Kate Edger
First female graduate
1857-1935

The first woman to earn a university degree in New Zealand

When Kate Edger applied to sit the scholarship examination for entry to university in 1874, she applied as "K. Edger" without disclosing her gender.

It's hard to believe now, but New Zealand at the time was like Pakistan today. The very idea that girls should be entitled to an education was still controversial.

"There remained the persistent anxiety that female education, in encouraging women to pursue independent lives, might lead them to reject the traditional role of wife and mother, thus undermining society," writes Edger's biographer Katrina Ford, quoting historian Kay Morris Matthews.

In Dunedin, it took an eight-year campaign after Otago Boys' High School opened in 1863 to get a girls' high school in 1871.

Women were barred from taking degrees at London University until 1878, at Oxford until 1920 and at Cambridge until 1948.

But New Zealand was a small place and Edger's gender-neutral application did not deceive the Senate of the University of New Zealand. Ford says the university was negotiating to absorb Otago and Canterbury universities and "was keen to prove its own legitimacy by increasing student numbers regardless of their gender".

In 1877, when Edger became just first woman in the British Empire to receive a Bachelor of Arts, Ford writes that "Auckland's elites turned out to witness her graduation and bask in the glow of what one speaker referred to as 'the lustre' that Kate's achievement conferred upon the Auckland community".

Edger became the founding principal of Nelson College for Girls in 1883 and later, as Kate Evans, was a leading figure in public campaigns on alcohol, prison reform, and world peace.