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Saturday, 26 March 2022
St Andrew's College, The University of Sydney
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

Bujari gamarruwa, Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura

In greeting you in the ‘Sydney language’ of the Eora Nation, I pay my respects to the Gadigal, the traditional owners of this land, and Elders, past, present and emerging.

In 1896, Melbourne Punch published an article commenting that:

“Our mothers and grandmothers - those stately dames and noble women … are being replaced by the “New Woman”, who loves to stand upon the platform, preach from the pulpit, rush to the polling booth, ride the bicycle, and wear unmentionable garments.”[1]

On a midwinter’s evening in 1913, no doubt wearing those ‘unmentionable garments’, having achieved the right to vote some 10 years earlier, but still not entitled to practise as a lawyer, be a Member of Parliament or a Lord Mayor of Sydney, a few dozen women students gathered on the frosted front lawn of Women’s College to commemorate the College’s 21st anniversary.

Taking centre-stage at that celebration was the performance of a play, commissioned by Women’s College’s founding Principal, Miss Louisa Macdonald, who was also actively engaged in the Womanhood Suffrage League and the Women's Literary Society. 

The play would celebrate the achievements of the newly come-of-age College, through prophesying a bright future for women’s higher education. Entitled ‘A Mask’, it was written in the Elizabethan allegorical masque tradition by Professor of English Literature, John Le Gay Brereton, then a librarian at the University, and poet Christopher Brennan, at that time a lecturer in languages at the University. 

The play featured a procession of notable women from mythology, history, the arts, and public life - Helen of Troy, Medea, Joan of Arc, Madame de Pompadour, Angelica Kauffman, Florence Nightingale, among others.  The apotheosis of the parade, perhaps unsurprisingly for that time, was the celebrated woman of science, Madame Curie.

The message of the play was that women’s position in society was not circumscribed by societal norms that confined them to the home.   

The play was received with acclaim by Sydney’s academic and literary society. This was 15 years before writer Virginia Woolf had advocated for the intellectual, artistic and economic freedom of women in 'A Room of One’s Own'.  It was 25 years before her extended essay, 'Three Guineas', in which she imagined a futuristic College where ‘the daughters of educated men’[2] would study alongside ‘their sons’, as a prelude to professional employment and economic independence.[3]

In 'Three Guineas', Virginia Woolf described the traditions of institutions, such as those of Oxford and Cambridge, in the withering way of which she was the arch-exponent.  She wrote:

“Great grandfathers, grandfathers, fathers, uncles, - they all went that way, wearing their gowns, wearing their wigs, some with ribbons across their breasts, others without. One was a bishop. Another a judge. One was an admiral. Another a general. One was a professor. Another a doctor. And some left the procession and were last heard of doing nothing in Tasmania.”[4]

By comparison, Women’s College, and indeed, Sydney University, would seem to have been a hotbed of what these days would be called ‘progressives’. Women’s College opened in March 1892 with four students, eleven years after the Senate of the University of Sydney had resolved to admit women on an equal basis in 1881.[5]  

Women were not admitted to degrees at Oxford University until February 1920.  It could not be said this was begrudging or tokenistic on Oxford’s part - although distinguished scholar and jurist Professor Geldart, in explaining the provisions of the enabling statute, pointed out that there was said to be ‘no longer good ground for refusing women graduates to Congregation and Convocation now that they had the vote’.[6] But I ask, did there ever need to be a ‘good ground’?  Professor Geldart also observed that the admission of women ‘would involve a considerable increase of income to the University’. 

The first woman to be awarded Honours at Oxford, retrospectively, was Annie Mary Anne Henley Rogers who had passed her exams in 1877.[7]  

The first battle, admission to a degree, had been won in what still proved to be a long war of attrition.  In 1927, Oxford voted to limit the number of women admitted to the university to a number that was less than the quarter of the number of men, a restriction not removed until 1948. Other ‘rights’ were slow to come.  Women’s societies did not become full colleges until 1959. Women were not admitted to debating membership of the Oxford Union until 1961 and to full membership of the Oxford Union Society until 1963.

Cambridge, that stalwart of the status quo, did not admit women to degrees until 1947,[8] some 66 years after Sydney in 1881. 

There was but one area where Oxford almost got the jump on Colleges here at Sydney, and did so in respect of St Andrew’s, in particular.  Sydney’s Wesley College became co-residential in 1969, five years before men’s colleges at Oxford began to admit female students in 1974.[9] 

Today, we are here to celebrate St Andrew’s milestone: 20 Years of Undergraduate Women.  You might ask: why, then, is my focus on a history which is not St Andrew’s?   There are a number of reasons.  First, it is always fun to be ‘one up’ – indeed, more than ‘one up’ - on Oxford. 

Secondly, it is a matter of history and history is about understanding the past to avoid the same mistakes in the future.  In that regard, I am going to suggest that it is not an answer for an institution to say: ‘look what we have done for women’- or indeed for any group that has been excluded or side-lined - until it understands what was done to that group and why.

Put another way, it is important to understand what the barriers were, the impacts those barriers had, and why there were those barriers and those impacts.  With Oxford, admission to degrees was the essential first step, but without access to the full panoply of student benefits, it remained exclusionary. It not only deprived generations of women of an education to which as a matter of intellect and talent they were entitled – it left itself and the society bereft of those intellects and that talent.  

As I have said, today is a celebration and St Andrew’s has a right to be proud, with an enrolment of 222 St Andrew’s women, now more than half of its student cohort, and the appointment of alumnus Sasha Kovic as Chair of the College Council.

Sasha’s distinguished career in engineering and construction is a signal to the opportunities that exist for scholarship and employment within the STEM field, and the avenues available to all genders to drive economic and technological, as well as social and cultural change.

Australia’s challenges today are very much the challenges of our education. They will require boldness, sagacity, critical thinking, empathy and imagination … and every drop and ‘dram’ of the spiritual and pragmatic strength conveyed by St Andrew’s motto - “Christo, Ecclesiae, Litteris.”

I am honoured to officially launch the celebrations of 20 Years of Undergraduate Women at St Andrew’s College.

[1]The New Woman in the New World: Fin de siècle Writing and Feminism in Australia’: Gillian E Sykes, University of Sydney, page 62:

[2] 'Three Guineas': Virginia Woolf, page 104-6, published 1938

[3] ibid, page 110

[4] ibid, page 111

[7] 'The Guardian': 8 Oct 2019; Mena Sultan: October 1920: Women granted full membership of Oxford University

[9] Jesus, Wadham, Herford, Brasenose and St Catherine’s. Followed by Balliol in 1979, Christchurch in 1980 and Oriel in 1985:  Timeline: 100 years of women’s history at Oxford:


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