Last week, with my great-Aunt, I attended a lecture given by a senior research fellow from The University of Sydney, Dr Julia Horne. The subject was the history of women attending university and, as I was unaware of the finer details of the battle to get females admitted into universities, I found the lecture enlightening.
I am partly proud, and partly ashamed, to admit that I had presumed that women being denied access to tertiary education was a relic from ancient history. I presumed wrong. Really, it’s quite a modern development.
Before the formalities had even started, I started learning. My Aunt and I were talking to another guest who explained that her grandmother was a scientist who attended Cambridge University but was not awarded a degree. Not because she failed to fulfil any component of the course, but, because she was a woman. Until 1948 women weren’t entitled to a degree from Cambridge. They were allowed to study and technically complete a degree but they weren’t afforded any recognition for it.
I soon learned this was a common situation. Dr Horne explained that it was the middle ground that many universities around the world settled upon before dropping the guard altogether and allowing women to study amongst men as equals. But some Australian universities were ahead of the game when it came to offering women access to higher education.
In Sydney and in Adelaide, in the 1880s, a small group of enterprising academics were fighting for equality. They resisted the status quo and went to great lengths – even corresponding directly with Queen Victoria – to remove the barriers forbidding women from attending university and receiving a degree.
What now seems incontrovertible, women having access to higher education, was then deemed entirely controversial. The idea of women at university – participating in learning, mingling with men unsupervised and being disposed to campus activities – incited fear and disapproving from many quarters.
So who were these individuals, accomplished enough to hold positions of power within the universities and bold enough to take on the establishment, to successfully advocate for women to be admitted into their esteemed institutions? They were the original champions of change: forward-thinking men who were ideologically wedded to equality.
It was fantastically inspiring to think of these upstanding, seemingly-conservative, men fighting for equality. In doing so they swam against the mighty current that prevailed at the time, not just in academic quarters, but in society too. And it wasn’t a quick battle; they persisted for many years. Slowly but surely, letter after letter, action by action, they dismantled the barriers that prevented women from having the same access to degrees as men. They kept ‘knocking on the door’ until they were ultimately victorious and women were allowed to study, unencumbered by structural discrimination.
Snippets from their official correspondence and various speeches reveal their thoughts were decades, if not a century, ahead of their time. As well-educated privileged men they were the beneficiaries of the status quo but they recognised the indiscriminate inequity in excluding women from study and fought it.
It reminded me, again, just how valuable and powerful male advocates are. Had it not been for the efforts and persistence of these men, tertiary education would have remained inaccessible to women for longer than it was.
At the end of the lecture, before I had had a chance to bring myself back to the current day, my Aunt, who is in her eighties, commented how little has changed. It was an hour or so before the new Cabinet was revealed but my Aunt, who I should add is hardly a political radical, flagged her despair. “Tony Abbott’s probably only going to have one woman in his Cabinet you know? We haven’t come very far really have we.”
Unfortunately both of those observations are accurate but even still I left feeling emboldened. To think what those men achieved, against that social backdrop, in that time, makes me hopeful. There aren’t enough women in Cabinet, that’s for sure, but just because it’s lacking in women doesn’t have to mean women are ignored.
There are men at the Cabinet table too. Men who, if they choose, can be like the enlightened academics who took it upon themselves to eradicate unnecessary discrimination against women at university. In particular – Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull – I’m looking at you. You have wives and daughters who I don’t believe for a second you would ever want to be subject to anything but absolute equality so pick up the cause. Be bold and vocal and champion equality in your government. If you think you will be a lone voice in the woods know you will have more support, and less opposition, than those academics ever had. And yet they were effective and successful.
It is easy – too easy in recent weeks – to be disillusioned by the state of play for women in Australia. Unfortunately however there isn’t time to be disillusioned. There is too much to do. So while we must urge males MPs like Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey to champion the cause with us, we also have to ask ourselves the same question. What can we do to remove inequality? And let’s not be afraid to think big.