Historical information

Bella Guerin was born on 23 April 1858, at Williamstown, Victoria. She studied at home to matriculate in 1878, and then gained her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne in 1883, becoming the first woman to graduate from an Australian university; she followed this with a Master of Arts in 1885.

She taught at Loreto Convent, Ballarat, urging the establishment of higher education scholarships to produce ‘a band of noble thoughtful women as a powerful influence for good’. She married an elderly poet, Henry Halloran, who died shortly afterwards leaving her with a young son, Henry. She returned to teaching and from the mid-1890s frequented suffragist circles. A second marriage in 1909 to George D’Arcie Lavender was also short lived.

Bella Guerin was vice-president of the Women’s Political Association from 1912–14 and co-authored Vida Goldstein’s 1913 Senate election pamphlet.

However, dual membership of the non-party feminist camp and the Labor Party was prohibited by the latter in 1914, so from that date she campaigned for the Victorian Socialist Party and the Women’s Socialist League, speaking out on a range of controversial issues.

She led the Labor Women’s Anti-Conscription Fellowship during the 1916 referendum campaign. In 1918, as vice-president of the Labor Party’s Women’s Central Organising Committee, she caused controversy by describing Labor women as ‘performing poodles and packhorses’ who were used for fundraising but under-represented in policy decisions—and she was right.

Bella died in Adelaide on 26 July 1923 of cirrhosis of the liver and is remembered for her idealism, her oratory skills and her commitment to equity for women.

Physical description

Duplicate photograph of Julia Margaret (Bella) Guerin the first woman graduate of The University of Melbourne, B.A. 1883, M.A. 1885, The original is held by Melbourne University Archives.