Degrees of Liberation: A Short History of Women in the University of Melbourne

The account of women's struggle for liberation against systemic discrimination throughout the University of Melbourne's history

Citation Information

Bender, Robert 2016. Degrees of Liberation: A Short History of Women in the University of Melbourne, URL = <>.

Publication Information

Kelly, Farley, Degrees of Liberation: A Short History of Women in the University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia: Women Graduates Centenary Committee of the University of Melbourne, 1985, pp. x+172, (paperback).

University of Melbourne, Old Arts Building

This book review is a concise summary of Farley Kelly's comprehensive account in her Degrees of Liberation: A Short History of Women in the University of Melbourne of the struggle of women against the forces of religion, conservatism and discrimination throughout the history of one of Melbourne's greatest institutions.

Colonial universities admitted female students long before British ones. The first woman to graduate in Australia, Bella Guerin BA (1883), MA (1885), initiated a new phenomenon with 100 graduates by 1900. Resistance, led by the Catholic Church, emphasised submission to husbands and family. Economic arguments about women driving down wages and wasting university time by retreating into parenting post-graduation complemented biological arguments about small brains and menstruation disabling effective study. The Education Act 1872 was recent, with still no state secondary schools, and many girls' teachers lacking qualifications. Argument polarised between separate exams for girls or identical standards for real equality. Insisting on Latin and Greek in Australia, with few qualified teachers, was problematic. The 1871 first female matriculant was denied university entry, but by 1875 there were hundreds needing preparation for life as governesses, as middle-class women became teachers, with few alternatives.

The medical school resisted women's entry, despite demand for female doctors; attending dissections being seen as "unwomanly". Women were confined to obstetrics and gynaecology. Male resistance to women interns stimulated a women-only clinic growing into Queen Victoria hospital in the 1890s.

Laws preventing women practicing law were repealed in 1901, with the first graduate admitted to the Bar in 1905. Grounds for the Chancellor denying women could be logical, judicial or managing client confidentiality. The Law Students' Society excluded them until 1920. State law allowed exclusion of women from lectures and from the University Senate until 1913. Sir William and Janet Clarke's generosity enabled a non-denominational women's college, modelled on Girton, followed by St Mary's in 1918, University Women's in 1937 and St Hilda's in 1964. Some graduates became college tutors, then university lecturers.

The Princess Ida Club (after Gilbert and Sullivan's 1887 opera) was founded in 1888 to improve women's accommodation. Women were club office bearers, organized concerts and a debating society to improve speaking skills, or were active suffragists.

By 1906, there were 213 women graduates (80 per cent Arts, 18 per cent medicine). Broadening the range came slowly. In 1905, 4 per cent of Victorians had any secondary schooling, university entrants being upper middle class, mostly from Presbyterian Ladies' College (PLC) or Methodist Ladies' College (MLC). Women took 39 of 96 Exhibitions from 1883 to 1900. Several women graduated in biology in the 1890s, which was preparation for high school teaching. Early medical graduates worked overseas. Several endowed university scholarships became surgeons in women's hospitals or were prominent in the National Council of Women. The 1906 Teacher Registration Act mandated a Diploma of Education (Dip. Ed), with over 50 per cent of graduates being women. Most remained single, while others struggled on inferior incomes.

By 1908, 40 per cent of women studied music, but orchestras wouldn't accept them. Emily Mac was established—a shift to "domestic science". In the years from 1889 to 1924, 30 per cent of Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) graduates were women, with some becoming professors or lecturers. Most worked in research, though underpaid and under-promoted. Women became biology demonstrators and librarians and became active in the Student Representative Council (SRC).

During the 1914–18 war, 1,850 university men joined the armed forces, polarizing women into either anti-Imperialists or supporting the war effort through the Red Cross or as doctors. Legal barriers to women entering state parliament and senior public service positions were abolished in the 1920s, but there were pressures to return to traditional female roles. Student numbers doubled and funding per student dropped sharply. Women became active in student societies, Melbourne University Magazine (MUM) and Farrago, presaging journalism and history careers. Political clubs in the 1930s attracted later prominent commentators and writers, stimulating efforts for greater equality. These campaigns culminated in women Justices of the Peace, divorce reform and state-funded crèches.

Fascism and depression were forces for conservatism. The Committee of Melbourne University Women and the Women's Graduate Association helped involve women in professions, public life and research. Many earned scholarships to undertake post-graduate study overseas. They were often given heavy loads of junior classes, leaving little time for research publications and hampering promotions. Women got involved in international conferences, League of Nations' committees and Federations of University Women. The 1937 Union building with student theatre, cafeteria, clubrooms and meeting rooms solved the problem of segregated recreational facilities.

The Left Book Club widened the political knowledge of sheltered girls while the Spanish Civil War in 1936 polarised student political activity. In 1937, the highly regarded botany lecturer and researcher, Ethel McLennan, aged 44, was passed over as Professor for an untried Englishman. In 1975, some 37 years later, the first woman Professor was appointed.

In 1939, women made up 25 per cent of the student body, rising to 37 per cent during the war and falling to 21 per cent when men returned. The bombing of Darwin led to courses in motor mechanics, ARP and nursing for women. The first engineering graduated in 1945. Lucy Bryce set up the Blood Bank in 1941, while Clare Stephenson directed the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF).

Pre-war elitism was leavened by the returned servicemen and Commonwealth scholarships. When the Liberal Club and Christian groups became active, they were opposed by several active women leaders of the radical Labor Club. Students challenged the White Australia policy, fund-raised for International House and aboriginal scholarships and joined Student Volunteers Abroad. Teachers College studentships attracted female Arts students. In 1966, long-term bans on married women in the teaching profession and in the State and Commonwealth public services were abolished. Miss University contests attracted many candidates. Most graduates had brief careers ending in marriage. Strong community disapproval of middle-class women combining motherhood and work became a target for the '70s Women's Movement.

In the 1960s, women moved into non-traditional courses; engineering and applied science. This was an era in which social change, agitation about abortion and gender discrimination became an academic topic. Women comprised 30 per cent of the 10,000 student body and all colleges went co-ed in the 1970s. Melbourne University hosted conferences on Women's Liberation, Feminism-and-Socialism and Women-and-Labour. Newer women's organisations exposed systemic discrimination. In 1972, Melbourne University graduates founded the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL).

Energetic applicants broke Public Service bans on permanent female employees, with the issue of funded child-care being more controversial than abortion. Studies found female staffs were overwhelmingly at the lowest career levels and girls' avoidance of senior mathematics channelled them into overcrowded, female-dominated occupations. Soon after, the first three women Professors were appointed, 90 years after Bella Guerin's enrolment. The emergence of Women's Studies revised the content of history, stimulating research into systemic discrimination and Affirmative Action. In 1974, girls outnumbered boys at the Higher School Certificate (HSC) exams, a century after the first female matriculant.

This book sports 56 photos of early students, the Princess Ida Club, later academics and wartime activities. It also boasts a bibliography, notes on sources and an index of women's names mentioned in the text. It makes a most interesting "compare and contrast" with the history of Cambridge University.

Copyright © 2016

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