Julia Margaret Guerin, known as Bella Guerin, became the first woman to graduate from a university in Australia, when she graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1883.

Wood engraving, published in 1883 in The Illustrated Australian news, of Bella Guerin.

Miss Bella Guerin, first lady graduate at the Melbourne University, IAN24/12/83/204.

She was born in 1858 in Williamstown, the child of Irish immigrants Patrick and Margaret Guerin. Her father worked in the Penal Department and later became Governor of Ballarat Gaol. After being home educated by her mother, Bella passed her matriculation examination in Latin, English, French, arithmetic, algebra, euclid and history in 1878.(1)

At that time women were still not permitted to attend the University of Melbourne, however, after changes to their policy in 1880, Bella enrolled and commenced a Bachelor of Arts in 1881. She studied Greek, Latin, deductive and inductive logic, geology and palaeontology, amongst other subjects.(2)

There were also three other women who started their degree in 1881, however Bella was the first to graduate. Her achievement was widely reported in the newspapers, the Argus reporting that ‘after receiving her degree Miss Guerin was enthusiastically cheered by those present’. She went on to obtain her Masters in 1885.

A wood engraving showing Bella graduating from the University of Melbourne in 1883.

The first lady Bachelor of Arts: conferring the degree, A/S19/12/83/224

After graduating Bella worked as a teacher, firstly at Loreto College, Ballarat where apparently she was often criticised by colleagues for being too proud of her degree.(3) Later Bella worked at the Ballarat School of Mines as Principal of Matriculation. Her contribution to the School of Mines was honoured in 1975 when a hall at the University of Ballarat was named after her. When she married in 1891, to poet Henry Halloran, she left teaching. However, shortly after the birth of her son, her husband died, leading to a return to teaching for financial necessity.

Beyond her role as a teacher she was also very active politically, as a campaigner for women’s rights and suffrage as well as being involved with the labor movement and anti-conscription campaigns during World War I. She co-authored Vida Goldstein’s 1913 senate election pamphlet and was also vice-president of the Women’s Political Association (1912-1914) and the Labor Party’s Women’s Central Organizing Committee (1918). She was, however, critical of the role of women within the Labor party, and in her 1918 speech ‘Women in the Labor Party: Poodle or Packhorse?’, she argued that women were only involved with fundraising and under-represented in policy decisions.(4)

Bella Guerin died in Adelaide on the 26 July 1923.

You can read about other notable academic women in Degrees of liberation: a short history of women in the University of Melbourne. The Library holds the records of the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party, which includes the archives of the Women’s Central Organizing Committee. We also hold many resources related to the University of Melbourne.

Written by Debra Hutchinson
Librarian, Australian History & Literature Team

Bibliography

  1. Hooper, Carole ‘The University of Melbourne’s first female students’,Victorian Historical Journal (1987), v.81, no.1, June 2010: 93-112
  2. Selleck, R.J. 2003, The shop : the University of Melbourne 1850-1939, Melbourne University Press

This article has 2 comments

  1. Great article! Today its simply impossible to imagine the social stigma she would have had to cope with. I can only imagine she had an incredible personality and force of will.

    Just a heads up “Labor Party’s Women’s Central Organizing Committee (1818)” – I’m pretty sure that’s to be 1819, since its otherwise a little before she was born.

    • Thanks for the heads up Mehmet – we’ve corrected the date to 1918.
      Cheers,
      Katie Flack, Collections Coordinator, Australian History and Literature Team

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