Vital Suffragette Historical Archives To Become Public

But that's only if a crowdfunding campaign by the National Library is successful.

16/06/2016 12:26 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST

South Australian Bessie Rischbieth was a feminist and social activist who was fascinated by the militant actions of the British suffragettes. Australian women had already won the right to vote in 1894, two decades before Britain, and Rischbieth made several trips to London to see the UK movement gain momentum.

It wasn't long before she was swept up with the whole whirlwind of passionate speeches in packed venues and marches through the streets of London. Plus, there was the dramatic scenes of arson, hunger strikes, attacks on golf courses and private homes, as well as wide-spread vandalism and window smashing.

Between 1900 and 1914 around 1,000 British suffragettes were imprisoned because they refused to pay fines for crimes such as vandalism. Several prisoners went on hunger strikes; the British government released these women to avoid liability for any deaths. (Many of the released women were then force-fed).

In 1913, Rischbieth wrote from London to her niece in Australia , 'I do wish you could all have a peep at things over here.'

Over the years, Rischbieth made other trips to London, (right up until the 1950s), and she religiously chronicled the fight of suffragettes, keeping an enormous amount of documents, newspaper clippings, posters, photographs, pamphlets, suffrage periodicals, postcards and suffragette items.

Before she died in 1967, she donated her entire collection to the National Library of Australia.

Rischbieth wrote: 'It is my wish that they form the nucleus of a permanent history of ... Women's struggle for enfranchisement and citizen rights.'

Bessie Rischbieth

The collection is a rich and personal archive of a tireless campaigner who deeply supported the struggle of British women (prior to 1918, women were not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections.)

Historian Clare Wright is the writer and presenter of ABC documentary Utopia Girls (about how women won the vote in Australia) and the Associate Professor in history at La Trobe University. Wright told The Huffington Post Australia the Rischbieth collection is very important.

"Australia was the world leader in suffrage reform and democratic practice, so this collection represents a bridge between the Australian movement and the British movement," Wright said.

Suffragettes in a police wagon in London, 1913

"It's the British movement that gets a lot more press attention, especially in the aftermath of the movie Suffragette. But this collection shows it was a transnational movement and that the Australian campaigners for votes for women were intimately connected with the British campaign."

Now the National Library has launched a crowdfunding campaign, asking for people to donate so that the collection can be digitised.

"Sadly, the government hasn't seen this as a priority, so the National Library has to ask the public to help them fund the project," Wright said.

"Only expert academic historians who've had the resources to go to the National Library and the time to rifle through this treasure trove have been able to see it. But, when it is digitised, it means it'll be open to journalists, novelists, genealogists, TV producers; as well as increasing the visibility of this incredibly important part of Australian history."

Suffragette Louise Cullen's Holloway Prison Brooch 1908

The collection also includes personal letters from Vida Goldstein (instrumental in getting the right for women to vote in Australia), embroidered banners and cloths. There's also Letitia Withall's medal for 'valour' after she went on a hunger strike for the right to vote, as well as suffragette Louise Cullen's Holloway Prison brooch.

Louise Cullen's Holloway Prison Brooch, 1908. From the Bessie Rischbieth collection.

To make a donation to the National Library please visit this site.

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