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Paving the way for women

7 March 2023

You can’t be what you can’t see, and we’re proud Melbourne is home to a number of trailblazing women who have taken a first step so that others may follow.  

Vida Goldstein – one of the first women to run for Federal Parliament 

Australia made international headlines in 1902 when it became the second nation in the world to legalise the vote for women, and their right to stand for election. Melburnian Vida Goldstein was the driving force behind that hard-won change.   

A feminist and suffragette, Vida was celebrated internationally as a leader of the votes for women movement. She was even invited to the Oval Office by US President Teddy Roosevelt because he wanted to see what an enfranchised woman looked like.   

When she came home, she was among the first four women to stand for Federal Parliament. She lost, and tried four more times, but with each campaign, she fired up the national conversation about wage equality, women’s rights and safety. 

Melbourne’s Goldstein electoral division is named in her honour, as is Vida, one of the West Gate Tunnel boring machines. 

While we celebrate Vida’s achievements, it’s also important to note that Aboriginal people, regardless of their gender, were not granted the right to vote until 1962. 

Historic sepia photo of a group of women in garments and large hats from the era.
Vida Goldstein, far right, in London, 1911. Picture: National Portrait Gallery

Julia Margaret (Bella) Guérin – Australia’s first female graduate 

Imagine turning up to your first university lecture knowing no one like you had ever graduated in the country. 

That was the case for Julia Margaret (Bella) Guérin, who became the first woman to graduate from an Australian university, and did so right here at the University of Melbourne in 1883. 

Bella used her landmark Bachelor of Arts degree to inspire the next generation as a teacher. She was a strong believer in the transformative power of education and encouraged her students to fight to make their dreams a reality. 

Bella also inspired change outside the classroom. She fought for women’s rights, was 
vice-president of the Labor Party’s Women’s Central Organizing Committee and the Women’s Political Association, and even co-authored Vida Goldstein’s 1913 Senate election pamphlet. 

People sitting on picnic rugs in the shade in a courtyard.
The University of Melbourne is a place for all people to study these days 

Matilda Ann (Tilly) Aston – first blind Australian to enrol in university 

Matilda Ann (Tilly) Aston followed in Bella’s footsteps when she became the first Australian who was blind to study at university. However, her studies were cut short when she discovered there weren’t enough Braille resources for her to succeed. 

Not one to be discouraged by the status quo, Tilly took it upon herself to establish a Braille library, and founded the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (now Vision Australia Foundation) to empower others like her. 

She led Australia’s disability activism, lobbying for voting rights, public transport concessions and greater access to Braille materials for people who are blind. She went on to become the head of the Victorian Education Department’s School for the Blind, the first person who was blind to do so. 

The electoral division of Aston is named in Tilly’s honour, and you can find an interactive sculpture that pays homage to her in Kings Domain, St Kilda Road. 

Lady Gladys Nicholls – one of Melbourne’s leading Aboriginal rights activists  

Have you’ve spotted the statue of Lady Gladys Nicholls – and her husband Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls – in Parliament Gardens in Spring Street?  

Lady Gladys Nicholls was one of our earliest Aboriginal activists – a woman who dedicated her life to advancing Aboriginal rights, in particular those of women.  

She joined a mass walk-off at the Aboriginal Mission in Cummeragunja, New South Wales, established and funded the first Aboriginal girls’ hostel in Melbourne and was a fundamental founder of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Aboriginal Advancement League.  

When her husband became the Governor of South Australia in 1977, Lady Gladys continued to use her platform to promote Aboriginal rights, and did so fiercely until her death. 

Bronze statues of a man and woman  arm-in-arm. The woman is holding a handbag.
The statues of Sir Doug and Lady Gladys Nicholls

Jude Munro AO – trailblazer of Melbourne’s gay liberation  

In 2017, the City of Melbourne community recorded the highest ‘yes’ vote in the country for the national marriage equality vote. However, it was only a few years earlier, in 1975, that homosexuality was decriminalised in Victoria. 

We’ve come a long way, and there is still work to be done, but our progress has been hard-won thanks to people like Jude Munro AO, who was one of the leaders of Melbourne’s gay liberation movement in the 70s. 

Fuelled by a strong sense of justice and equality, Jude fought to ensure all Melburnians could show up as their true selves, and in doing so, has made our city a more welcoming and inclusive place. 

Jude has gone on to become the first female CEO of the City of Adelaide and Brisbane City Council, was named one of Google and Deloitte’s 50 Outstanding LGBTI Leaders of 2018, and was the inaugural Chair of Australia’s first-ever Pride Centre in Melbourne. 

A person wearing a bright orange vest, and hard hat with rainbow colours on the front.
Jude Munro AO

Other notable trailblazing women to learn about: 

  • Alexis (Lecki) Ord – first woman to become Lord Mayor of Melbourne. Lecki paved the way for Winsome McPherson McCaughey AO and our current Lord Mayor Sally Capp  
  • Dr Linny Phuong founder and director of the Water Well Project, Melbourne Award winner and advocate for refugee and migrant communities 
  • Peggy O’Neal – first-ever female president of an AFL club, and former Melburnian of the Year  
  • Antoinette Braybrook – the first Aboriginal Melburnian of the Year 
  • Lisa Bellear – the first female Aboriginal councillor for the former Collingwood City Council 

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