The University's first ceremony at which women graduated, 2 May 1885

The first ceremony at which women graduated was on 2 May 1885, when Mary Elizabeth Brown and Isola Florence Thompson were both awarded the Bachelor of Arts.


The first students at the University of Sydney were the 24 candidates who were successful in the matriculation examinations held on 4 October 1852 and began lectures for a Bachelor of Arts degree on 12 October 1852. As women were not admitted until 1881, they were all male students.

In 1881 Senate unanimously decided to allow the admission of women, and the passing of the University Amendment Act in 1884 secured the legal rights of women at Sydney University.

The graduation ceremony

The annual commemoration, or commencement, of the Sydney University, on the afternoon of Saturday 2 May, was the most notable yet held.

For an hour previous to the commencement of the proceedings a stream of visitors set in, and at 2 o'clock, at which time it was arranged that the proceedings should commence, the Great Hall was crowded. The dais was filled with professors, members of the Senate, graduates and undergraduate, and the hall itself with their friends and visitors. The Governor was shown to the dais by Sir William Manning, the Chancellor, who afterwards occupied a chair on his right.

The undergraduates flocked in in due course and took their places on a temporary gallery erected for them.

An organ recital was given by Mr Joseph Massey: Prelude and Fugue, Mendelssohn; March, "Tannhauser," Wagner; overture, " Preciosa," Weber ; andante from 9th symphony, Mozart; Homage à Mozart, Calkin. The National Anthem was played on the entrance of the Governor.

The Chancellor presided. The various deans presented candidates for conferral of degrees by the Chancellor, as well as candidates for matriculation, ad eundem gradum degrees, honourmen, and scholarship and prize winners.

The names of benefactors to the University since 1853 were read by the registrar, Mr Barff. The name of Mr Edward Dalton, who bequeathed £10,000 in 1874 for the foundation of scholarships in memory of the late Dr Woolley, and the announcements of the noble bequest of £180,000 by Mr J H Challis and of the new bequest of £30,000 by Mr Fisher to found a library, were greeted with cheers.

Mr Frank M Bladen, the winner of the prize awarded by Lord Rosebery for the best English essay, read extracts from his composition.

Next came a long address from the Chancellor, in which he noted in particular that it was 'satisfactory to observe that these examinations bring strongly into view the wisdom of having recognised women as entitled to equal participation with men in University benefits, two ladies having taken honours out of the small proportionate number of lady students'.

Short addresses were then delivered by the Governor and Professor Walter Scott, Professor of Classics.

The charm of music was added to the other attractions of the afternoon, for some choice selections were performed by Mr Massey on the magnificent organ belonging to the institution.

From the National Library of Australia

An editorial

The Maitland Mercury, 7 May 1885:

'Several features of interest are to be noted in the Chancellor's annual speech at the Sydney University Commemoration. One is reference to the presence of lady Bachelors of Arts. We wonder whether any ingenious nomenclator will ever succeed in finding a title for this degree that shall include masculine and feminine. However that may be, we welcome lady students at the University, and congratulate the honour-takers. There are no doubt still in existence some people who view with misgiving what they would call the intrusion of woman into the higher walks of learning. And we own that the misgiving would be justified in some circumstances. If the fear were reasonable that, because the University is open to female students, women generally may abandon the dominion of home, then it would be a mistake to throw so wide the door. Such a fear is not reasonable. It may be confidently assumed that the women who seek the higher education will be the few of their sex, for the majority will prefer the queenly position of wife and mother, without seeking a very large share of "the learning schools bestow." That is to say women in bulk will follow the bent of the feminine nature, no matter what may be the facilities offered for gaining the higher education. The doors of the University may invite in vain; the mass of womankind will continue to regard marriage as the destiny of the sex. Moreover, it does not follow that because a sweet girl graduates, she will therefore make an indifferent wife and a careless mother. Cultivation of the mind does not harden the heart. And in fact very thorough education of girls in the proper direction may be approved and earnestly desired, as tending to fit them fully for the sphere nature intended them to adorn. The object of teaching in any case is to furnish the pupil mentally for the battle of life. Girls are as much entitled as boys to education of the intellect, as a preparatory training for their career as women. And seeing that many walks of industry are now open which formerly were shut to women, and that highly-cultured female teachers are wanted for that complete education to which girls are entitled, admitting women to the University is a movement of mere justice and social prudence. It is but right that the avenue to learning should be opened to such women as have the parts and the disposition to tread it."

From the National Library of Australia

The first two women graduates

Mary Elizabeth Brown

Find out about Mary Elizabeth Brown.

Isola Florence Thompson

Find out about Isola Florence Thompson.