Bessie Guthrie

Bessie Jean Guthrie (1905-1977), designer, publisher and feminist, was born in Glebe, Sydney, on 2 July 1905, daughter of Jane Elizabeth (born Thompson) and James Buchanan Mitchell. She was reared and privately educated by her aunts, Janet Forbes Mackenzie Mitchell and Margaret Crichton Mitchell, fiercely Scottish spinster schoolteachers and lifelong companions who held firm beliefs on the education of women. 'Never iron men's shirts', said Aunt Janet.

In 1923 Bessie was accepted as an art and design student at East Sydney Technical College, specialising in industrial and modern interior design, later becoming the first woman to hold an exhibition of design art at the College. From 1928 she worked in design professionally for various companies, sold designs for modular furniture and did private consultancy as an interior designer in the controversial modernist style. During the war she became head draughtswoman at Hawker de Havilland's experimental aircraft (gliders) factory and then for the Commonwealth government in aircraft design.

Enduring interests in politics and literature led her to publishing. Her Viking Press, established in 1939, published anti-war material and poetry, mainly by women (Dorothy Auchterlonie, Elizabeth Riddell, Elizabeth Lambert, Muir Holburn, Harley Matthews), with artwork and block designs by Bessie. Wartime paper shortages by 1943 ended this pioneering venture.

In 1945 she found work with the YWCA, beginning her long involvement with young women. She was not a Christian; her interests were educational. As publicity officer she did press, radio and Cinesound News reports. Later she taught and lectured in design at East Sydney Technical College and the Workers' Educational Association. Her written and radio work focussed on design in the home, stressing not only modernist ideas of beauty and function but efficiency and the freeing of women from drudgery. She created hilariously subversive time-and- motion flowcharts on how to reduce housework to almost nothing (a goal she perfected in her own later life).

A pre-war marriage of six months was followed in June 1950 by marriage to painter Clive Guthrie, a member of the Realist Artists Group. The other two mainstays of her life were Rosaleen Norton (painter, writer and witch) and, especially, New Zealand born writer and journalist Dulcie Deamer (known as 'Queen of Bohemia') with whom Bessie shared an intimate friendship until Dulcie's death in 1971 (the year also of Clive's death).

She was drawn into a new world in the 1950s when abused and homeless children found their way to her Glebe backyard. Her knowledge and consciousness of the role of the police, welfare agencies and the state grew in time into a one-woman campaign to change the choices of young girls in trouble and in need. She wrote hundreds of letters to the press and to the Welfare Department and ran what amounted to a half-way house in her own home, 'Aunty Bessie's', where one wall was kept for girls to write messages to each other as they came and went. She had limited success: some newspaper coverage following the 1961 riots at Parramatta Girls Home, and a growing network of ex-state wards and young prostitutes woven through her everyday life.

In 1970 she discovered Women's Liberation, which provided political companions and a context for her already developed ideas on the failures of the nuclear family and the oppressiveness of the law and police; of child rape and incest leading into prostitution, poverty and homelessness among women. She joined the MeJane (Australia's first Women's Liberation paper) collective, carrying down to its offices her boxes of files. The anarchistic flair of younger feminists plus her carefully researched campaigns resulted in the ending of compulsory virginity tests in state institutions; the closure of Hay Children's Prison; closer scrutiny of welfare policies and the idea of 'exposure to moral danger'; and deepening theoretical perspectives on how women are made by patriarchy.

Bessie went on to be one of the founders of Elsie Women's Refuge, to march on every International Women's Day and to enrich the lives of all who worked with her. A life-long feminist, she identified with the principles of anarchism, hated all laws and trusted the cooperative way. Storyteller, bibliophile, sleuth, criminal, gourmet, lover of shop-ping and cafes, she embodied the spirit of the inner city at its best. Bessie died on 17 December 1977. Her funeral began with a political street meeting outside her house where women told stories of her life work. Police who did not believe it was a 'real' funeral stopped the funeral procession on Gladesville bridge. Women carried her coffin, sang her over, and honoured her spirit in a final commemoration of her life.

Sue Bellamy