More Educating Women




My sister in law, M, in her wanderings around the city, has found and allowed me to borrow, Susanna de Vries, Strength of Purpose: Australian Women of Achievement from Federation to the Mid-20th Century (1998), an excellent A4-sized hardback with profiles of 28 “women of achievement”.

So far I have not proceeded past the Introduction, but I have already come upon Louisa Macdonald (1858-1949), a Scotswoman with a BA and Masters from the University of London who arrived in Australia in 1892 to head the new Women’s College at Sydney Uni.

Virginia Woolf would point out in A Room of One’s Own that women at University were far less well-treated than men, and that the furnishings and food at Girton were vastly inferior to those in the men’s colleges at Cambridge. Louisa Macdonald made sure that this state of affairs did not occur in Sydney.

Macdonald was amongst those independent women who made the conscious decision not to marry in order to be free to pursue her career, she was active in debate for women’s causes, and took “the Women’s College from a small awkward byway of the University with a mere four students [to] a flourishing institution.”

I thought I would use this as a stepping stone to add to what little I knew about the early days of university education for women in Australia. I have written previously that PLC (Melbourne) students Nettie Higgins (Palmer) and Annie Rattray Rentoul went on to Melbourne University, in 1905 and 1902 respectively, where they both graduated with excellent Arts degrees (here and here). I was a Trinity boy for a year at Melbourne and my guess was that as PLC girls they would have gone on to (Presbyterian) St Hilda’s but to my surprise, it turns out St Hilda’s only opened in 1964 and as far as I can see, until recently their brother college, Queens, was exclusively male.

Consequently, the only residential option for Nettie and Annie would have been Janet Clarke Hall which was established in 1886 as a residential hostel for women students of (Anglican) Trinity College. JCH became an independent college in 1961, and co-educational in 1973. The ADB entry for Nettie Palmer says her parents kept a tight rein on her social life, so maybe she attended university from home.

Sydney University was founded in 1850 and began admitting women in 1881. Women’s College was established by a NSW Act of parliament in 1889 and opened with the arrival of Louisa Macdonald in 1892.

Women admitted to Medicine at Melbourne University, 1887

Melbourne University was founded in 1853 and also began admitting women in 1881. Women were admitted to Medicine in 1887 and there is an interesting article about the first intake of women on the MU Medicine website, from which the photograph above is taken (here).

I knew that during the First World War, Miles Franklin served for several months in Serbia with “the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service, an all-women organisation established by Dr Elsie Inglis” (Roe, p.202) and this prompted me to research the link between women and medical training in Edinburgh. And although it’s nothing to do with Australia, it’s a great story (sourced mainly from Wikipedia).

In 1869, Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912) was accepted into the University of Edinburgh Medical Faculty but was refused permission to attend by the University on the grounds that it was not possible to make arrangements for “just one lady”. Jex-Blake advertised for other interested women and she and six others began their studies that year.

“As the women began to demonstrate that they could compete on equal terms in open competition with the male students, hostility towards them began to grow. They received obscene letters, were followed home, had fireworks attached to their front door, mud thrown at them. This culminated in the Surgeons’ Hall riot on the 4th November 1870 when the women arrived to sit an anatomy exam at Surgeons’s Hall and an angry mob of over two hundred were gathered outside throwing mud, rubbish and insults at the women.”

Although Edinburgh refused to allow her to graduate, Jex-Blake eventually became the first female practising doctor in Scotland and one of the first in the UK.

In 1874 Jex-Blake helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women and in 1876 the law was changed to allow women to practise medicine in the UK. Jex-Blake went on to establish Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1886, where Elsie Inglis was in her initial intake of students.

Girton, mentioned above, was established as a college for women at Cambridge in 1869 and “was granted full college status by the university in 1948, marking the official admittance of women to the university.” Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is based on a series of lectures she gave at Newnham and Girton Colleges in 1928. Newnham, Cambridge’s second college for women, was founded in 1871.

I thought I had better check out universities other than Sydney and Melbourne and it appears Adelaide, Australia’s third university, established in 1874, is very jealous of its reputation in relation to women. “The University has a long history of championing the rights of women in higher education. It was the second University in the English-speaking world (after the University of London, 1878) to admit women on equal terms with men (1881), though women studied alongside men from the commencement of classes in 1876, and were equally eligible for all academic prizes and honours. Its first female graduate was Edith Emily Dornwell, who was also the first person in Australia to receive the degree of Bachelor of Science (BSc., 1885). The university also graduated Australia’s first female surgeon Laura Fowler (MB, 1891). Ruby Davy (B. Mus., 1907; D. Mus., 1918) was the first Australian woman to receive a doctorate in music. The University was also the first to elect a woman to a University Council in Australia, Helen Mayo (MBBS, 1902).”

Interestingly, Australia’s third oldest tertiary institution was not a university but Ballarat School of Mines, established 1870, now incorporated into Federation University Australia, although I can’t see when they first admitted women. And despite looking, I haven’t located the significance of the year 1881 when Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide all admitted women “on equal terms”.


Susanna D Vries, Strength of Purpose: Australian Women of Achievement from Federation to the Mid-20th Century, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1998

Further References:

Women admitted to MU Medicine 1887

Sydney Uni, first women students, timeline

Bella Guerin, first woman to graduate

A Woman’s Place





14 thoughts on “More Educating Women

  1. Fascinating Bill. I have suc admiration for those early university women. The scorn many of them put up with. Even Katr Grenville’s story of her mother’s university education, and subsequent attempts, to work in pharmacy, in the early decades of the 20th century is pretty eye-opening.

    1881 … Hmm. Interesting. But can’t help you there.


    • I took a leaf out of your book and searched on Trove for 1880-1881, University, Woman or Women and it seems our universities were following the lead of Cambridge which announced in Feb 1881 that women would be admitted. I guess it was just competitive pressure which led our 3 unis to make the announcement in the same year – on their websites they all claimed to have made the decision independently and by implication, before the other two.


      • I wondered if it were something like that. Haha, love the idea that they all argue their decisions were independent. I suppose it’s possible. Is it probably? Hmmm …


  2. WG, I’ve run out of reply indents. What I really wish is that journalists displayed an educated command of the elements of grammar, and that includes the ABC. I think that now newspapers have given up on sub-editors and that so much public writing is of lowest common denominator anyway, that we’ll quite quickly end up with two distinct Englishes – High and Low.


    • Yes, I agree.

      And I also wish that the ABC in particular, would not use emotive language in reporting. I’d prefer they use a word like “increase” rather than “hike” for example when talking about Taxes or GST etc. If it’s a significant increase, they should say that, rather than use language that’s intended to fire people up.


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