Theme Early Graduates

Written by Alison Mackinnon, The University of South Australia

In 1898, Alice Zimmern, educationalist and suffragist, wrote of women's admission to universities in Great Britain, 'it is the keystone of the arch, without which the rest of the fabric could have neither stability nor permanence' (Zimmern, 103). Feminists such as Zimmern, a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, held out great hopes for university-educated women to play an equal part in the world's affairs. Catherine Helen Spence, across the world in Adelaide, South Australia, also held high hopes for graduate women. However, Spence claimed to be disappointed in the first university-educated women in her state, referring to 'the aloofness of people with degrees and professions from the preventable evils of the world' (quoted in Theobald, 68). She made an exception for women doctors, who, she felt, had shown a sense of responsibility to those less fortunate.
Spence's judgement seems unnecessarily harsh. The first generations of university women in Australia made significant contributions to their societies, not only in relation to women and children's lives, as they had been expected to do, but in wider fields such as medicine and law.

My task is to write about the leadership of 'early women graduates'. This immediately raises interesting questions: who were the early graduates, and at what point did the category 'early women graduates' cease to apply? I have written about women in Australian universities who graduated before 1920 as early women graduates. Yet, if we consider such academic fields as engineering, technology and computer science, arguably women are still 'early graduates', the few blazing a trail for the many we hope will follow. And Indigenous student graduates, female and male, are still 'early' achievers, their small numbers signalling 'firsts' and matters for great rejoicing. Of particular note, as the first Aboriginal person to graduate from an Australian university, was Margaret Weir, who completed a Diploma in Physical Education at the University of Melbourne in 1959.

Women were admitted to Australian universities from the 1880s. In 1883, Melbourne graduate Bella Guerin (Kelly, ADB; Heywood, 'Guerin', AWR) was the first woman to take an Australian degree, a degree in arts, followed closely in 1885 by Edith Emily Dornwell, who graduated from Adelaide University in science (Mackinnon, 1997, 81). Two Sydney women, Isola Florence Thompson and Mary Elizabeth Brown, graduated from the University of Sydney later in 1885 (Theobald, 55). These young graduates were feted for their achievements, the long struggle for their admission now overlooked. Yet, their path to university admission was not as lengthy or as bitter as it had been in England, for the state-funded, secular Australian institutions were less influenced by conservative clergy and more responsive to arguments for increasing numbers. Women were eager to augment the small numbers in universities. They had been preparing in the academic girls' schools that flourished from the 1870s. Daughters of middle-class professionals, clergy, teachers and university professors were well represented. Women's enrolments steadily increased with gradual acceptance in the faculties of medicine (the first medical graduates in 1883) and law, although they had to wait until the 1950s to enter engineering. From tiny beginnings, women were 18 per cent of undergraduates by 1949, nearly 45 per cent by the 1980s and over 50 per cent in 2012. Although women undergraduates now outnumber males on Australian campuses, it is only as recently as the 1980s that women in postgraduate degrees began to approximate male numbers. In a sense, women are frequently still early graduates-the term 'early' expressing their difference, their unexpectedness in what has always been a male domain.

Were those earliest graduates leaders? Another puzzle surrounds the idea of leadership of early women graduates. Is leadership always an individual attribute? Is it the same as being a pioneer in a particular faculty or profession? Many are familiar with the few great individual women leaders of the early years of the century-in South Australia Catherine Helen Spence, Mary Lee, Helen Mayo and Roma Mitchell to name but four, and, among others, Vida Goldstein in Victoria, Rose Scott in New South Wales, and Bessie Rishbieth and Edith Cowan in Western Australia. But, can we also speak of a cohort of leaders, a group whose joint work at a particular time changed the shape of women's lives irrevocably?

I suggest that cohorts should indeed be acknowledged as leaders. We could, for instance, see all early women graduates as a cohort of leaders, although some distinction needs to be made between leaders and pioneers in a given profession. We could focus particularly on the cohort of early women graduates who became secondary school teachers. Many devoted their lives to ensuring that the next generation of girls received an education similar to that of their brothers, that they were well prepared for university entry and for the professions. In girls' private schools, in larger corporate schools and in the state education system, the earliest cohorts of women graduates, particularly those who graduated in arts and science, became teachers. Their motives were mixed. For many, particularly in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, this was a mission and they spurned other options-often marriage and children-to pursue their goals. Others became teachers through lack of other opportunities, or as an option to combine paid work with marriage and child-rearing. Graduates were keenly sought by secondary schools, both public and private, and generations of women heeded that call until the 1970s, when women's career options broadened. If one explores the careers of many well-known graduates throughout the 20th century, one will invariably find a period of school teaching. The expansion of high schools in the 1950s and 1960s brought new possibilities as departmental teaching studentships in some Australian states offered women who may not otherwise have had the opportunity a pathway into the university-with a small price to pay at the end, a few years of school teaching. Through leadership positions both as principals and senior mistresses, but also as 'rank and file' staff within schools, women opened the doors for generations of girls who were to follow. Yet, strangely, they are not often widely viewed as women leaders, except perhaps in individual school histories that acknowledge the work of some who served for decades, making a school their life's work.

Arguably, those school teachers who educated girls in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s were indeed doing what Zimmern recognised was necessary-using their education as a keystone in the arch. And they have been very successful in educating women over the century. Consider, for example, Australia's position in the recent (2011) Global Gender Gap Report (Hausmann, Tyson & Zahidi). In relation to the education of women and girls, Australia sat at number 1 position in a league table of 135 countries. That success reflects many generations of effort to educate women and girls-effort in which early and more recent women graduates played a part. We can take considerable pride in it. Yet education is not enough. Early women graduates realised that they would need to put their education to good use to ensure political empowerment, economic participation for women and influential positions in other professions, among them health and welfare.
While keeping in mind the influence of highly educated women as a group-and a group, furthermore, who founded, joined and served as leaders in many influential organisations (the Australian Federation of University Women and the National Councils of Women, for example)-the lives of a few key individuals who played a major role in various domains demonstrate the power university education brought in the struggle to challenge male dominance.


Ellen Ida Benham (Jones, ADB) exemplifies the early woman graduate as teacher. A solicitor's daughter and third of eleven children, Benham was educated at the pioneering state high school in South Australia, the Advanced School for Girls. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1892 and taught at several schools in both country South Australia and suburban Adelaide, interspersed with two periods of study abroad. On one of these sojourns, she obtained the Oxford Diploma of Education. An excellent botanist, Benham also conducted a course of lectures at the University of Adelaide. In 1912, she purchased Walford School in Adelaide, a girls' school still highly regarded in educational and social circles. Benham established a school based on the latest ideas of good educational practice and high educational standards.

In Victoria, Julia Margaret, usually known as Bella Guerin (Kelly, ADB; Heywood, 'Guerin', AWR) gained her place for posterity as Australia's first woman graduate. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1883, Guerin taught at Loreto Convent, Ballarat, and as 'lady principal' of Ballarat School of Mines university classes until marriage. A committed suffragist from the mid-1890s, Guerin returned to teaching after her husband's death. As Marjorie Theobald recounts, Bella Guerin 'lived out the worst fears of the opponents of higher education for women' (Theobald, 55). She was an independent woman, a strong suffragist, a Yarra Bank orator and, in later life, a socialist and anti-war propagandist. She put her undoubted talents to use in both suffrage and left-wing causes. Guerin might be said to represent the myriad possibilities of a higher education, which gave her a voice as teacher, suffragist and political activist. She might equally well sit under the next category: political empowerment.

Political Empowerment

Political empowerment might be defined in various ways. If one sees representation on a major international body, and contributions to major international conventions, as important, both Jessie Street (Radi, ADB; Morrell & Henningham, AWR) and Mary Cecil Tenison Woods (O'Brien, ADB; Heywood, 'Tenison Woods', AWR) certainly claim a place.

Woods (née Kitson), the first woman to graduate in law (1916) and to be admitted to the bar in South Australia, was committed to child welfare reform, in part owing to her own experience as the mother of a disabled child. A practising lawyer, legal scholar and author of influential books on law and juvenile delinquency, Woods was also a member of several advisory bodies on child welfare. From 1950 to 1958, she was chief of the Office of the Status of Women in the Human Rights Division of the United Nations. As her biographer, Anne O'Brien, points out, during this time two major conventions were adopted: the Political Rights of Women (1952) and the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women (1957).

Interestingly, both Bella Guerin and Mary Tenison Woods were educated by Catholic religious organisations, early leaders in the academic education of women and girls whose role is often insufficiently acknowledged.

Jessie Street (née Lillingston), feminist and reformer, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Sydney University in 1910. As founding president of the United Associations of Women in Sydney in 1930 and instigator of the huge women's conference that formulated the Australian Women's Charter in 1943, Street shaped Australian women's politics for decades, while managing at times to be out of step with her social class and many feminists for her Labor politics and with Labor activists for her bourgeois roots and campaigning style. She was a keen supporter of woman's economic independence, of married women's right to work, of equal pay and of the constitutional rights of Aboriginal people. She is renowned for being the only woman in the Australian delegation to the San Francisco conference, which established the United Nations organisation, and for helping to found the Status of Women Commission. Street served on that Commission from 1947 to 1948, preceding the appointment to the Office of the Status of Women of Mary Tenison Woods, whose politics were diametrically opposed to those of Street.


Medical doctors, the group that Spence was prepared to acknowledge as caring for their less fortunate sisters, were the most highly visible early graduates. Their admission not only to universities but to hospitals and dissecting rooms engendered strident opposition, and only the thought that they would mainly treat women and girls smoothed their paths in certain quarters. And care for infants, women and girls they certainly did, establishing hospitals and infant and maternal health care regimes. Several went well beyond that sphere, advising on industrial and school health and sexual relations between men and women. Medical women played a large part in women's organisations and were well represented on both the national and international stages as peace activists, campaigners against trafficking in women and children and in supporting women's political rights.
Helen Mayo (Hicks & Leopold, ADB; Land, 'Mayo', AWR), Vera Scantlebury Brown (Campbell, ADB; Heywood, 'Scantlebury Brown', AWR), Roberta Jull (Church, ADB; Heywood, 'Jull', ADB) and Ethel Osborne (Langmore, ADB; Heywood, 'Osborne', AWR) are but a few of the prominent women whose work made major changes to conditions for women and children.

In South Australia, Helen Mayo was instrumental in setting up a small clinic to advise mothers, which in 1927 became the Mothers' and Babies' Health Association, eventually serving the whole state. In 1913, Mayo and Harriet Stirling (Land, 'Stirling', AWR) opened a small hospital for babies at St Peters; in 1917, it became Mareeba Babies' Hospital. Helen Mayo and her colleagues implemented overseas developments in infant feeding and the prevention of cross-infection. Mayo had the great satisfaction of seeing infant mortality decline in South Australia.

In Western Australia, Roberta Jull also saw the reduction of infant mortality, in part owing to the development of child health centres and infant welfare reform to which she contributed throughout her life. Victoria's Vera Scantlebury Brown was another indefatigable pioneer in the fields of infant care, ante-natal advice and pre-school care. These women doctors promoted the idea of the small but 'quality' family, viewing frequent child-bearing as injurious to both mother and child. Jull wrote to her husband after the birth of her daughter, 'I feel constantly on the strain, if you want another you must get another 100 pounds a year and let me have a really competent nurse'. And, later, 'I believe in quality not quantity and as you know I doubt if one can have both' (quoted in Mackinnon, 1997, 107).

Ethel Osborne, a science graduate and wife of Melbourne University professor William Alexander Osborne, graduated Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Science from the University of Melbourne as a mother of four. A telling detail in Di Langmore's short biography of Ethel Osborne was that 'Ethel had always been a careless housekeeper', which clearly shows she had her priorities right. She also shared the final exhibition in obstetrics and gynaecology. Later, she completed a Diploma in Public Health. Osborne's long career encompassed not only medical work but industrial hygiene and working conditions.

Economic Participation

Osborne might also be considered under the category of encouraging women's economic participation. During World War 1, she worked for the Ministry of Munitions in Britain investigating industrial hygiene. As a result, she published two works: Industrial Hygiene as Applied to Munition Workers (1921) and, with H.M. Vernon, Two Contributions to the Study of Accident Causation (1922). Her subsequent investigations into industrial fatigue for the Victorian government contributed to some women gaining the 44-hour week (Langmore, ADB). Less well known than many other medical graduates, Osborne contributed to a wide range of activities and organisations and was appointed a substitute delegate to the League of Nations Assembly in 1931 and 1932.

Dorothea Pavy, née Proud, teacher, and social theorist, was a South Australian (Bourke, ADB). In 1906, she graduated with a BA from the University of Adelaide. Always interested in factory work, Dorothea travelled to New Zealand to gain direct experience in a factory. Like American author Barbara Ehrenriech many decades later, she used an assumed name and took a job as an unskilled worker standing from 8am to 4pm each day for the pay of twelve shillings and sixpence. In 1912, Proud became the first Catherine Helen Spence Scholar, a scholarship endowed to promote the study of sociology among the women of South Australia. In London, she began research on welfare work at the London School of Economics, graduating with a doctorate of science (1916). That work was published as Welfare Work: Employers' Experiments for Improving Working Conditions in Factories, a book that went into three editions. It was rousingly endorsed in a preface by David Lloyd George, then minister for munitions. The book became the standard work on the subject. When, in 1915, Seebohm Rowntree was asked by Lloyd George to organise the welfare section of the Ministry of Munitions, the first person he asked to assist him was Dr Dorothea Proud. Her work was seen as shifting the focus of welfare from philanthropy to social economics, and her book as a pioneering study of work humanisation. This was academic and intellectual leadership. She married Australian soldier and lawyer Gordon Pavy in 1917, the year she was made a CBE, then studied law in Adelaide and was admitted to the bar in 1928, continuing to pursue women's issues through the law committee of the South Australian National Council of Women (Bourke, ADB).

This brief selection of early women graduates ignores countless others who contributed in similar ways in those and other fields, particularly law. Yet, it underlines the point that higher education enabled women, as its proponents expected, to make a difference to the lives of women and children and beyond. They were not alone. Countless other women who had not been to universities fought alongside their sisters on many fronts. Yet, a degree gave early graduates a certain authority and confidence, as well as the language to take on the men whose aid they sought and whose institutions they broached and aimed to change.

A lifetime benefit was the networks women graduates formed, not only with members of their own sex. As a Melbourne law graduate of a later generation claimed: 'Being at university put me into networks of people who subsequently became very influential … so I think that's something I take for granted … wherever we go I know the chief justice or I know this one or that one or this politician, and more importantly they know me' (quoted in Mackinnon, 2010). Thus, many women graduates found that their education enhanced, or in some cases contributed to, a strong class position, one where influence could be achieved through an enhanced sense of self worth and equal standing. A generation earlier, Ethel Osborne wrote to her husband (of her desire to study medicine), 'I find in a definite position that people give you more reverence (I think I see the reverence) and certainly your opinion is more likely to have more weight. The amateur is only the amateur, the dabbler' (quoted in Mackinnon, 1997, 198).

How then shall we sum up the leadership of early women graduates, both individually and as a cohort? The concept of leadership has a history; it has changed over time, developing its vast body of literature only since the second half of the 20th century. At the turn of the 20th century, it would not have occupied the thoughts of the women discussed here; in fact, it appears to be quite anachronistic. Did they see themselves as leaders? I doubt it. Many were modest about their achievements and their post-university lives. They may have defined themselves as pioneers, as those who opened up a pathway for others to follow. Can we see pioneering as a form of leadership? I believe so. The women I have discussed were quite obviously leaders in their own right, establishing new roles, new institutions and leading the way for others. They were all involved in undertakings that challenged the status quo and envisaged a new way forward, criteria that Amanda Sinclair sees as fulfilling one definition of leadership (Sinclair, 2). They were 'doing leadership', although in a very historically specific sense. Women who entered new professions, who stepped into the public world of men, were leading by example. They were role models to the young women with whom they taught or worked. They were shaping new possibilities and modelling those possibilities to young women and girls, as well as to the men around them. They were speaking the language of the institutions with which they engaged. They gained both confidence and respect through their involvement in male-dominated institutions such as the university and the law. Universities were coded male in the strongest sense; the rationality and empiricism lauded by the 'research university' was built on a system of thought assumed to be the province of men, while women were viewed as more emotional and intuitive. To enter the university, to partake of that knowledge, challenged the very basis of the assumed gender difference.

Many women graduates also modelled new ways of living, choosing a single life of economic independence for example, or life with a female partner. They travelled widely to meet others with similar interests. They formed support groups in like-minded organisations. Within married partnerships, new patterns of companionate marriage emerged, more equal partnerships.

Modern research on leadership from the business-oriented McKinsey organisation emphasises the importance for 'centered' leaders of meaning in one's work, of 'finding your strengths and putting them to work in the service of an inspiring purpose' (Barsh, Cranston & Craske, 38ff). There is no doubt that the women who struggled to find a place in universities and the professions in their earliest years had that sense of inspiring purpose to a highly developed degree.

Leadership can be collective, as recent research is beginning to recognise (Sinclair, 3) and as second-wave feminists demonstrated. Arguably, the cohort of early women graduates demonstrated leadership in establishing new ways of working, being and living. They led the way to the recognition of women's intelligence as equal to that of men. They were aware of their privileged position and of their responsibility to help others. Their contribution can be seen as more than the sum of their individual efforts, although those individual efforts were frequently substantial. As a cohort, they reshaped opportunities for women, establishing an historical record that still inspires women today. They cemented the keystone in the arch as Zimmern had hoped.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • MacKinnon, Alison, Love and Freedom: Professional Women and the Reshaping of Personal Life, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1997. Details
  • Mackinnon, Alison, Women, Love and Learning: The Double Bind, 1 edn, Peter Lang, Bern, Switzerland, 2010. Details
  • Theobald, Marjorie R, Knowing women: origins of women's education in nineteenth-century Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1996. Details
  • Zimmern, Alice, The Renaissance of Girls' Education in England: A Record of Fifty Years' Progress, A. D. Innes & Co., London, Britian, 1898. Details

Book Sections

Journal Articles

  • Brash, Joanna; Cranston, Susie; and Craske, Rebecca, 'Centered Leadership: How Talented Women Thrive', McKinsey Quarterly, September 2008. Details

Online Resources