From Imperialist butterfly to democratic grub
When it came to smashing stereotypes and the expected role society would have placed on her, Julia Margaret Guerin, better known as Bella, had the proverbial hammer.
Not only was she the first female graduate of an Australian University, Bella was a political activist and subscribed to the newly burgeoning feminist movement. She supported suffrage campaigns and encouraged women, through her role as a teacher, to become 'a band of noble, thoughtful women as a powerful influence for good'.
Bella Guerin. Courtesy Federation University.
Born in Williamstown, Victoria on 23 April, 1858 Bella studied at home and passed her matriculation in 1878. Her father Patrick was a penal sergeant and later a governor of gaols and her mother Julia Margaret (nee Kearney) were both from Ireland.
Bella attended the University of Melbourne where she studied for her Bachelor of Arts and finally received her Masters in 1885. Her career as a teacher started at Loreto Convent in Ballarat where she eventually became the principal, only resigning her position when she married poet Henry Halloran, 47 years her senior, in St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne.
Unfortunately Henry died two years later leaving Bella with their 8-month-old son, Henry Marco. Julia remarried in 1909 to George D'Arcie Lavender, this time 30 years her junior, but it was a union that didn't last.
Bella returned to teaching and taught in Sydney and in areas around Melbourne and joined groups that were reflecting her interests in the suffragette movement. In the mid-1890s she became office-bearer in the Bendigo Women's Franchise League.
Between 1912-14 Bella was vice-president of the Women's Political Association and co-authored Vida Goldstein's 1913 Senate election pamphlet. From 1914 she wrote and spoke for the Labor and Victorian Socialist parties and the Women's League of Socialists.
Bella was seen as a 'witty, cogent and instructive' commentator on a range of controversial social issues which included the rights of illegitimate children, 'brotherhood and sisterhood without sex distinction' and defence of English militant suffragettes.
She led the Labor Women's Anti-Conscription Fellowship campaign during the 1916 referendum and spoke in Adelaide, Broken Hill and Victorian metropolitan and country centres against militarism and in defence of rights of assembly and free speech.
Towards the end of the Great War Bella created controversy in her role as vice-president of the Labor Party's Women's Central Organizing Committee when she stated Labor women were 'performing poodles and packhorses' under represented in policy decisions and relegated to auxiliary fund raising roles.
Bella's final burial place. Courtesy: Findagrave
She described her political evolution changing from 'imperialistic butterfly' to 'democratic grub' and experienced continual tensions as a socialist feminist within the Labor Party. Always promoting women to public life, she saw herself as a national idealist and an incorrigible militant. Her son, however, described her as 'the kindest and most gentle of women'.
Bella died in Adelaide on 26 July 1923 from cirrhosis of the liver. She is buried in the Catholic cemetery at West Terrace. In 1975 at the University of Ballarat (now Federation University Australia) one of its new Halls of Residence was named in her honour.
'Students', Women at the University of Melbourne, accessed online 13th November, 2021, Women at the University of Melbourne (unimelb.edu.au)
Farley Kelly, 'Guerin, Julia Margaret (Bella) (1858–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/guerin-julia-margaret-bella-6503/text11153, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 14 November 2021.
'Bella Guerin MA - First Female Graduate; First Female Principal - SMB Arts & University Classes (1887-1890)', Federation University, accessed online 15th November, 2021, GUERIN, Bella, MA - Federation University Australia