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Archdale, Helen Elizabeth (Betty) (1907–2000)

by Philip Jones

In the conservative Australia of the 1950s, Betty Archdale, who has died aged 92, was a radical voice, and – just as she loved Australia – Australians loved her.

In 1946, she had become principal of Sydney university's womens' college. Describing her role there as "an administrator with an academic bias", she encouraged students who came from all sorts of backgrounds – and from Europe and the United States.

She played a similar role as headmistress of Abbotsleigh, the exclusive Sydney school for girls. The pupils, unusually for the time, were given sex education. She reformed the curriculum, introducing physics and cutting back on British, in favour of Australian, history.

Born in London, Archdale was the daughter of a suffragette and a Irish soldier in the British army. Her godmother was Emmeline Pankhurst. The memory of visiting her own mother, imprisoned in Holloway after a demonstration, was a lifelong inspiration.

Archdale was educated at Bedales school, Hampshire, St Leonard's school, St Andrews, McGill university in Montreal - where she graduated in economics and political science – and London university, where she read law. Specialising in international law, she studied in the Soviet Union but was, she said, a socialist, not a communist. She was called to the bar in 1938.

As well as a feminist, Archdale was also a cricketer, and captained the England women's first – and victorious – tour of Australia.

She served as a WRNS officer in the far east, Africa, Australia and the Pacific during the second world war. Then, in 1946, she was back in Sydney. Later, at Abbotsleigh, she won the support of hitherto conservative parents and daughters and was loved by both generations.

Archdale retired in 1970 and lived with her brother Alexander in a house they built themselves outside Sydney. She adored appearing on television and radio, and two years before her death was voted a "living national treasure".

Original publication

  • Guardian (Sydney), 16 February 2000

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Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Archdale, Helen Elizabeth (Betty) (1907–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 5 July 2020.

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