Part of our collection of articles on Australian history’s missing women, in collaboration with the Australian Dictionary of Biography
Ina Higgins travelled high and fast, with a plume of stars in her stead. Blue-eyed and serene, she was among Australia’s first female landscape architects and took a leading role in the first wave of the women’s movement. Her feminism was not concerned with an individual’s achievements; rather, she worked with like-minded people, mostly women, and rose to the challenges she encountered during her long life. Central was her belief in providing economic and social support for disadvantaged people, not with charity but with training and by promoting industrial democracy. By mentoring individuals and working with women’s associations, she opened doors for many others to follow, including one of her stars, her niece Nettie Palmer, the literary critic who first described her as a comet.
Frances Georgina Watts (Ina) Higgins was born into a Protestant family in County Cork, Ireland, in 1860. Her parents brought the family to Victoria, escaping ill health and impoverishment, when Ina was ten. Typical of early, large colonial families, the Higgins household was close-knit and hardworking, guided by a strong-willed matriarch (Ina’s father was a travelling Wesleyan Methodist minister). The family prospered, eventually contributing a son, Henry, to the High Court bench.
At fifteen, Ina was enrolled as a foundation student at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, an enclave of progressive educationalists. Among the other foundation students was the charismatic Vida Goldstein, nine years her junior, who would become a lifelong friend and ally. The school’s syllabus was the same as that taught at private boys’ schools and prepared the girls for independent roles, though there were no straightforward career paths for women in colonial Victoria. Higgins was interested in beauty and the arts; she was to pioneer a courageous path combining design, professional horticulture, political leadership and, eventually, spirituality.
For a while after school she continued to paint and study French through university extension classes. Revelling in the freedom given by her bicycle, she assisted in a working girls’ club, joined a local government advisory board, and decided to pursue vocational training. To that end, she spearheaded a movement to open up Burnley Horticultural College to women; in 1899, after the campaign succeeded, she was one of the first twenty-five women to enrol.
Higgins had considerable success as a professional landscape architect and horticulturalist, designing and overseeing the creation of numerous private and public gardens in Melbourne and regional Victoria, and as far afield as Grafton in northern New South Wales. Detailed research to unearth and map Higgins’s gardens will undoubtedly reveal her significant contribution in more depth: among her most important projects were garden designs for the Talbot epileptic colony in Clayton (now Monash University), “Heronswood” in Dromana, and “Heatherset” in Burwood, as well as her work on the planting plans for architect and town planner Walter Burley Griffin’s projects for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Trust.
Higgins took up key positions in women’s suffrage organisations, notably the Victorian-based United Council for Woman Suffrage, whose president was the activist Annette Bear-Crawford. She was honorary secretary at the organisation’s inception in 1894, and served on the executive committee from 1900, also representing her local Malvern branch.
It was the heyday of the British Empire and Higgins’s practical idealism was grounded in internationalism. Through her commitment to working together for the greater good, she was open to all women of any class. She was secretary of the 1907 Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work, held in Melbourne, a display of 16,000 diverse exhibits, many from women overseas, that attracted interest across the empire. After working closely with Lady Talbot, the state governor’s wife and vice-
president of the exhibition, Higgins accompanied her on the couple’s return to Europe. She visited Europe’s cultural repositories and gardens, and moved in Victoria League circles.
Higgins was nominated patron of the Women Horticulturalists’ Association of Victoria in 1914. That same year, when the Women’s Political Association split over its response to war, she remained aligned with Vida Goldstein and was active with her in the work of the Women’s Peace Army, or WPA, during the war.
Together with Cecilia John, poultry farmer, contralto and WPA organiser, and the outspoken suffragette Adela Pankhurst, who had also completed horticultural training, Higgins took a leading role in establishing the Women’s Rural Industries Cooperative in 1915. This new organisation emerged partly from an employment agency for women suffering extreme hardship, in the days when it was assumed women were not economically responsible for dependants and were paid half male rates. Higgins took on the onerous work of honorary secretary and key fundraiser. At the twelve-acre (almost five-hectare) women’s farm in Mordialloc, an outer suburb of Melbourne, Higgins supervised the growing of flowers and vegetables. The farm eventually doubled in size.
Higgins’s leadership was based on a clear set of deeply held values and ethical principles, along with self-discipline, emotional intelligence, and the ability to work with others towards common goals through a shared vision that is larger than oneself. Before the war, her idealism was channelled into vegetarianism, nonviolence and the non-materialism of prayer-based Christian Science. In wartime, she supported the two anti-conscription campaigns, and during the general strike she assisted the WPA in mobilising the massive provision of food and supplies for striking families through the Guild Hall Commune. During this period she had been living with and caring for her mother; when she died in 1917, Higgins inherited the family home.
The vision she shared with Vida Goldstein and others in their circle transformed from direct political intervention at the time of the European carnage to a clearer focus on the spiritual life and a retreat from public involvement. She became more deeply involved in Christian Science in the final decades of her life, but also continued to work for the international arbitration of disputes.
From the 1920s she remained active in feminist pacifist circles as a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Melbourne. And until her death at eighty-seven, she provided accommodation at her home to other nonviolent resisters.
Throughout her long life she remained single. Her nephew’s partner, Joy Barrington, described her as the most sainted woman she had ever met. •
“Women Gardeners without Chaperones: The Role of Ina Higgins in Advancing Women in Horticulture in Victoria,” by Sandra Pullman, Latrobe History Journal, 2017
“‘Women’s Time’: Ina Higgins, Nettie Palmer and Aileen Palmer,” by Deborah Jordan, Victorian Historical Journal, 2008