Inside Story

Have I been excommunicated?

How a distinguished educator fell victim to church politics and personal enmities

Frank Bongiorno Books 7 August 2021 1183 words

Forced out: Dudley Drew’s portrait of PLC headmistress Joan Montgomery (1979).

The Vetting of Wisdom: Joan Montgomery and the fight for PLC
By Kim Rubenstein | Franklin Street Press | $39.95 | 424 pages

Twenty-five years ago, filmmakers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson produced Australia’s version of Machiavelli’s The Prince with their documentary Rats in the Ranks (1996), the inside story of an election for Leichhardt Council in Sydney. In the overall scheme of things, the stakes were small, but viewers found the machinations fascinating, not least because they were allowed into the same room as the schemers and plotters, as well as those destined to be double-crossed and defeated. There is something raw, brutal and compelling about the power exercised in and around small organisations.

The Vetting of Wisdom has many of these qualities. We are drawn into the struggle for control of a Melbourne private school, identifying with the heroine, headmistress Joan Montgomery, barracking for her supporters even in their missteps, willing the plotters to fail, hoping for right to defeat might while suspecting that in the end the numbers will tell a different story. As they do. But we are also reminded that power gained and exercised by a highly motivated but out-of-touch minority can sometimes be fragile. Those who managed to push Montgomery out of her position soon found themselves sidelined within their own church. It is easier to pull down than to build — and that is a lesson in power with relevance to organisations of all sizes.

The book is more than an account of a factional war. It is also an affectionate biography of an influential educator by a former school captain, Kim Rubenstein, now a distinguished professor of law at the University of Canberra. And it is obviously a labour of love — a tribute to a woman, Montgomery, who wasn’t able to depart the school on her own terms, with due recognition of the esteem in which she was held by peers, parents and pupils.

Its setting matters. Presbyterian Ladies’ College was the national leader in girls’ education, established in 1875 on the understanding that it would offer an education “equivalent to that provided by the leading colonial boys’ schools.” There was controversy from the earliest years, since its headmaster, Charles Henry Pearson, formerly a professor of modern history at King’s College London, was soon moonlighting as a political activist who advocated a land tax to break up the estates of the wealthy landed class. He would go on to serve as a Liberal parliamentarian and minister and was, by the time of his death, one of the world’s more influential public intellectuals because of his book National Life and Character: A Forecast (1893).

The title of The Vetting of Wisdom is borrowed from a newspaper article published during the battle for control of the school, and references a novel by one of the school’s many distinguished former students, Ethel Richardson, better known as Henry Handel Richardson. Other famous “old girls” include Vida Goldstein, destined to become a feminist activist, and the young woman who became Dame Nellie Melba. We are dealing with Melbourne Brahmans here, but also with a school that has played a significant part in the educational life of the nation.

The origins of the dispute lay in the merger of three Australian churches — Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational — in 1977 to become the Uniting Church. While most members voted to join the new church, a Presbyterian minority was determined to continue separately. That raised the question of what would happen to the schools associated with the three denominations. A “property commission” awarded the two most prestigious of them, PLC and Scotch College, to the Continuing Presbyterians. Litigation by the school council resulted in PLC’s becoming an independent corporate body, but the system for deciding the council’s subsequent composition virtually guaranteed the Continuing Presbyterians a permanent 12–5 majority.

None of this would have mattered if the Continuing Presbyterians hadn’t been determined to return the school to what they regarded as the straight and narrow. They believed PLC was too secular, too concerned with academic excellence as understood in a profane world dominated by the fallen, and too little concerned with sound religious instruction based on the Bible. They denied they were fundamentalists, but there was the strong whiff of the Covenanters about them. Certainly, no one who read this book would imagine that the civil wars ended with the Battle of Worcester.

In some ways, Montgomery was an unlikely target. The daughter of a bank manager, she had a long and impressive record as both a teacher and headmistress before her appointment to PLC for the 1969 school year. Like many of the women who were the leaders in this world of private girls’ schools, she remained unmarried: it was hard for this lapsed Catholic reader not to think of the parallel with the nuns who ran the Catholic girls’ schools of the same era, often with a similar independence.

Yet Montgomery was hardly a radical. The school was unmistakably Christian and provided solid religious education, although with a comparative and analytical dimension that didn’t please the critics. It also welcomed girls who were not Presbyterian. Rubenstein is herself Jewish and recalls that Montgomery went to the trouble of acquiring a Hebrew bible as a graduation gift, rather than the Christian version offered most other girls.

Montgomery had initiated “Liberal Studies” and “Human Relations” — including sex education — programs in the 1970s, which some critics managed to inflate into a dangerous trend towards humanism and even Marxism. Yet, while these gentle gestures to the revolutionary changes of the era were handy targets for her enemies, they don’t appear to have been the central issue. Rubenstein believes it was Montgomery’s emphasis on preparing girls to participate in society as the equals of men that was at the heart of the dispute.

Rubenstein also hints at another possibility. In the mid 1950s, after she had returned from Britain, Montgomery had asked Max Bradshaw, the session clerk at the Hawthorn Presbyterian Church where she had previously worshipped, for a transfer to Toorak, to which members of her family had also moved. When Bradshaw refused, Montgomery replied, “Oh, have I been excommunicated?!” It was Bradshaw who would lead the charge against Montgomery two decades later. Was he still nursing a grudge against a woman who, not yet thirty years old, had shown such an intolerable level of independence? Were similar kinds of monsters being made in the PLC of the 1970s and 1980s?

Montgomery was forced out of her job at sixty but has continued as a respected educator and citizen in the decades since. This deeply affectionate but well-researched portrait has been prepared by its author over many years. Rubenstein is a conscientious biographer who, while wearing her allegiance on her sleeve, has done her best to enter the minds of Montgomery’s opponents, who often behave intolerantly and unattractively. But we do need to understand such people, not least because the legacy of the conservative gender code they did so much to uphold remains with us, and notably in many of our private schools. The outsized influence still wielded by some of the male products of those schools is a problem for all of us. •