On Friday 23 February, students, staff and special guests came together to celebrate Melbourne Girls Grammar’s 125th Anniversary at St Paul’s Cathedral. The event was a wonderful opportunity to reflect and give thanks to the years that have passed, and the years still to come at MGGS.
At the service our Principal, Catherine Misson, gave an inspiring address, drawing on the past, the present and the future of the School, which is shared below.
I am honoured to provide a reflection on the occasion of the 125th Celebration of Melbourne Girls Grammar. This is a milestone that marks the determination to endure and to flourish that were hallmarks of our earliest days. When Miss Hensley and Miss Taylor established their school with the brazen purpose of providing an education for girls equal to that of boys, they declared a purpose that would endure through decades of change and challenges, a purpose championed by successive Principals, teachers, families, Old Grammarians and School Councils.
Your school carved out a significant place in the social history of Australia by challenging the stereotypes, the cultural norms and the political biases that shaped a young nation proceeding too slowly to the embrace of women as equals with men.
Today we take for granted that a girl will have access to sport and the arts, to a broad academic curriculum, to career pathways of her choosing. Our history leads you through the deliberate steps taken by Principals like Miss Gilman Jones and Miss Nina Crone to create new understandings in each successive era that girls should indeed have these opportunities. A particular study of school uniform will illuminate attitudes towards modesty, utility, and freedom that variously constrained and liberated girls to take charge of their lives.
Girls, close your eyes and imagine these first decades of Melbourne Girls Grammar. On Anderson St cars and horses still jostled on the road, ladies were expected to wear gloves and hats, bustling to and fro, and no woman had a bank account or a tertiary degree. Now imagine sitting in the classrooms of your predecessors. Pen and ink, chalk boards, recitation, all complemented by the life skill classes in taking tea, social banter and dancing. To you, this may seem a narrow and contained education, but to the girls of the 1910s and 1920s this was an education to secure opportunities. What was always present was an urging by the educators that when engaged with one’s studies, a girl must always discipline her mind and believe in her capacity to accomplish the task.
Now imagine sitting in the classrooms of your predecessors. Pen and ink, chalk boards, recitation, all complemented by the life skill classes in taking tea, social banter and dancing. To you, this may seem a narrow and contained education, but to the girls of the 1910s and 1920s this was an education to secure opportunities.
Melbourne Girls Grammar led on agendas to influence expectations for women. Right from our very beginnings, principals championed that women could learn to manage their own finances, that women could excel in university courses and should be awarded their hard-earned certificates, that women should decide for themselves if they wanted to marry, to have children, or to travel the world solo. Your school carved out a significant place in the social history of Australia by challenging the stereotypes, the cultural norms and the political biases that shaped a young nation proceeding too slowly to the embrace of women as equals with men.
Some of my favourite stories when gathered with Old Grammarians at reunions include our girls driving ambulances and trucks in the wars, girls staring down the disbelievers as the first women in their professions, and girls who can multi-task in any unexpected situation. These stories are embellished with laughter, irreverence, admiration, common sense, and dashes of boldness. These stories reveal the evolution of the character of an MGGS girl: our distinguished history has shaped women who think for themselves, who do not shy away from challenging opportunities, and who give back to their communities.
In 2012, Melbourne Girls Grammar was invited to host the International Women’s Day breakfast at Parliament House. As was tradition, an Old Grammarian would be the guest speaker. After much deliberation, the School Captain of 1995 accepted this honour and joined us from her then home in Singapore. Vikki is a woman who represents the curious, splendid and “take no prisoners” attitude an education in our school encourages. She also mirrors the diversity that has always been a fundamental source of our success as a trailblazing community. As Vikki tells her story, she was a “typical Greek girl of a migrant family who deeply appreciated the stretch it took for her family to afford her education at the best girls’ school”. She remembers days when she pondered the acceptance of her peers, particularly her cultural background, as she says the “Greeks were thin on the ground in those days”. And then she was elected School Captain.
In our 125th year we acknowledge the breadth and the aspirations of our School, a community in which girls are encouraged and supported to find their voices and know their potential.
Vikki excelled at school but her real gift was grit – and an entrepreneurial spirit when women were definitely not entrepreneurs in the minds of most! She decided on graduation to pursue her dream – she wanted to be the first female to own a merchant fleet of tankers running goods in the sea lanes of Europe and Asia. Why not? She was Greek and Greeks knew boats. And MGGS girls were expected to make the most of their education, to defy stereotypes, to persevere. It’s a fabulous story with an incredible outcome – Vikki did indeed launch her own boat under her own name.
Vikki’s story is much more than an anecdote of one girl’s life. It’s an allegory of talent, passion and motivation in search of an extraordinary outcome. In this moral tale, girls can equal the accomplishments of men, girls can live and work outside the stereotypes of their social and historical context, and girls can defy anyone else’s expectations so that they rise to their own standards of happiness and fulfilment.
In your sisterhood girls, your voices must be the antidote to any whispers or clanging bells that suggest you have to follow where the past has settled. How ordinary and uninspiring would the world be if we capitulated to limitations of those who cannot understand that girls have the imagination, the courage and the persistence to expand not only their own opportunities but in so doing, enlarge what is possible in the world around them.
In our 125th year we acknowledge the breadth and the aspirations of our School, a community in which girls are encouraged and supported to find their voices and know their potential. We are here today having been carried forward on the shoulders of successive generations of educators and students who understood that mission and never stepped back from the challenge.
Yesterday, it was daring to provide a girl an education in serious academic subjects, yesterday it was bold to permit a girl to run, jump and throw, yesterday it was progressive to form a student executive council and give students a real voice. Today it is daring to pull down the walls and provide light filled studios for primary aged children, today it is bold to trust a girl to create her own study schedule and meet her deadlines, today it is progressive to open up time to create a flow of learning between teachers and students complemented by online learning archives.
Tomorrow? That is yours girls to influence and to expand the possibilities.
In our 125th year, we acknowledge that our school is a field which the Lord has blessed. In his infinite wisdom and grace God has granted us the harvest of our potential.
Catherine Misson, Principal