By Peter Dewar

    Julia Margaret (Bella) Guerin was Australia’s first woman to graduate from university. But that’s only the half of it. History remembers her activism, her oratory brilliance … her wit. Personally, I like Bella ‘cause there’s a bit of westie in someone who describes her politics as going from ‘imperialistic butterfly to ‘democratic grub’.

    2017 International Women’s Day has come and gone. Too late for a shout-out to a local lass?

    We stake our claim on Bella the same way New Zealand claims actor Russell Crowe – she was born here. Julia Margaret Guerin came into the world in Williamstown. In 1858. Willi residents know Douglas Parade for a shopping drag where parking is impossible. In the 1860s, the odd car would have chugged past.

    Along with passers-by on foot, mostly 
it was bikes that used the newly-paved roadway. A faded entry in a municipal rates register has it as the street of the Guerin’s family home.

    Bella’s dad Irishman Patrick worked in 
the penal system – a boom industry in gold rush days. Today, we park at Point Gellibrand and look out at container ships in Port Phillip Bay steering up the Yarra. Back then, prisoner hulks were anchored off-shore; clipper ships dotted the horizon. Convicts, among them Ned Kelly and Mad Dog Morgan, considered it a lucky day to be shackled, coming on-shore to break their backs in the blue-stone quarry.

    A year before Julia Margaret was born, there’d been strife in town. Patrick must have worried with a child on the way. Prisoners had grabbed their picks and shovels and taken to a superintendent. Even if it means swinging from a rope, there’s only so much you can take. Afterwards, the entire local convict population attempted a mutiny. It was put down with the help of a posse of hapless locals, who took off ‘armed to the teeth’ leaving their ammunition behind.

    Patrick earned a promotion in the
 1860s as Governor of Ballarat Gaol and moved his young family to the goldfields. Somewhere along the way, Julia Margaret became Bella, and it stuck.

    Making it to university was a feat in the days when a woman’s rightful place was looking after her husband and children. Bella had been schooled at home by her mother and enrolled in Melbourne University along with a handful of other young women.

    It says something about the weight of the moment and Bella’s nerve that another colleague ‘shrank from the public ordeal’. When Bella, dressed in a black gown and mortarboard, walked up to accept her Bachelor in Arts degree, the vice-chancellor ‘loudly and enthusiastically cheered’. ‘Demonstrative undergraduates’ at the back of Wilson Hall gave her an ovation. What a hoot. In 1881, Bella had made history as the first woman to graduate from an Australian university. She was 23 years old.

    A graduation portrait shows a fresh-faced young woman with a determined look in her eyes. It was enough to move public servant and poet Henry Halloran to take up his ink pen and with raw sentiment write Impromptu. At the time, Bella was working at Loreto Convent in Ballarat; then as lady principal of Ballarat School of Mines University.

    Was it that poem? Bella and Henry married in 1891 at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

    He was 80 years old. Bella was 33.

    Not everyone thought the marriage was cause for celebration. A gossip columnist wrote: ‘our graduates seem to be fulfilling the chief end of women after all’.

    However, Bella wasn’t one to curl up under a blanket never
 to be heard from again. It was becoming clear she had what contemporary politicians call ‘ticker’, and it was in politics where Bella would next make her mark.

    Not immediately, though. Henry died four years later, leaving Bella and her eight-month-old son alone. Bella did marry briefly again, but it was short-lived.

    Bella returned to teaching in Sydney, Bendigo and Melbourne. But for an emerging suffragist, anti-conscription campaigner and socialist feminist there was plenty to say in a world where women couldn’t vote and that would soon enter the war to end all wars.

    In a photo, Bella balances her young son’s fingers in hers as if she can’t let go. Later in life, he described his mother as ‘the kindest and most gentle of women’. Notice, he didn’t say tame. Bella was vice-president of the Labor Party’s Women’s Central Organizing Committee when she controversially described Labor woman as ‘performing poodles and packhorses’.

    Bella thought of herself as a ‘national idealist’, and an ‘incorrigible militant’. Vida Goldstein was the first women to stand for a national election.

    As vice-president of the Women’s Political Association, Bella co-authored her 1913 Senate election pamphlet.

    At her graduation, Bella wore a crucifix that rested gently over her neck-high vest. Later in life, she gave up her Catholic beliefs for a rationalist’s life-view.

    Bella died in Adelaide aged 65 years old.

    She has been inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. The University of Ballarat honoured her by naming one of two Mt Helen campus’ Halls of Residence after her.

    Occasionally, she’s remembered. When Labor’s Tanya Plibersek gave reasons for being a feminist, Bella’s name cropped up.

    I know … Bella didn’t spend much time in Williamstown. Who cares.

    When International Women’s Day comes around next year what about making a ruckus.

    WESTPECTIVE: Peter has always lived here.
    Writing about the west has opened his eyes to its many heroes

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