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Feminist, economist, sportswoman and pioneer.
At a time when women were more readily praised for domestic virtues than academic or professional achievement, Betty Archdale — whose papers are in the Library’s collection — brought to the conservative heartlands of Sydney a passionate belief in the importance of women’s education and their role in civic life.
In 1958, Archdale was appointed headmistress of Abbotsleigh, an exclusive girls’ school in Wahroonga on Sydney’s north shore, despite a lack of direct experience in secondary education. Then in her early 50s, and having excelled in the sporting, military and professional spheres, her personal achievements seem a natural outcome of her early upbringing, which was filled with strong female role models.
Born in London in 1907, Helen Elizabeth (Betty) Archdale was the only daughter of famed feminist Helen Archdale. In 1869, her grandmother had been one of the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ – the first group of undergraduate female students to matriculate to any British university. Betty’s godmother was the renowned suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and Betty’s earliest memories included visiting her mother at Holloway Prison when she was jailed for acting on her suffrage principles.
Betty attended her mother’s old school, St Leonard’s, in Scotland — one of the first girls’ schools to emulate exclusive boys’ schools like Eton and Harrow in fostering leadership abilities and aiming for university entry — she excelled at sport, became Head Girl and matriculated with ease. Keen to broaden her horizons, Betty chose to study at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where she gained a degree in economics and political science. On her return to England, she completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international law at London University and was called to the bar in 1937 (one of only 50 women at the time), practising at Gray’s Inn until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Betty also travelled to Australia in 1934–35, as captain of the first English women’s cricket team to tour internationally. The team selectors saw her as the perfect leader and the Australian press praised her as a fair and professional player in the wake of the acrimonious ‘Bodyline’ series. She formed enduring friendships with women she met on the tour and who she identified as ‘independent types’, like Sydney Morning Herald journalist Kath Commins, Margaret (Peg) Telfer (later Registrar of the University of Sydney), architect Barbara Peden and her sister Margaret, captain of the Australian cricket team from 1934–37.