Woman Brennan, Anna Teresa

Catholic lay leader, Social reformer, Solicitor and Women's rights activist

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Anna Teresa Brennan was born in 1879 in the Emu Creek/Sedgwick area, near Bendigo, Victoria, Australia. She was the thirteenth child of farmers Michael Brennan and Mary (nee Maher), both of whom were interested in intellectual pursuits and religious life. She attended St Andrew's College, Bendigo. Her brothers encouraged her to take up a profession, offering to support her during her studies. She entered the University of Melbourne in 1904 to study medicine but being 'too nervous to do the dissections' she changed to law in 1906, graduating in 1909 (Campbell and Morgen, 1979). One of the earliest women to graduate in law at the University, she was active in supporting women students. She was an office bearer of the Princess Ida Club as from 1907-1909 and remained a member until 1913 (Australian Women's Register). She was also a member of the Newman Society and an inaugural committee member of the Catholic Women's Social Guild, established in 1916. Appointed as its second president from 1918-1920, she lectured and wrote for the Guild's journals (Campbell and Morgen, 1979).

Completing her articles at her brother's law firm in Melbourne on 1 August 1911, she was the second woman, and the first Australian-born, admitted to practice in Victoria. She was active in the firm of Frank Brennan & Co., promoting women's interests, to the end of her life, with her sister May as the law clerk. Specialising in matrimonial law, she campaigned for the revision of inequitable divorce laws. She lived with her unmarried siblings in Melbourne, where May was housekeeper. In 1912 Brennan was a founding member of the Lyceum Club serving as honorary legal adviser until 1918, and as president from 1940-42. She was also the first president of the Legal Women's Association, formed in 1931 (Campbell and Morgen, 1979).

Keen to promote women in public life, Anna Brennan attended the League of Nations Assembly at Geneva in 1930 with her brother Frank, but found it did little to involve women politically: 'Women delegates might have much to contribute on legal, economic and international questions … valuable aid was perhaps lost because it was taken for granted that their interests would be solely humanitarian' (Campbell and Morgen, 1979). Back in Australia she gave lectures to many women's organisations. In 1938, for example, she spoke about the need for child endowment and improved measures to combat the high maternal and infant death rates (Argus, 28 October 1938).

Because of her work on matrimonial law in the 1940s the National Council of Women appointed Brennan to appear before a Commonwealth parliamentary commission whose findings revised the law governing nationality of married women. In spite of personal objections to divorce, she stressed the need for more speedy dissolutions of unsuitable wartime marriages. Brennan found religious inspiration in Joan of Arc and joined the St Joan's Social and Political Alliance. Anna Brennan was a founding member of the Australian alliance in 1936, and was president of the Victorian section in 1938-1945 and 1948-1962.

She died in 1962 as the result of a fall. To honour her memory the Legal Women's Association awards an annual prize in her name to the highest placed woman in the final-year law class-list at the University of Melbourne (Campbell and Morgen, 1979).

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