Key 18: Admission of Women 1880


The progressive spirit in which the headmasters and their supporters agitated for the introduction of science and engineering also extended to the admission of women, firstly to sit for the matriculation exams from 1871, and then to be admitted to study at the University on equal terms with men students from March 1880. There was remarkably little opposition except to the idea of women studying Medicine, or to their participation in the governance of the University. In the following year Julia Margaret (Bella) Guerin, Lydia Harris, Mary Gaunt and Henrietta Hearn joined 342 students enrolled in Arts, Law, Medicine and Engineering. Almost half of these were studying Medicine. Guerin duly graduated as the 255th recipient of the BA in December 1883. She received an MA in 1885, and went on to a career in teaching and political activism.

Bella Halloran (nee Guerin)
Bella Halloran (nee Guerin).
[Source: University of Melbourne Archives Image Catalogue, UMA-I-1814]
Bella Guerin's graduation, 1883
Bella Guerin's graduation, 1883
[Source: Ernest Scott, A history of the University of Melbourner, MUP, 1936, opposite p. 124]

Guerin was one of a mere handful of women to take out a university degree anywhere in the world. A trickle of women graduates followed. By 1888 thirty women were attending lectures. Sustained agitation had led to their grudging admission to Medicine the previous year and the provision of separate dissection and hospital practice sessions.

Women Medical Students
Women Medical Students.
[Source: University of Melbourne Archives Image Catalogue, UMA-I-2003]

The first female medical graduates, Grace Stone and Margaret Whyte, completed their studies in 1891; in 1902 the women medical students formed their own society. Leonora Little enrolled in a Science degree in 1890 and graduated BSc in 1893.

Women Students, 1902
Women Students, 1902.
[Source: University of Melbourne Archives Image Catalogue, UMA-I-1747]
Signatures of women students, 1902
Signatures of women students, 1902.
[Source: University of Melbourne Archives Image Catalogue, UMA-I-1748]

By the end of the century 108 women held degrees in Arts, Medicine, Science and Music (the first in music being Mona Margaret McBurney in 1896), but it was not until 1903 that a woman, Grata Flos Greig, graduated LL.B. By that time, at least, women were also entitled to admission to the Bar. Not until 1913, however, did women gain the same rights and privileges to participate in University government as their fellow male graduates. By the 1920s women were a small but uncontested presence in virtually all areas of university life. In 1936 Dr Georgina Sweet, one of the earliest graduates in Science, the University's first woman associate-professor in 1920, a founder of the Victorian Women Graduates' Association in 1920 and later of Women’s College was the first woman elected to the University Council.

Science students and staff, 1894.
Science students and staff, 1894.
[Source: University of Melbourne Archives Image Catalogue, UMA-I-1500]

As early as 1888, the women students had formed their own club, the Princess Ida Club, with rooms first in the Quadrangle building and later in the Club or Union building.

Entrance to Princess Ida Clubrooms, c1910
Entrance to Princess Ida Club Rooms, c1910.
[Source: University of Melbourne Archives Image Catalogue, UMA-I-1051]
'Princesses at play'
'Princesses at play'
[Source: Ernest Scott, A history of the University of Melbourne, MUP, 1936, opposite p. 100]

A memorial window to honour Melbourne women graduates was placed in Wilson Hall in 1951, the year before it was destroyed by fire.