Inaugural vice-president of the Women’s Service Guilds of Western Australia in 1909, Bessie Rischbieth recognised the importance of international organisations of women in pursuing a feminist agenda of social justice. The Guilds were linked to the International Council of Women after a Western Australian branch of the National Council of Women was established in 1911, but five years later disaffiliated to pursue their commitment to social reform.
When the Treaty of Versailles established the League of Nations in 1919, international feminist organisations at last had a transnational forum of governments to hear submissions for establishing standards of equity and removing laws and policies that discriminated against women. A meeting of these organistions in Paris while the Treaty was being formulated succeeded in having a clause inserted in the Covenant of the League of Nations that it would be open to men and women equally.
Unlike many other countries Australia had no national organisation to coordinate lobbying with international groups and in 1921 Bessie Rischbieth became founding president of the Australian Federation of Women’s Voters (AFWV), holding that post until 1942. Linked to the progressive International Womens Suffrage Alliance and other key bodies, the AFWV was an effective national lobby group for the life of the League of Nations. Through their lobbying of Prime Minister William Morris Hughes and other ministers to implement the equality clause in the League Covenant, they secured inclusion of a woman ‘associate delegate’ on every Australian delegation to the League of Nations general assembly, held in Geneva in September each year until the outbreak of war in 1939.
Bessie Rischbieth attended many international conferences of women’s organisations and was founding vice-president of the British Commonwealth League of Women in 1925 and led Australia’s delegation to the Pan-Pacific Women’s Conference in Honolulu in 1928. In 1935 she was appointed by the government of Joseph Lyons the woman member of Australia’s delegation to the League for the 19th general assembly in 1935. Editor of the monthly The Dawn from 1919 until it closed in 1949, Bessie Rischbieth ensured regular communication between Australian woman reformers and their international colleagues.
The League of Nations set many international standards to eliminate discrimination against women as did the International Labour Organisation with its headquarters also in Geneva. Bessie Rischbieth was among the Australian leaders of political, legal and employment reform who made a strong contribution to the international humanitarian standard-setting. Their work became a legacy of the United Nations when it was established in 1945, and of many later Australian feminist reformers.
Bessie Rischbieth died on 13 March 1967.