Professor Marcia Langton is a researcher and commentator on Australian Indigenous issues, including land rights, native title, natural resources and corporate social responsibility.
Chancellor of the University of Melbourne
The Hon Alex Chernov AO QC
Professor Glyn Davies AC
Chair of Janet Clarke Hall
Professor Ruth Fincher
Principal of Janet Clarke Hall
Dr Damian Powell
Mrs Elizabeth Chernov
Professor Margaret Gardner AO
Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your very warm welcome to me this evening.
I acknowledge the rich culture and enduring influence of this land?s first keepers; and their successors, the
custodians, leaders, scholars and teachers of this esteemed institution of learning.
And I am most grateful to the Vice-Chancellor and the University for the generosity of spirit extended to me over my first year in office as Governor-General.
This occasion asks us to recall the role the University of Melbourne has played:
* in the intellectual, professional, cultural and social development of individuals for over 150 years;
* in the evolution of civilised society in this city, this State and nation;
* in the rigorous pursuit of new knowledge,
* and in the shepherding of old wisdom.
Tonight also very much recalls in me the fondest memories of my time as Principal of the Women's College within the University of Sydney. The principles I was charged to uphold:
* of access, equity and justice;
* the sustaining value of a university education;
* and the special value of a residential college in which young women can learn the meaning of true union, and the responsibilities and privileges of being members of a corporate body.
The young, capable, aspiring women I was privileged to lead: my care and nurture of them no measure against that which they gave me.
And the extraordinary woman, Louisa Macdonald, whose legacy I was bound to preserve, and do my best to follow:
* leadership founded in belief, courage, intelligence and vision, inclusiveness, energy and tenacity;
* leadership without ego or dominance.
My words this evening honour the work of another extraordinary woman.
Janet, Lady Clarke - as she became known upon the death of her husband, Sir William Clarke - was not a leader of women scholars, but a devoted philanthropist and keen organiser, who made it her business to apply the wealth she acquired through marriage to women's scholarship.
Janet Clarke Hall, here at the University of Melbourne, is a vibrant testament to the significant stamp she left, and the future offerings her contribution allowed in the education of both women and men.
She was a country girl who grew up on the banks of the Goulburn River.
She was modest about her attributes and embarrassed by what she felt were her deficiencies.
Yet among the social circles of the Melbourne elite, she was distinguished for the humanity and charity she showed to all, and most especially to those in need.
With her husband's ready approval, she used her position and funds to ensure that women who lacked the financial means could gain the advantages of a fine education - something she, herself, had gone without.
The story of women's entry to higher education on equal terms with men has every ingredient of a ripping yarn: intrigue and recalcitrance, courage and stoicism, hostility, sacrifice, loss and triumph.
In 18th century England, it was the well-heeled bluestockings who advocated reforms in the teaching of girls and the establishment of more and better schools.
They were clever, mostly uneducated society women, novelists and poets, members of the cheekily called
"petti-coterie". They prised open the doors of Oxford and Cambridge and became known as the "ingenious and learned Ladies".
Though, the suggestion that they be awarded honorary degrees for their academic merit and assiduous work ethic was a step too far!
It was another century before women could sit the same entrance exams as men, which, on passing, would deliver them to the ranks of freshers.
The first of them to take up residence in university women's colleges couldn't afford to put a foot wrong for fear that the whole exercise would promptly be deemed a gargantuan error of judgment.
They demonstrated an asceticism in their daily routines - rising early, retiring late, gruelling hours of Latin by candlelight, prayers, chilblains, unpromising menus and ceaseless fire drills - all of it intended to prove that their restraint justified their educational indulgence.
Yet these women knew that at any time they may be called from home to abandon their life of an intellectual sybarite and return to reality.
The English critics scoffed that sending women to university was a travesty of common sense, a wanton waste of time and money, which upset the natural order of things and made monsters of their daughters.
Similarly, in Australia, women's desire for knowledge and a professional career was regarded as a threat to her traditional role as wife, mother and domestician.
Indeed, it was seen as a threat to the whole of society's structure.
It was even believed by some physicians that because a woman's brain weighed 150 grams less than a man's, she mustn't over tax it, thus compromising her physical and moral femininity.
For those women who defied this advice, it was claimed - though not for long - that their excessive mental effort jeopardised their ability to conceive.
Women faced resistance from many quarters, but forged ahead with:
* the trenchant encouragement of their dedicated teachers;
* and tough-love from the likes of Virginia Woolf who believed that women weren't fighting hard enough to make their mark on society.
It took the Lady Clarkes and Louisa Macdonalds, the bluestockings, the suffragettes and the feminists, the rowdy activists, and the reserved young women students, their chaperones, teachers and progressive fathers to drive the movement forward.
These pioneers didn't always share the same views, but they nevertheless strived according to the single purpose that would secure women's equal access to higher education.
Today's educated women stand on their broad and united shoulders, for finally their quest succeeded.
By the 1930s and 40s, women were a growing presence in the seats of learning of English and Australian
But they soon began to question what it all meant.
Unless women studied law or medicine or similar, teaching was likely to be their default career, regardless of their aptitude or inclination for it.
And if they married, their employment more often than not swiftly came to an end.
They were thwarted by unimaginative careers advice, and rarely persuaded to pursue their ambitions.
The Second World War provided a window for women's advancement, only to close again for most upon the return of the menfolk from conflict.
Having won the fight for proper access to higher education, women's attention then turned to assessing her real prospects of applying that learning for her personal and professional gain.
It's 70-odd years since the question was first posed; yet now it seems even more difficult to answer.
The most vexing issues are around achieving women's full participation in the senior ranks of public, private and civil society, and the extent to which that participation is hampered by their unique role as the bearers of our children.
The debate of these issues is robust and current in the Australian community, and not one I intend to add to
Rather, I'd like to explore where our women are heading: the disciplines that are engaging their intellects and passions; and the changing boundaries of what women's education is.
The first point to make is that over the last decade the percentage of women in higher education has held its own around 55 per cent.
If you think that's old news, I'm delighted to hear it. There's no more convincing evidence of what, in a hundred years of Australia's history, has been a colossal shift in our society's attitudes to women.
Some more figures that indicate the trends in the last ten years:
* In the arts and humanities, law and cultural studies, women's share of university places has increased slightly to 66 per cent.
* In health and education, they remain at 74 per cent.
* At post-graduate level, there is gender parity.
* In business, commerce and management, the numbers are edging towards the same position.
* In architecture, women are up four to 40 per cent.
* For women engineering students, the movement has been slower and the participation lower: up only two to 16 per cent.
* In IT, the trends aren't as clear. Though women's representation currently stands at 19 per cent, in 1998, the field didn't even warrant a column in the tables.
* The most striking progress since the late 1990s, has been in the study of science, agriculture and the
environment: each up 11 per cent to take women's share of lecture halls to just over 50 per cent.
All of these figures are cause for celebration, each flagging a remarkable and unfinished story of women's passage to tertiary scholarship.
The last figures I mentioned, however, invite us to ponder their wider meaning.
Our world is afflicted like never before by:
* poverty and hunger;
* conflict, terrorism and violence;
* widening gaps in wealth and development;
* changes to climate and the effects of human consumption;
* new and aggressive viruses, bacteria and cancers;
* and their adverse consequences to human and animal health, patterns of human habitation, our natural environment and resources, and our capacity to equitably sustain life and modern living on the planet.
Knowledge has also reached unprecedented levels, as have our means of accessing and acquiring it.
The real and immediate prospect of women stepping up to the plate on an equal footing with men to address these urgent and complex challenges is one we must seriously embrace and recognise as vital to our future security and wellbeing.
Last week, Australia's first female Nobel laureate was announced.
Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, a graduate and post-graduate of this university and former resident of Janet Clarke Hall, was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine.
She was described in one report as having her feet on the ground and her head in the laboratory. Her discovery reveals how chromosomes are copied and protected when cells divide. If the protections erode, normal regeneration is interrupted, cells age and can become cancerous.
The expertise to detect this sort of cellular activity is likely to have important implications for the early
diagnosis and treatment of certain cancers, diseases of ageing, and stress-related diseases.
Professor Blackburn says she faced early discouragement from those who believed that nice girls don't do science.
I'm very pleased that she did it anyway, and Professor Peter Doherty who has previously shared the same prize, attests to her being much more than a nice girl: a star, he says; identifiably Australian; an all round admirable person with an impeccable scientific record and academic pedigree.
In 2005 I was invited to give a lecture to mark the centenary of women's right to gain admission as legal
practitioners in Queensland. I lamented the familiar absence of women from the profession's senior ranks,
proselytising various theories and solutions.
I spoke of what I believe is a universal truth: that women - whether they are lawyers, or scientists, or
educators, or mothers - do things differently.
The Hon Marilyn Warren, this state's Chief Justice, has spoken of how women distinctively combine energy,
patience, humour and insight. How they identify issues quickly and search out resolutions; their flexibility and strong sense of method and stepped analysis.
It is the mix of women's and men's differentiating qualities that capitalises human effort and pursuit. To insist on one set but not the other constrains opportunity and accomplishment in far-reaching ways.
On the strength of the current figures, women are well poised to participate equally and fully in shaping the
solutions and directions for our nation and world.
The figures also plainly disclose women's potential to influence the future of learning, an essential precursor to these responses.
As women future educators take up almost three-quarters of the seats in lecture halls, they are equipping themselves to redefine the nature and possibilities of education in order to meet the changing demands of men and women and their circumstances.
Universities and employers are recognising more and more the need to extend teaching and training beyond the strict bounds of a discipline.
Female students and graduates, in particular, want and need to know how they can participate fully in their
* how they can take part in key decision-making processes,
* how they can continue to build on their professional skills and standing,
* and how they can combine their work with mothering and family life without detriment to either.
Comprehensive scholarships and well-established mentoring programs for women across all disciplines are crucial incentives for the entry and retention of women in higher education and the skilled and senior workforce.
Australia's government, academic, business and community sectors have some impressive offerings in these areas, and I give my greatest support to their continued expansion.
Only this morning our Deputy Prime Minister announced the creation of the Governor-General's Indigenous Student Teacher Scholarship program, which I feel immensely proud to champion.
Open to Indigenous men and women undertaking tertiary teaching studies, these scholarships emphasise the importance of high standards in teacher education, and the special role Indigenous teachers have in improving educational outcomes for young Indigenous Australians.
There is a broader context for all of this too.
While more can certainly be done to ensure that Australian women are fully participating members of our economy and society, we must acknowledge the outstanding progress we have made towards that goal.
And we must also acknowledge what we have to offer as a result of that progress.
Recently, former and first female President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, delivered the annual Griffith Lecture in Brisbane. There are not sufficient words to illuminate the scale of her commitment to a just, healthy and peaceful world.
She spoke of the plight of women and girls in the poorest nations.
Development agency, Plan, last month released its 2009 State of the World's Girls Report. It has found that the global financial crisis is threatening to plunge millions of girls further into poverty.
More girl babies will die before their first birthday; women in the informal and export sectors are losing their jobs; and girls are being pulled out of education.
I witnessed these findings first-hand when I visited Africa earlier this year.
And yet we also know that investing in girls' education, health and wellbeing yields significant returns to individuals, families, communities and whole economies.
Educated Australian women are well-equipped to understand these issues and to contribute, as Mary Robinson urges, to their solutions.
Friends, Janet Lady Clarke would have been exceedingly satisfied, I think, to hear of the hearty state of women's education in Australia a century on from her own passing.
Indeed, her grandest visions could not have imagined our now long-standing achievements.
With this track record, I believe we have a great deal more exhilarating progress ahead.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.
Senior Communications and Media Adviser
Government House, Canberra