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Historical Women of Hawthorn

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

International Women’s Day on 8 March celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women and raises awareness, charity, and activism for gender equality. This year’s theme is ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’.

Hawthorn’s history is indebted to the contributions of female leaders who devoted their lives not only to feminist causes, but to establishing the very institutions that our local community is founded upon. As women still work for recognition and representation in wider society, The Glenferrie Times researched some of Hawthorn’s own female pioneers for International Women’s Day.

Jeannie Gunn (far left) with her sisters and their students at ‘Rolyat Ladies’ College’, circa 1889. Source: Hawthorn Library.
Jeannie Gunn (far left) at ‘Rolyat Ladies’ College’, circa 1889. Source: Hawthorn Library.

They span from the devoted colonial housewives of Hawthorn’s first estates such as Lady Creswick of ‘Hawthorn House’ and Lady McPherson at ‘Invergowrie’, to esteemed Australian artists like painter Dora Wilson and composer Esther Rofe, to founders of local educational institutions including Annie and Ethel Dare’s ‘Grace Park Girls School’ as well as Jeannie Gunn, who opened ‘Rolyat Ladies’ College’ at 1 Creswick Street with her sisters in 1889 before publishing her two famous novels, ‘We of the Never Never’ and ‘The Little Black Princess: a True Tale of Life in the Never-Never Land’.

For every woman history deemed important enough to remember, however, “there must have been a wealth of women who were not wealthy, not educated ... getting things done, raising families, doing just as much work in churches, community organisations, schools, and so on - that’s an untold story,” said Elizabeth Yewen from the Hawthorn Historical Society. That is not even to mention the unfortunate absence of Indigenous women of the local Wurundjeri tribe from the majority of Hawthorn’s history since colonial occupation.

Ethel Swinburne with Swinburne Arts Students April 1, 1959 at the Founders' Day ceremony in the Hawthorn Town Hall.
Ethel Swinburne with arts students at the Founders' Day ceremony in Hawthorn Town Hall, 1959. Source: Swinburne.

While many know of her husband’s legacy, Ethel Swinburne (1868-1960) was cofounder of Swinburne University of Technology, elected president of multiple children’s welfare centres across Hawthorn and Victoria, transcribed over 100 books into braille for the blind, and was heavily involved in local community outreach, delivering wool to the Hawthorn Town Hall (now the Hawthorn Arts Centre) for impoverished families. Her daughters were teachers, nurses, and philanthropists. Gwen Swinburne was a particularly well-respected figure in the Glenferrie community, an author and historian who worked with the local Girl Guide movement after Miss Louie Kerr set up the first unit in Australia in Hawthorn in 1911.

Doris Blackburn, circa 1940s. Source: Trove, National Library of Australia.
Doris Blackburn, circa 1940s. Source: Trove.

Hawthorn-born Doris Blackburn (1889-1970) studied in the local area before dedicating her life to fighting for women’s rights, antiwar and peace campaigns, Aboriginal advancement, and progressive social issues and reform. Doris launched her career in feminist activism in 1911 from Camberwell with the Women’s Political Association. In 1913, Doris worked as campaign secretary for suffragette leader Vida Goldstein when she ran for State Member for Kooyong, the final rally held at Hawthorn Town Hall. In 1946, Doris became the first woman to be elected to federal parliament as an independent - the second woman in Australia’s history.

Dr Una Beatrice Porter. Source: Victorian Collections
Dr Una Beatrice Porter. Source: Victorian Collections

Dr Una Beatrice Porter (1900-1996) was a prominent psychiatrist and philanthropist who lived in ‘Kawarau’ on Tooronga Road and attended Methodist Ladies College (MLC). She spoke internationally on women’s issues and studied social work with a focus on women’s education, poor families, and psychiatric research. Una was heavily involved in charity, set up a trust benefiting educational and medical institutions, and established hospitals and missions in Australia and overseas.

Dame Kate Campbell. Source: Trove.
Dame Kate Campbell. Source: Trove.

Dame Kate Campbell (1899- 1986) was born in Hawthorn, attended Manningtree Road Primary School (now Glenferrie Primary School) and MLC, before studying medicine at Melbourne University. Despite gender discrimination, Kate became a pioneer in maternal and children’s healthcare, transforming international infant medicine with her discovery that blindness in premature babies was caused by excess oxygen in underdeveloped lungs. In 1965, she became the first female elected president of the Australian Paediatric Association.

Betty Marginson. Source: Hawthorn Library.
Betty May Marginson. Source: Hawthorn Library.

Local teacher Betty May Marginson (1923-2015) taught immigrant children English at Hawthorn West Central School, and was one of the only women in Australia enrolled in university when she studied public policy in the 1940s. In 1972, she joined the Australian Local Government Women’s Association and was elected to the Hawthorn City Council. In 1976, Betty became the first female mayor of the City of Hawthorn. Her advocacy for senior citizens and aged care in Hawthorn was key to establishing dedicated council strategies and recreation programs for the elderly and the construction of the original Hawthorn Aquatic and Leisure Centre.

With so many public spaces around Glenferrie - some named after prominent male figures - a monument commemorating Hawthorn’s female history has the potential to bring a great sense of pride, recognition, and reflection upon the diverse foundations of our local community.

The First Hawthorn Girl Guides Troupe, circa 1915. Source: Hawthorn Library
The First Hawthorn Girl Guides Unit, circa 1915. Source: Hawthorn Library


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