Bella Guerin is best known as the first woman to graduate from an Australian university.
As impressive as this was, Bella should also be remembered as a trade unionist, feminist, and activist who campaigned tirelessly for a fairer and more decent Australia.
Bella was born in Williamstown in Victoria in 1858. In a tough time for women seeking education, she broke barriers by gaining her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne in 1883. And then she broke some more when she received a Masters Degree two years later.
After attaining these qualifications, Bella worked as a teacher and played an active role trying to create scholarships for women to go to university.
In the 1890s she became a well known suffragist, campaigning for the right for women to vote.
She joined the Women’s Political Association, led by the famous feminist Vida Goldstein. Bella became the organisation’s vice president in 1912.
From 1914 she played a more prominent role within the labour movement, frequently speaking at Labor Party meetings and for the Women’s League of Socialists.
In 1916, she was a leading light of the Labor Women’s Anti-Conscription Committee, campaigning against forced military service outside of Australia.
Bella established this organisation at a meeting alongside the leader of the union campaign against conscription – the future Prime Minister John Curtin.
In her final years she continued as a leader and activist within the labour movement, organising working class women, and calling out sexism wherever she encountered it – including in the movement itself.
She died on 26 July, 1923. And we are proud to remember her as a tireless advocate for equality.