by Gabrielle Bergman
A Brief History and Introduction
The Princess Ida Club came into existence in 1888 seven years after Julia Margaret (Bella) Guerin, Lydia Harris, Mary Gaunt and Henrietta Hearn became the first four female students to enrol into the University of Melbourne. This was a significant moment within Australian history, whereby women had the same right to tertiary education as men. While the admission of female students was celebrated by many, it was also met with great resistance from members of the community who believed that women were better suited to a life of domesticity rather than academia. However, an increasing number of women successfully undertaking the matriculation exams, alongside pressure from headmasters within the university council, led to their inevitable acceptance.
Women entered into an educational institution which was dominated by the power and presence of men. Female students bonded over their shared experience of exclusion and formed the club at a general meeting held in 1888 after suggestions made by former students of the Presbyterian Ladies College, Mabel Allen and Edith Gladman. Shortly after, the club moved into Professor Hearn’s old apartment in the east wing of the Quadrangle building. Across the courtyard opposite to the Princess Ida Club was the University Union, established in 1884 for male students and facility, which resided within the confines of Professor Wilson’s old apartment.
The physical space of Professor Hearn’s apartment provided a refuge of sorts where students could come together to ‘promote the common interests of, and to form a bond of union between the present and past women students’. The club essentially operated as a social committee and developed an active program of functions and events including picnics, debates, literary discussions, theatre and music performances. A key event within the social calendar was the annual music concert, which gradually increased in size and participation each year. In 1898, the concert was considered one of the most successful events at the University, with over five hundred invitations issued to guests.
While the very existence of the club was a powerful advocate for women’s rights, it did not actively promote feminist ideologies. The club made a concerted effort not to engage within political and social ideas, reflecting the contention around gender at the time. Access to club minutes allows for insight within this apolitical stance when, during an 1899 general meeting, Miss Greig commented ‘that a letter be sent to the President of the legislative council in favour of women’s suffrage’. This proposal was immediately overturned by fellow members Miss Ellis, Miss Chomley and Miss White. The club directed its focus towards the celebration of women’s educational and academic achievements, rather than ‘radical’ feminist ideas.
This refusal to break away from the constraints of a purely social committee would ultimately become the demise of the club. This cultural transition could be traced back as early as September 1889, when three sub-societies were established: the debating society, literacy society and the Christian Alliance. Of the three societies, debating easily generated the most interest. As time went on, women felt more comfortable engaging with academic content, voicing strong opinions and exploring controversial topics. Younger members were more politically invested and questioned the role and purpose of the group and its sole focus on social events. Eventually, the Princess Ida Club would integrate into the student Union in 1915 under the University Women’s Representation Committee.
The Club Name
The name of the Princess Ida Club draws reference to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘The Princess’ written in 1847, whereby Princess Ida desires equality between genders. After refusing to marry a prince from a neighbouring town, she set out to transform her father’s summer palace into a University for women.
You men have done it: how I hate you all!
Ah, were I something great! I wish I were
Some might poetess, I would shame you then,
That love to keep us children! O I wish
That I were some great princess, I would build
Far off from men a college like a man’s,
And I would teach them all that men are taught;
We are twice as quick!’ And here she shook aside
The hand that played the patron with her curls.
In 1890, the colours of the club changed from the University’s blue and white to lilac and daffodil with further alliance to Tennyson’s Princess Ida and her female students.
She bought us Academic silks, in hue
The lilac, with a silken hood to each
A rosy blonde, and in a college gown,
That clad her like an April daffodilly.
Over time, women’s involvement and participation within the University was met with great spirit and, as the club oath articulated, ‘a feeling of esprit de corps’. The Princess Ida Club attracted a high calibre of female students who became leaders within a range of professions including medicine, science, education and the arts. Of the few hundred members who participated throughout the club’s 27-year existence, key participants would include founders Bella Guerin, Constance Ellis and Enid Derham, as well as members Jessie Webb and Helen Sexton.
Bella Guerin was one of the founding members of the Princess Ida Club. She was also the first female student to graduate from an Australian university in 1883 with a Bachelor of Arts. She went on to graduate with a Master of Arts in 1885, after which she established a successful career as a schoolteacher. In 1912, Guerin assumed the role of vice-president within the Women’s Political Association, became an active member of the Labour Party and passionately advocated for women’s rights until her death in 1923.
The second founding member of the club was Constance Ellis, the first woman at the University to graduate with a Doctor of Medicine degree. Ellis forged a distinguished career as a doctor and was involved within the creation of the Queen Victoria Hospital which opened in 1899. She was the first female doctor in Australia to become a councillor within the British Medical Association and spoke passionately to young women about health during and after pregnancy, as well as paediatric care.
Third founding member, Enid Derham, enrolled into the University of Melbourne in 1900 where she studied Classical Philology. After graduating in 1903 with a Bachelor of Arts, she went on to complete a Master of Arts majoring in English and modern languages in 1905. During her five years at the University, she became a loyal member of the club and was even appointed to the committee. Her involvement within the Princess Ida Club would eventually lead her to help form the Catalysts Society in 1910, a women’s intellectual club modelled on the Lyceum Club in London. After leaving the University Derham, she became an accomplished poet and Australian university lecturer. In 1921, she lectured at the University of Western Australia and the following year became an English lecturer at the University of Melbourne where she remained until 1941.
Club member Jessie Webb graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1902 with a Bachelor of Arts, and again in 1904 with a Master of Arts. During her studies she became a member of the Princess Ida Club and took part within their diverse program of events. In 1908, four years after completing her masters, she returned to the University as a lecturer within the history department where she stayed until her death in 1944. Webb was also a founder of the University of Women’s College, the Victorian Woman Graduates’ Association and the Catalyst Society alongside friend Enid Derham.
Helen Sexton was a member of the Princess Ida Club while studying both arts and medicine at the University of Melbourne. Sexton and fellow student Lilian Helen Alexander initially enrolled into an arts degree, however vocally campaigned for women to be admitted into the medical school. Their protests were heard and in 1887 the council passed a motion to accept female students into the medical faculty. Alongside Ellis, Sexton helped to establish the Queen Victoria Hospital before taking a position at the Royal Women’s Hospital as a gynaecological surgeon. She would eventually relocate to Florence, Italy where she spent most of her later life living and working.
The formation of the Princess Ida Club itself reflects a significant moment in time whereby women were able to participate alongside men to pursue further academic studies. However, the admission of female students and the club itself attracted a great amount of criticism from students, staff, the professional board and the broader community.
In 1883 when Bella Guerin became the first woman to graduate from the University of Melbourne, The Bulletin ran an article that derided her achievements. They misquoted her degree as a MA rather than a BA, suggesting that Guerin should instead ‘attain the title best befitting a woman, that of MAMA’. To add insult to injury, criticism also came from staff and students within the University. In 1887, the Melbourne University Review ran a deeply offensive article stating that ‘lady students are, and evidently with the approval of Council, to some extent using their attendance at lectures as a cloak under which they can, unsuspected, carry on their designs to snare the unwary male animal’.
By 1904, the Princess Ida Club had attracted 164 members and continued to operate within the small confinements of Professor Wilson’s old apartment. The facilities were small and inadequate for the growing club and resulted in a number of noise complaints from the professors and staff members during lunch times. Law lecturer Professor Harrison Moore lamented that the ruckus ‘has made it difficult to lecture and has twice made it necessary to suspend a lecture in order to request order’.
The Princess Ida Club became a safe haven and support network within an institution predominately operating for and by men. The club’s focus on social activities, as well as their conscious effort to remain apolitical is telling in itself. There was no space for a gendered or feminist agenda at the time, rather the creation of a female only club was controversial enough. In 1910, the Melbourne University Magazine published an article poking fun at the club by suggesting that it was a space for gossip and frivolous activity. The editorial proposed that
‘Having little or nothing to do our rooms are almost always crowded, and consequently the doings of each of us is fairly well known to the others. From the foundation of the club it has always been our desire to mind each other’s business, and as people as a rule know other people’s business better than their own, the result is that our club is really a mutual help society…. Our chief recreations are hockey and tennis, at both of which we are more or less proficient, but the afternoon tea and its accompanying gossip provide an irresistible attraction, and here the greater part of the club’s success is achieved.’
The comments were hurtful and highlight the ostracised position of the women students whose pursuit of academic study, physical occupation of space on campus and inclusion within the University’s societies were under constant scrutiny. However, their demand for equality and autonomy was unwavering, and conditions on campus would eventually improve.
Contemporary Princess Ida
While it has been more than 100 years since the existence of the Princess Ida Club, its history continues to be shared within the University. The story lives on within the articles of the Farrago magazine, the University campus and student performances.
Perhaps one of the more contemporary references to the club is the student union Ida Bar. The name of the bar acknowledges the achievements of the Princess Ida Club and their quest for inclusion within the University’s societies and the occupation of physical spaces on campus. The union has also been responsible for bringing the history of the Princess Ida Club to life on the theatre stage. In 1994, ‘The Princess Ida Parlour’ performance was managed by Merryn Tinkler and Lisa Parris, while the recent 2018 interpretation ‘IDA: Not Your Princess’, was produced by esteemed writer Anita Punton.
By revisiting and reinterpreting the Princess Ida narrative, the historical, social and academic achievements of the club continue to be remembered and celebrated within the University.
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