Bella Lavender

Julia Margaret (Bella) Lavender (1858-1923), feminist and teacher, is known also as Bella Guerin. She was born on 23 April 1858 at Williamstown, Victoria, daughter of Julia Margaret (born Kearney) and Patrick Guerin, prison officer, both from Ireland. Having studied at home to matriculate in 1878, Bella graduated BA from the University of Melbourne in 1883 (the first woman to graduate from an Australian university) and MA in 1885. She taught first at Loreto Convent, Ballarat, urging higher education scholarships for Catholic girls to produce 'a band of noble thoughtful women as a powerful influence for good'; then as lady principal of Ballarat School of Mines university classes. She resigned on marriage on 29 June 1891 to Henry Halloran, civil servant and poet. Halloran, then aged 80, had addressed a laudatory poem to her after seeing a graduation portrait. He died in Sydney on 19 May 1893, leaving Bella with an infant son, Henry Marco. A second marriage at Christ Church St Kilda, Melbourne, on 1 October 1909 to George D'Arcie Lavender, 30 years her junior, was apparently brief. For much of her life she lived with her brother Marco Guerin, also a teacher.

Returning to teaching from financial necessity, Bella taught in Sydney, then Carlton, Prahran and East Melbourne. From the mid-1890s she frequented suffragist circles, becoming an office-bearer in the Bendigo Women's Franchise League while running University College, Bendigo, in 1898-1903. From 1904-17 she taught at Camperdown and in a succession of small Melbourne schools with diminishing success. Her increasing political activity and disputes with the Education Department probably contributed to this outcome.

As vice-president of the Women's Political Association in 1912-14, Bella Lavender co-authored Vida Goldstein's (q.v.) 1913 Senate election pamphlet. She severed her connections with the Women's Political Association to become more active in the Labor Party. She wrote and spoke for the Labor Party, the Victorian Socialist Party and the Women's League of Socialists, and was recognised as a 'witty, cogent and instructive' commentator on a range of controversial social issues, including 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 the rights of assembly and free speech.

Appointed vice-president of the Labor Party's Women's Central Organising Committee in March 1918, she protested at the Party's relegation of women to auxiliary fund-raising roles and their under- representation on policy-making bodies: they were treated as 'performing poodles and pack horses'. She organised for Labor 'only so far as it stands for those principles represented by the Red Flag'; while believing in the parliamentary system, she wished to see capitalism eliminated.

Bella Lavender moved from Catholicism to rationalism. She described her political evolution as from 'Imperialistic butterfly' to 'democratic grub', and she experienced continual tensions as a socialist feminist within the Labor Party. She saw herself as a 'national idealist' and an 'incorrigible militant', promoting women's participation in public life. She was an orator of 'unique talents'. Her son, who practised as a doctor in Adelaide, described her as 'the kindest and most gentle of women'. She died in Adelaide of cirrhosis of the liver on 26 July 1923.

Farley Kelly