‘Intruding on the public domain explicitly reserved to men’

Women lawyers stand at the forefront of women’s participation in Australian civic life. As Mary Jane Mossman writes of the first women lawyers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while ‘the role of women doctors could be explained as an extension of women’s roles in the ‘private sphere’; by contrast, women lawyers were clearly ‘intruding on the public domain explicitly reserved to men’. [1]

One of the earliest intruders in this ‘public domain’ was Flos Greig. Greig was a remarkable pioneer whose determination to practice as a solicitor advanced gender equality in the legal profession in Australia in the early twentieth century. Born in 1880, Flos Greig was the first woman to enter any Law Faculty in Australia in 1897 and she completed her arts/law degree at the University of Melbourne in 1903. Importantly, she began her law degree at a time when women did not possess the right to vote or stand for Parliament let alone hold any certainty that she would be admitted to practise law upon graduation from University.

While Greig was intruding in Melbourne, Ada Evans was intruding in NSW – when Ada enrolled in the Sydney University Faculty of Law, the Dean, Professor Pitt Cobbett, would not accept women law students. Ada enrolled when he was absent on leave and could not prevent her entry. Upon his return, Professor Cobbett told Ada that ‘her frame was so light that she should become a doctor’. [2] Nevertheless, Ada continued her studies and in 1902 (a year before Greig) became the first Australian woman to complete her law degree.

Self-evidently, there was no precedent of women becoming lawyers in any of the Australian states. Greig and her supporters began a campaign in Victoria to allow women to enter the legal profession and in April 1903 the Parliament of Victoria passed the Women’s Disabilities Removal Act 1903 (sometimes referred to as the ‘Flos Greig Enabling Act’) to specifically allow women to practise law. Indeed, Greig went on to practise law for the remainder of her life, whilst campaigning for causes including children’s welfare, women’s suffrage and adult education, before her death in 1958, aged 78.

Ada’s story was different – it took until 1918 for legislation to be passed to allow women to enter the legal profession in New South Wales and in 1921 Ada Evans became the first woman to be admitted to the New South Wales Bar. Ada never practiced, however, due to the lapse of time since her graduation, poor health and family commitments.

Edith Haynes in Western Australia had a less successful experience. On 9 August 1904 the Full Court of the Supreme Court of Western Australia decided, in Re Edith Haynes (1904) 6 WAR 209 that the word ‘person’ in the Legal Practitioners Act 1893 did not include a female and Edith Haynes was not allowed to become a lawyer and the law was not changed until 1923 when Edith Cowan, the first woman elected to an Australian parliament, introduced a private member’s bill, which became the Women’s Legal Status Act 1923.

Following the introduction of the Legal Practitioners Act of 1905, Agnes McWhinney became the first Queensland woman to be admitted as a legal practitioner in 1915. In Tasmania it was not until 1935 that Nancy McPhee became the first woman admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of Tasmania.

Mary Kitson (later Tenison-Woods) was the first woman to graduate in law (in 1916) and be admitted to the bar in South Australia (in 1917). Furthermore, on being expected to resign from her job on her marriage, she formed what may have been the first female legal practice in Australia (with Dorothy Somerville) in 1925.

Unfortunately, no one sat down to conduct oral histories with Flos Greig , Ada Evans, Edith Hayne, Agnes McWhinney, Nancy McPhee or Mary Kitson – the first women throughout the Australian states who sought to intrude. We cannot hear those women speak in their own words about their lives.

One hundred years after that important Victorian legislation of 1903, her Honour Chief Justice Marilyn Warren was appointed as the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria and ten years after that, in 2013, we see the beginning of an oral history project on Trailblazing Women and the Law.

Despite this ‘intrusion’ in the first fifty years of the 20th century Australia is far from achieving an equality of women’s participation in the legal world and is still working towards full citizenship for women in the civic sphere. [3] Within the Australian court system, women judges make up only 35% of the total bench. [4] In the commercial sectors too, women ‘remain clustered at the lower paid, lower status end of the legal professional hierarchy’, [5] despite women law students now entering universities in greater proportions than men. [6] The ‘National Attrition and Re-engagement Study Report ‘ released by the Law Council of Australia in March 2014 confirmed that during 2013-14 women solicitors comprised 61% of all solicitors admitted in that year. However, the Report found a wide gap between the large number of women who enter the legal profession and the smaller number who remain some years later. [7] As a result, these women leaders in the legal profession remain as the ‘trailblazers at the legal frontier.’ [8]

However, and importantly, the legal frontier can be thought of beyond the more traditional practice as solicitor, advocate or judge in the Courts. This exhibition, and the oral history project more broadly, makes the point that having a law degree has enabled women to intrude into areas of civic public life that have been traditionally occupied only by men.

Interrogating the life stories of women interviewed for the Trailblazing Women and the Law Project and the biographical entries featured in the Australian Women Lawyers as Active Citizens Online Exhibition reveals many significant intrusions.

A small group is listed here to whet your appetite for further ‘wandering’ around the online exhibition, and we encourage you to look at the Occupations list on the website and extend your research in our sister project, the Australian Women’s Register. You now have the ability to dip in and out of all the entries – particularly the publicly available oral histories – and the reflective essays provided by many of the women.

Most importantly, this exhibition provides you with ready access to the inspiring stories of these active citizens whose contributions have influenced our society today, and who should inspire many more women to be active citizens in the future, including:

  • Peg Lusink – the first Victorian woman to become a partner in a large commercial law firm and to be appointed a Judge of the Family Court) and our ‘oldest’ interviewee (b.1922) in the Trailblazing Women and the Law oral history collection
  • Lyma Nguyen – now practising as a Barrister in Darwin, who was the first Australian woman lawyer to be admitted as International Counsel for Civil Parties in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Lyma is our ‘youngest’ (b.1982) interviewee in the Trailblazing Women and the law oral history collection.

Now follows an alphabetical listing of a further 30 as a small set from our 500 women in the exhibition:

  • Rosemary Balmford – the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Victoria and the first to run a murder trial in the state.
  • Julie Bishop – the first female Australian Foreign Affairs Minister.
  • Catherine Branson –first woman in Australia (and possibly the common law world) to be appointed Crown Solicitor. She was also the first woman to be appointed permanent head of a government department in South Australia.
  • Diana Bryant – the first woman head of the Federal Magistrates Court (later the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and later head of the Family Court).
  • Quentin Bryce – the first female Australian Governor-General.
  • Enid Campbell – the first female dean of a law faculty in Australia, University of Tasmania.
  • Megan Davis – a law Professor at UNSW who was the first Indigenous Australian woman appointed by the Australian Government to a permanent United Nations Body.
  • Elizabeth Evatt – the first Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia and the first woman to preside in an Australian Federal Court.
  • Erika Feller – the first Australian woman lawyer appointed as Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
  • Valerie French – the first woman to sign the Western Australian Bar Roll and our very first interview in the pilot period of our oral history project.
  • Mary Gaudron – the first female Judge of the High Court of Australia.
  • Lara Giddings – the first female Premier of the state of Tasmania.
  • Julia Gillard – the first female Australian Prime Minister.
  • Sue Gordon – the first Aboriginal person to head a government department in Western Australia, first Aboriginal magistrate and first full-time children’s court magistrate; one of five commissioners appointed to the first board of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
  • Marlene Hall – the first person to be appointed as Special Counsel Aged Care Law in the Commonwealth Department of Health.
  • Mary Hiscock – the first full-time female academic and reader of Melbourne University Law School.
  • Rebecca Irwin – the first Australian woman to have a speaking role in Australia’s advocacy in an International Tribunal matter.
  • Susan Kiefel – the first woman to be appointed Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia.
  • Katy Le Roy – the first Australian woman to be appointed Chief Parliamentary Counsel in an overseas jurisdiction; Nauru.
  • Lorraine Liddle – the Northern Territory’s first Aboriginal legal practitioner, travelling between communities as a bush lawyer in Central Australia.
  • Jane Mathews – the first female judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court and a Federal Court Judge.
  • Dame Roma Mitchell – the first Australian female QC and first female Judge of a Supreme Court in Australia.
  • Sibyl Enid Vera Munro Morrison – the first female barrister in New South Wales.
  • Hilary Penfold – the first woman in Australia to hold the position of First Parliamentary Counsel. She achieved the further distinction of becoming the first woman to be appointed as Commonwealth Queen’s Counsel. She later became the first resident woman judge of the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory.
  • Nicola Roxon – the first female Commonwealth Attorney-General.
  • Shan Tennent – the first female Judge of the Supreme Court of Tasmania.
  • Sally Thomas – the first woman to serve as a Judge of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory.
  • Lucy Turnbull – the first female Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney.
  • Marilyn Warren – the first woman to head a Supreme Court in an Australian State or Territory.
  • Irene Watson – the first Aboriginal person to graduate from the University of Adelaide with a law degree, in 1985.
  • Christine Wheeler – the first woman appointed QC in Western Australia and first female Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia.

Finally, this list of women above and the many more women highlighted in this exhibition is in no measure a full account of Australian women lawyers who have made wonderful contributions to our society. There are, no doubt, many more women who haven’t been identified in this exhibition. That is purely due to the constraints of setting up something as ambitious as this project is with its limited resources. It is also testament to how important it is to immediately mark the contributions so far brought to the project’s attention!

We hope you enjoy this online exhibition highlighting the vital contributions of Australian women lawyers as active citizens.

Professor Kim Rubenstein, November 2016


  1. Mary Jane Mossman, The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, the Law and Legal Professions. Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2016, 14. Return to text
  2. See http://www.nswbar.asn.au/the-bar-association/pioneering-women/#/1_ada_evans Return to text
  3. Kim Rubenstein, 'From Suffrage to Citizenship: A Republic of Equals' Dymphna Clark Annual Lecture (29 March 2008) http://manningclark.org.au/papers/suffrage-citizenship-republic-equals (accessed 14 September 2015, no longer available, archive copy via the Wayback Machine). Return to text
  4. AIJA (Australian Institute of Judicial Administration), 'Gender Statistics' (March 2016) http://www.aija.org.au/JudgesMagistrates.pdf. Return to text
  5. Rosemary Hunter, 'Women in the Legal Profession: The Australian Profile' in Ulrike Schultz and Gisela Shaw (eds), Women in the World's Legal Profession (Hart Publishing, 2003) 93; Margaret Thornton and Joanne Bugust, 'The Gender Trap: Flexible Work in Corporate Legal Practice' (2007) 45 Osgoode Hall Law Journal 773. Return to text
  6. CLE (Centre for Legal Education), Australasian Legal Education Yearbook (CLE, 1998); A Patterson, Bendable or Expendable: Practices and Attitudes towards Work Flexibility in Victoria's Biggest Legal Employers (Law Institute of Victoria, 2006). Return to text
  7. National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report (2014) http://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/lawcouncil/images/LCA-PDF/NARS%20Report_WEB.pdf. Return to text
  8. Margaret Harrington, Women Lawyers: Rewriting the Rules (A.A Knopf, 1994) 7. Return to text