The University of Melbourne's first female commerce graduate
Harriet Amies, BCom (1907-2006)
(pages 43 - 44 of printed journal)
At her death on 7 November 2006, one month short of her ninety-ninth birthday, Harriet Margaret Pilgrim Amies was almost certainly the last survivor of the original 1925 Commerce intake. She also had the distinction of being the first female BCom and the first with an accounting ‘major’, a prelude to later membership of the accounting profession in which she is also accorded a ‘first’.
Born on 4 December, 1907 at Riverside, outside Horsham, her family were orchardists, a farming venture which ended during World War 1 when her older brother, an AIF volunteer, was severely wounded, causing the amputation of a leg. The family then moved to Melbourne and later to Moonee Ponds, where she attended Essendon High School, completing Leaving Honours in 1924.
Aged just 17, she enrolled in the BCom in 1925 on a Free Place which covered all tuition fees (then £5 per subject per annum) but paid no living allowance. While she was the first of her immediate family to enter the University, two of her sisters became pharmacists and a first-cousin, Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Amies, five years her senior, became Professor of Dental Science. That Harriet was an excellent student is demonstrated by her second place in Accountancy I in 1925 and honours in Commercial Law and Economics subjects plus Chemistry I (an unusual option in a BCom).
Following her graduation, Harriet worked for a time at the Commercial Bank, then at an engineering firm, but by 1930 had determined on a career in teaching. Completing the Diploma of Education in 1931, for most of the 1930s she taught commercial subjects at the Clarendon Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC), Ballarat before transferring to the Melbourne PLC as bursar. Through passing additional exams in auditing and taxation, she qualified in 1933 as a ‘Licentiate’ member of Australia’s largest accounting body, the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants – now CPA Australia – the first female to do so largely on the strength of undergraduate studies in accounting.
In February 1943, Harriet’s occupational situation took a major diversion when she enlisted into the Australian Women’s Army Service. Initially a private, her abilities were quickly recognised and within eight months she had been commissioned Acting Lieutenant with duties that included stores and ordnance control. Demobilised in January 1946 with the rank of Acting Captain, she resumed her career in accounting. Her post-war employers included the Epworth Hospital, clothing concern Samos Modes, and the Presbyterian Bookshop. After her retirement from business in 1969 she provided taxation-related services for private clients until well into her seventies. Possessing a diversified investment portfolio, she followed the stockmarket, regularly attended company annual meetings and, until late in life, provided investment advice to her nieces and nephew.
Harriet never married and is described by family members as an ‘extremely private person’, with great ‘depth of character’. While frugal in her personal habits, she gave generously to charities. She also contributed to the University in two unusual ways: first, by accommodating Colombo Plan international students at her house in Moonee Ponds in the 1960s, and second, in a wonderful altruistic gesture, by donating her body to the Department of Anatomy for the purposes of teaching and research.
Despite Harriet’s status as the first female BCom graduate in Victoria, and the first female graduate to gain entry to a professional accounting body in Australia largely on the basis of university studies in the discipline, there is no evidence that she identified herself as a pioneer or feminist in any way. Nevertheless, her quiet achievements arose from first taking the path that many young women would subsequently follow. The arc of her life, spanning a century of massive social, economic and technological change, is emblematic of the choices, possibilities and constraints that female graduates faced and continue to face today.