“The First Girl Graduates”: The legacy of Kate Edger

Kate Edger, BA 1877.

Kate Milligan Edger BA 1877.
University of Auckland historical collection. Part 1. MSS & Archives E-8, Box 2, Folder 2. Special Collections, Libraries and Learning Services, University of Auckland.

The achievements of Kate Milligan Edger, the first woman in the British Empire to earn a BA and the first woman in New Zealand to earn a degree, are well-known and memorialised. A facsimile of her degree is displayed permanently at the Kate Edger Information Commons and new graduates hire regalia from the Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust. There are even grants available in her name to support women following the same path.1

Edger graduated with a BA from the University of New Zealand on 11 July 1877 after completing her studies at Auckland College and Grammar School. While she is rightly renowned as a champion of women’s education in New Zealand, less is known about the women who quickly followed in her footsteps, or as Edger called them, “The First Girl Graduates.”2

Among the early “girl graduates” from this University, which opened in 1883 as Auckland University College, are sportswomen who competed in the first Easter Tournament in 1902, founders of student literary journals, headmistresses of the country’s top girls’ schools, the first woman to gain her MA from Auckland, and members of the Student’s Association executive.

Annie Morrison MA 1893

Annie Morrison MA 1893.
Auckland University Students’ Association records. MSS & Archives E-9, item 5/1. Special Collections, Libraries and Learning Services, University of Auckland.

Like Edger, many went on to marry, have children and sustain careers, often in education. One graduate, Annie Morrison, left university with a MA in 1893 and became the first headmistress of Epsom Girls’ Grammar School.3 Another, Mary Edith Clarke, married, had children, worked as a librarian in Te Awamutu and as Mary Scott wrote over 40 novels depicting rural life in New Zealand.4

To celebrate the 140th anniversary of Edger’s graduation, Special Collections explores the lives of five of the University’s early women graduates in a display outside the Reading Room, Level G of the General Library, until 18 August.

Sarah Dunbar, Special Collections


1 More about the Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust (2012). Retrieved from http://www.academicdresshire.co.nz/About+Us/More+about+Kate+Edger++the+Trust.html

2 Evans, K. (1923, May 12). The First Girl Graduates. Lyttelton Times, p.16.

3 New Zealand Federation of University Women, Auckland Branch memorial book. MSS & Archives E-21. Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services.

4 Scott, M. (1966). Days that have been: An autobiography. Auckland: Longman Paul.


  • Mark Costello commented on 04/07/2017

    This is an interesting good-news item thank you. It would be interesting to know more about how their degrees affected their lives and those of others, and how the first women MSc and PhD fared. Perhaps a good topic for more research.

  • Andrew Henry commented on 27/07/2017

    A great post, will have to come up and have a look at the display. Coincidentally we’ve just blogged about Kate’s sister Lilian and Mary Scott at http://heritageetal.blogspot.co.nz/

  • Billy Hen commented on 30/05/2019

    wait so she graduated before the uni was even open?

    • Libraries and Learning Services commented on 31/05/2019

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, Kate Edger’s BA was conferred in 1877 by the University of New Zealand (UNZ) which at that time was the country’s examining and degree-granting body. Edger worked towards her degree through Auckland College and Grammar School, which was then one of the institutions affiliated to the UNZ. Auckland University College (later the University of Auckland) opened in 1883 as an affiliate of the UNZ.

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