Women not getting credit when credit’s due? Sounds familiar. That’s why you should meet the Australian women who have helped to shape our nation’s history and improve the lives of women everywhere.

They have helped shape Australia’s feminist history, but do you know their names and stories?

But despite leaving an incredible mark on both the development of feminism in Australia and our nation, Bessie Rischbieth, Olive Zakharov and Ruby Hammond aren’t widely known household names. One ANU researcher thinks they should be – and is working hard to make sure the three trailblazers to get the attention they deserve.

Dr Michelle Staff works at the Australian Dictionary of Biography and researches feminist and women’s history.

Staff says Australia’s feminism tells another story beyond the progression towards greater rights — it also shows the narratives we having tended to highlight and the voices that were disregarded along the way.

“You might have heard of the waves framework,” she says, referring to the narrative that paints the feminist and women’s rights movement as occurring in waves, with each wave centred around particular key issues such as the right to vote.

“Most historians find that not very useful, myself included, because it is quite static,” she explains. “It picks one experience and uses that to explain when activism peaked and fell away, which is almost always based on a white, Western story. It doesn’t align with other countries, let alone Indigenous populations.”

For a better metaphor, Staff says she often returns to a definition by Cambridge scholar, Lucy Delap, who frames feminism as a “conversation with many registers”.

And there’s a lot we can learn from listening to these three important figures voices.

Bessie Rischbieth – a complicated pioneer for an internationalist feminist movement

Staff acknowledges that Bessie Rischbieth is well known among historians but, despite her importance for the development for Australian feminism, she is not commonly known. For example, she doesn’t have a full-length biography chronicling her life — a fact that Staff is looking to rectify.

After coming into activism in part through her uncle, a South Australian politician, Rischbieth got involved in social work in Perth. She was an inaugural vice-president and later president of the Women’s Service Guilds of Western Australia, a league of women voters that supported or established a number of social institutions such as free kindergartens.

Bessie Rischbieth and Ruby Rich attending the 12th Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Istanbul, Turkey, 1935. Photo: Australian Information Service. National Library of Australia digitised item

While Australia achieved federal suffrage for non-Indigenous women comparatively early in 1902, the period following this achievement didn’t see a cessation of activism. Rischbieth was key in broadening feminist focus internationally. She co-founded the British Commonwealth League in 1925 and was the leader of the Australian delegation to the first Pan-Pacific Women’s Conference in 1928.

“She’s more active from the 1920s onwards, which is often considered a lull in feminist activity [in the waves framework] but this isn’t actually true,” Staff explains.

Rischbieth saw value in learning from feminists internationally, including from non-western countries, but her engagement was complicated by what Staff terms a “white woman’s mission” to improve.

“She saw England as the old home of white Australians and felt quite connected to it, but she was frustrated by British feminists only looking insularly at themselves,” Staff says.

“She spends a few months in India and observes what Indian feminists are discussing during the anti-colonial movement. But she writes in her letters at one point that she feels sad Indian feminists don’t like the empire, though she can understand why.

“So she’s got this really interesting relationship with imperialism, because she wants to push against it, but her thinking is held back by it too.”

Staff suggests looking at Rischbieth’s life can help us unpack issues in modern feminism — especially the tendency for it to act as shorthand for white feminism and the barriers to engaging with intersectionality in meaningful ways.

Olive Zakharov – ASIO target and peace activist

Staff says she didn’t know a huge amount about Olive Zakharov before going down a rabbit hole while working at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

“A lot of people would recognise names of her contemporaries, like Susan Ryan or Margaret Reynolds, if they are into 70s and 80s politics, but not her,” Staff says.

“In some books she gets very few references,” she continues. “I don’t know if it’s because of her radical tendencies or her role within the Labor Party.”

Zakharov was a schoolteacher, counsellor and a politician. She joined the branch of the Communist Party of Australia while studying at university, leading to a file on her in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. She delayed acting on her political ambitions until her children were independent, but later was elected to the Senate in 1983. In her maiden Senate speech, she described herself as “a socialist, a unionist and a feminist”.

Zakharov was involved in anti-Vietnam war protests and peace activism, which Staff describes as “a strong through line in feminism”.

“There is a close affiliation between feminism and campaigns for peace — whether that is trying to prevent a Second World War during the interwar period, whether that’s against nuclear weapons, whether it’s against the Vietnam War,” she explains.

Staff also highlights Zakharov’s involvement in the Stop Violence Against Women campaign, where she revealed that she was a survivor of domestic violence, as indicative of her willingness to push for progressive issues that might not often be talked about publically.

“That is an interesting case where her personal experience really fed into her political agenda, which was to bring women’s topics into all the portfolios and have women’s equal rights and equal pay, front and centre,” Staff says.

Ruby Hammond – First Nations woman and leader

Ruby Hammond was an Aboriginal activist with Western Arrente, Tanganekald and Chinese heritage. She campaigned for the 1967 referendum and joined the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia, working to counter discrimination. Her advocacy and public speaking skills meant she received requests to participate in organisations such as the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee and the national advisory committee for International Women’s Year. She was the first Aboriginal person to seek election to Federal Parliament and was involved in the 1989 inaugural International Indigenous Women’s Conference.

Despite these achievements, she never called herself a feminist. Margaret Forte, Ruby Hammond’s biographer, even described her explicitly as “a people person, not a feminist”.

Staff acknowledges including her on this list may be treading the line of applying the term ‘feminist’ in an ahistorical way. But Hammond’s reluctance to call herself a feminist speaks to the broader issue of exclusions in feminist movements — and the work done to create spaces that better addressed intersectional discriminations.

“If we’re trying to understand feminism as a movement for gender equality, for women’s rights, we need to look to groups that aren’t pitching themselves as feminist, they’re pitching themselves primarily as an Indigenous rights group, for many reasons,” Staff explains.

“In terms of looking forwards, and how we need to learn, it’s quite instructive, really, to be able to understand why people organise in different ways for their activism and choose different issues as their primary focus.”

While we need to be careful imposing the word ‘feminist’ on Hammond, her feelings that her activism was better placed outside of the overwhelmingly white feminist movement does not change the important role she played in the history of feminism in Australia – particularly efforts to include the voices of Indigenous women in the conversation.

As Bessie’s, Olive’s and Ruby’s experiences show, the story of feminism is fraught and contested. But it is by including a wide range of voices into the conversation that achievements are gained, and women’s voices and histories are not silenced.

Learn more about the women shaping Australia’s history at the ANU Australian Dictionary of Biography: https://adb.anu.edu.au/

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