Woman Greig, Flos (1880 - 1958)

Ferry, Scotland
15 December 1958
Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia

Written by Larissa Halonkin, Australian National University

Flos 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. The first woman to be admitted to legal practice in Australia, Greig was at the vanguard of 'the graceful incoming of a revolution' as described by then Chief Justice Sir John Madden, as he presided over the ceremony granting her admission to the Victorian bar in August 1905 (The Advertiser, 1905).

Greig was born in Broughty Ferry, Scotland in 1880, one of eight children of textile merchant and higher education advocate Robert Greig, and his wife Jane. She attended school in Dundee, Scotland, before the family moved to Melbourne, Victoria in 1889, where she continued her education at Presbyterian Ladies College at East Melbourne. Greig had four sisters and three brothers. While two of her brothers followed her father into the family textile business, the women of the family blazed their own trails. Sisters Jane and Janet were two of the first women to study medicine in Australia, at the University of Melbourne. Jane was a pioneer in public health and Janet the first anaesthetist in Victoria. Another sister, Clara, founded a coaching school for university students. The youngest sister, Stella, followed Flos into law, graduating from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Laws degree on 8 April 1911. Sadly, Stella died of tuberculosis less than two years later, aged 24. It was in this family atmosphere, where education was encouraged despite one's gender, that Greig first determined to be a barrister and solicitor from when she was "quite a child, a school girl". (Campbell, p. 502).

Greig holds the honour of being the first woman, in 1897, to enrol in an arts/law degree at the University of Melbourne. Indeed, Greig was the first woman to enter any Law Faculty in Australia at a time when women did not possess the right to vote or stand for Parliament let alone any certainty that they would be admitted to practice upon graduation. Greig appears to have enjoyed both the academic rigours of University and the social opportunities that membership to the Princess Ida club afforded. This club was formed to promote the common interests of women students, with activities including social functions, debates, and literary discussion. Greig also enjoyed playing tennis at the University. Interviewed in 1903 by The Brisbane Courier, Greig offered this assessment of her time at University 'women, are men's equals in every way and they are quite competent to hold their own in all spheres of life'. She continued, 'The University does not tend in any way to destroy the particular charm of a woman. On the contrary, her higher education develops the feminine qualities with an added polish and refinement' (Courier, 1903).

On 28 March 1903, Greig graduated with her Bachelor of Laws degree, the first woman in Victoria to do so, and only the second in the country, after Ada Evans who graduated the previous year from the University of Sydney). Despite this accomplishment, the rules of practice in force at the time did not anticipate that female lawyers would seek admission to the profession. In 1903 there was no precedent for women becoming lawyers, in any of the Australian states. In fact, Ada Evans had been denied admission to the New South Wales Bar after she graduated, forcing her to campaign for the rules of practice legislation to be changed to specifically allow women.

In Victoria, Greig and her supporters began a campaign to allow women to enter the profession. She was assisted in this reform cause by John Mackey, a member of the Victorian parliament and one of Greig's lecturers at the University of Melbourne. He remarked that 'If this House passes the Bill, it will remove one of those anomalies, one of these inequities of the law that have given rise in the minds of women to the belief that they cannot get justice from a Parliament that is composed solely of men' (Tate, 2006). In April 1903 the Parliament of Victoria passed the Women's Disabilities Removal Act 1903 (Vic) (sometimes referred to as the 'Flos Greig Enabling Act') to specifically allow women to practise. Fittingly, one-hundred years later in 2003 her Honour Chief Justice Marilyn Warren was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

After completing articles with Frank Cornwall, Greig was admitted on 1 August 1905, thus becoming the first woman to enter the legal profession in Australia. A short time later, she was the first woman admitted to the Law Institute of Victoria. A self-employed solicitor in her early professional years, one of her first jobs was for the Women's Christian Temperance Union, drafting their proposed amendments to the Children's Court Act 1906 (Vic), the legislation which established the Children's Court of Victoria. The topic of women and children was of particular interest to Greig. In October 1905, she was a guest speaker at the third annual congress of the National Congress of Women of Victoria addressing the topic of 'Some Points of the Law Relating to Women and Children'. Greig was described as a compelling speaker whose content and appearance were both impressive. She 'gave an immense amount of useful and, at times, startling information. Miss Greig, who has a good voice and reads well, wore a stylish, yet simple, gown of grey voile, with cream lace vest; a pretty black hat and white gloves completed the costume' (Some Points of the Law,1905).

As a young solicitor Greig used her legal skills to contribute to intellectual discussion and public life. She approached the contentious topic of women's suffrage with expert wit. In 1905 The Argus provided the following account of Greig's contribution to a debate on the topic: 'The chief point for discussion was not whether women were fit for politics, but whether politics were fit for women. If the politics were not fit, the sooner they were made so the better. (Applause.) As regarded the assertion that the giving of the voting power to women would cause dissension in, and even the breaking up of, homes, it was as well to bear in mind that neither the Police Court nor the Divorce Court had had any extra work in consequence of the last federal elections, at which women voted. (Laughter.)' (The Argus, 1905). Participating in the National Council of Women's debate in 1908 'That Capital Punishment Should be Abolished' Greig argued in favour of retaining capital punishment, after which the Launceston Examiner reported that an 'animated' debate followed (Examiner, 1908).

In the early 1900s Melbourne seems to have offered Greig a rich cultural and social environment surrounded by friends and the early women law graduates who were to follow her path. In 1910 she was a founding member of the 'The Catalysts' Society', a gathering of women with intellectual interests which would in 1912 become the Lyceum Club in Melbourne. The Club was committed to furthering women's professional careers and providing an arena in which women could form strong networks and cultivate useful contacts. In 1914 it was the host of the inaugural 'Women's Law Society of Victoria' with membership restricted to women law graduates who were practising or intending to practise as barristers and solicitors. It is no surprise that Greig was elected as the first president. The Lyceum, which was explicitly designed to provide a space for female networking - both locally and internationally, quickly became Melbourne's premier women's club, and by 1930 claimed 900 members. Greig's connection to the Lyceum continued throughout her life

Greig's pioneering spirit was also evident in her passion for exploration and travel. In the 1920s at a time when few women in Melbourne would have dared to tour South East Asia, Greig became a specialist in the region - visiting Singapore, Siam (as it then was), China, Burma, Bali, Java and Malaysia. She delighted audiences with evening lectures using lantern slides. Often these lectures coincided with an important cause, such as international fellowships sponsored by the Women Graduates Society to advance the cause of higher education of women. In 1923, Greig stopped in Brisbane on her return to Melbourne after a trip to Burma to give a lecture on her travels. She is described as holding the audience 'spellbound' with exotic tales. The Northern Star newspaper article declares 'To have travelled the road to Mandalay, and penetrated the Burmese jungle, sleeping in dark houses, and learning at first-hand the manners and customs of .a quaint and happy people, are experiences which have fallen to the lot of Miss Flos Greig (Northern Star, 1923). Greig's lectures on her travels reached a far wider audience on the radio. She regularly appeared in the 1920s on stations across Australia lecturing on topics from the geography of China to 'the Religion of Buddha in Southern Asia' and the 'Primitive Races of South-eastern Asia' (Daily News, 1927; The Advertiser Adelaide, 1931).

In about 1930, Greig moved to the town of Wangaratta in north-east Victoria, where she worked in a firm of solicitors led by Paul McSwiney. In her years at Wangaratta, from which she explored the countryside in a 'Baby' Austin tourer, she actively promoted the extension of adult education facilities to the area. Greig was also an early benefactor of the Women's University College at Melbourne University, contributing to their establishing fund in 1936. During the 1930s, because of both altruism and dissatisfaction with the existing economic order, she was a serious student and advocate of Douglas Credit. Retiring in 1942 Greig lived in Rosebud for some years before her death at Moorabbin on 31 December 1958, aged 78.

Greig was exposed to opportunities that many young women her age were denied. However, she is all the more remarkable for her ability to see the practice of law as a skill through women could provide for themselves and for their independence, rather than a purely academic exercise afforded to only a few women in the early 1900s. In an article in the Commonwealth Law Review (1909), she wrote:

"The first women lawyers are hardly likely to make fortunes. The pioneer never does. The first man that finds his way into the primeval forest exhausts his strength in clearing the ground; the second continues the work and sows the seed and erects the buildings; the third man comes along and reaps the profits of the others' labours. Nevertheless the legal profession is likely to prove of increasing interest to women, not only for the facilities which it offers for earning a living, but also for the knowledge that is to be acquired thereby." (Greig Melbourne Law School)

Remarkable, courageous, adventurous, involved and articulate, Flos Greig stands as an important trail-blazer for Australian women.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Campbell, Ruth, 'That Girl with the Terrible Name', Victoria Law Institute Journal, vol. 49, 1975, p. 502. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources

See also