1955). In 1964 she published March of Australian Women. Her theosophic vision at times conflicted with the philosophy of other feminists creating upheaval, but her leadership and organisational ability which gave woman a voice in public issues made an important contribution to Australian feminism. She is still held in high regard among members of the Women's Service Guilds of Western Australia. Bessie Rischbieth died on 13 March 1967.

June Ogilvie

Westralian Portraits edited by L. Hunt 1979 pp 214-21.