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This year marks 100 years since the law was amended to allow women to practise as lawyers. TONY CUNNEEN looks back on the long and often fraught campaign that led to change.

On a cold July afternoon in 1914, Adela Pankhurst, the tiny but prominent advocate for women’s suffrage, walked through a jostling mob of male undergraduates at the University of Sydney. Pankhurst was scheduled to make a speech in the refuge of the women’s common room, but her talk was interrupted by a jeering crowd of young men throwing fire crackers through the windows and large rocks onto the iron roof. Eventually, some women armed themselves with hockey sticks and belted some of the men outside. Such was the intimidating atmosphere of gender relations in the halls of learning barely three weeks before Australia entered World War I.

Much would change over the next four years, including the way women were treated with respect to their admission to the law. World War I swept away the old world, but there was at least one major benefit: in the words of one activist at the time, women’s involvement in supporting the hostilities meant they had “proved their worth” in public life.

One outcome of this involvement was that on 26 November 1918 the Women’s Legal Status Act was passed and, on 21 December 1918, it became law. This act gave women the right to enter the Lower House of State Parliament and also to practise as solicitors, barristers and conveyancers in NSW. There were still many obstacles to overcome for women in law, but at least they had the legal right to be involved: it was a start.

Before World War I, women faced daunting obstacles to becoming lawyers. The main structural issue was the common law determination inherited from the United Kingdom that only a “person” could become a lawyer, and a “person” was defined as a man. Legislation was seen as the only way to overcome this impediment. However, such legislation had to be passed by men in an exclusively male State parliament. Many members were hide-bound by their belief in themselves as being suited for public lives in politics, professions and business, while women should be restricted by temperament and tradition to domestic duties. Exceptions to this categorisation included charitable works, and the so-called “caring” professions of medicine and teaching.

There was no place for women in the law. A good number of women were not satisfied with this state of affairs and they made valiant attempts to change the situation. Kate Dwyer and her sisters, Annie and Belle Golding, lobbied the various NSW Attorneys-General in the early 1900s to allow women to practise as lawyers.

The pioneering Ada Evans endured the outright hostility and temper tantrums of Professor Pitt Cobbett when she became the first woman student at the Sydney University Law School in Phillip Street. Cobbett allegedly slammed doors and banged the furniture in her presence, loudly demanding: “Who is this woman?” Evans persevered with her studies but could not gain admission as a barrister after graduation despite her many representations.
The opposition to women practising law was both effective and personal.

The alienation of women from public life changed with World War I because women’s traditional roles in charitable works expanded to become a national patriotic duty to support the conflict. Many women worked with men in important war-related activities and, in the process, became well known public figures. Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson, the impressive wife of the Governor General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, was a dominant figure in the Red Cross, commandeering the public spaces of Government House in Melbourne for use as a supply depot. The elegant ball room was crammed with bundles of goods to be sent overseas to help wounded soldiers. Few, including her husband, dared challenge her. Other women’s contributions were more prosaic, but nonetheless impressive.

Vera Deakin conducted the vital work of the Cairo and London offices of the Red Cross Missing and Wounded Enquiry Bureau. In the process, she dealt with men who were in positions of power in the military or in the many offices of the Enquiry Bureau throughout Australia on a daily basis. These offices were all operated by senior lawyers, including the formidable Langer Owen KC, who was later to become a Judge of the Supreme Court of NSW. Deakin held her own in many testy exchanges with a variety of highly placed men whose sense of duty magnified their already commanding self-confidence.

Mary Byles, Ada Evans, Professor Pitt Cobbett
Clockwise from above left: Marie Byles, the first woman solicitor in NSW; Ada Evans, NSW’s first woman law graduate, Professor Pitt Cobbett, the first professor of law at the University of Sydney, who made university study especially tough for Evans, and the University of Sydney’s former Law School Building in Phillip Street, 1968.

Slow progress

Despite the presence of women in public life, the passage of a Women’s Legal Status Act was never going to be easy. The first problem was that women had to be taken seriously by the men who would pass the bill. Put simply, it was not unusual for men in positions of power to smirk, chuckle or burst out laughing when women applied to join their male enclaves, such as any local progress association, let alone the more formal male preserves of State Parliament or the legal profession.

As Annie Golding and her sisters had learned, State Attorneys-General had been distinctly underwhelming in their responses to their repeated deputations requesting access to the legal profession. Other women, such as the socially commanding Rose Scott, also lobbied parliamentarians in private settings. But progress was slow.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) became sympathetic to the admission of women to the law and the reform  was adopted as their policy in 1916, but the idea had to pass through State Parliament at a time of multiple traumas resulting from major battles overseas, as well as the bitter division concerning the conscription plebiscite at home. The passage would not be straightforward. It took more than two years for the proposal to become law.

Barrister and Attorney-General Robert Hall proved to be a persistent champion of the cause of women in law. He had shared some of his training with Ada Evans and her mistreatment sparked in him a sense of injustice. He reflected wider sympathy in the ALP for the cause of women but the bill had to negotiate the obstructionist tactics of those men in parliament who opposed such gender reforms.

When the bill was first debated in late 1916, a number of resistant members outlined their views that the “fair sex” was not able to understand issues in the same way as men, and that men would not accept women in public roles. Attorney-General Hall stuck to his task, but the bitter disagreement over the conscription issue led to a split in the ALP. Twenty parliamentary members left the ALP, including all the lawyers in its ranks: the party was characterised as thereby having “blown its own brains out”. The resulting Holman Nationalist Government included so many legal practitioners in its cabinet that it was mockingly referred to as “a government of lawyers” and therefore not to be trusted by its opponents. But it was this “government of lawyers” which would eventually pass the act. Before this could happen, however, the proposal to admit women to the legal profession was lost in the hue and cry surrounding the battles in Europe, the state election and the Great Strike of 1917. While the bill was in a hiatus, women were increasingly involved in public life in a variety of ways, not all directly related to the war.

The anti-shouting campaign

The Anti-Shouting Campaign of 1917, inaugurated by the National Council of Women, was intended to stop men becoming trapped by the pressure of masculine rituals into staying in a round of drinks until everyone had had more than their fill and consequently stagger home drunk. While some people claimed this was upper class women persecuting working class men, the true intention of the campaign was to stop domestic violence. Much of the campaign material highlighted the way boisterous men in public houses could become bullying and intimidating – or physically violent – once they reached home.

The leaders of this movement included the passionately committed Mary Louisa Owen, who presented a petition of 100,000 signatures to Prime Minister William Morris Hughes in Sydney on 28 June 1917.  Her presentation was significant in itself, because the sub-committee she presided over included highly placed men, including politician Henry Edward Kater MLC and the General Manager and Chief Actuary of the AMP Society, Richard Teece. The campaign can be seen as a challenge to the overtly masculine world of intimidating, boozing, excessive mateyness.

The University of Sydney takes action

Lobbying for change continued throughout 1917 and intensified in 1918. On 18 August 1918, Kate Dwyer, the only woman on the Senate of the University of Sydney at the time, gained the agreement of her fellow Senators to request the NSW Government to enact legislation that would enable women to enter the legal profession.

Dwyer’s influence on the university is even more impressive when one considers she was a leader in the “No!” cause in the bitter, often violently disputatious conscription debates of 1916 and 1917. The men on the University of Sydney Senate were equally passionate in support for the “Yes!” cause. Dwyer was not in naturally friendly territory when she was in the Senate meetings, which were then held in the Law School on Phillip Street.

Dwyer kept up the pressure, leading a formidable delegation of women to meet with State Attorney-General Hall on 20 August 1918. Rose Scott accompanied Dwyer, along with representatives of the Women’s Reform league, the Women’s Progressive Association, the Women’s Branch of the National Association, the Feminist Club, the Domestic Workers’ Union, the Horticultural Society, the Public Service Association, the Vocations Club (Technical Colleges), the NSW Association of Women Workers, the Caterers and Waitresses Union, and the Social Hygiene Association. Now it was up to Attorney-General Hall and the NSW Parliament.

The bill is introduced

On 3 October 1918, barely six weeks before the end of the war and following increasing public agitation, Attorney-General Hall stood in parliament to introduce a “bill to provide that women shall not, by reason of sex, be deemed to be under any disqualification to hold certain positions or to practise certain professions (including) local government, justices, magistrates, and legal practitioners”. The bill would allow women to be lawyers and to sit as members of state parliament. Women were already allowed to sit in federal parliament.

Hall gave as his reason that “the work of women during this war shows that they are well able to do their part, and  …  we, who boast to be the most advanced state, are probably the least up-to-date state in Australia”. (Thirteen years earlier, Flos Greig became the first Australian woman to enter the legal profession when she was admitted as a barrister in Victoria. There were other pioneers. Queenslander Winifred Paten also studied for her LLB in Melbourne and was admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of Victoria and the High Court of Australia on 1 December 1914, but she did not practise.)

Subsequent speakers continued Hall’s theme, repeatedly referring to the role women had played in the war as justification for the new legislation.

The bill to allow women into the legal profession and the NSW Legislative Assembly finally passed on 26 November 1918. According to politician and later Chief Justice of NSW HV Evatt, the act was the “main achievement” of an otherwise fractious and non-productive parliamentary session.

There were limitations, however. The bill did not allow women to be appointed to the Legislative Council. Women were not accorded that right until 1926. The Act also did not allow women to sit on juries. Various strange reasons were advanced to explain this, including ideas that women were prone to exaggeration, could not afford time off from domestic duties, that they should not be placed in positions of power over men, and that they were not on the list of prospective jurors already.

This was one of the most galling of the impediments to improving the position of women in public life: the constant refrain that they could not be included because they were not included already.

No wonder Ada Evans and others were worn out by the process of trying to overcome such sophistry. And of course there was still the pernicious, entrenched misogyny at the grassroots level which could undermine the efforts of the most talented woman to advance her cause.

Many people contributed to the passage of the Women’s Legal Status Act of 1918. Chief Justice Sir William Cullen admitted Ada Evans to Law School while Professor Pitt Cobbett was absent. Cullen was also Chancellor of the University of Sydney when the key decision was taken by the University Senate to urge parliament to pass the bill. Attorney-General Robert Hall stood against the general tide of masculine solidarity and prejudice to steer the proposal through State Parliament.

But the real credit must go to the persistent activists such as Ada Evans, Rose Scott, and Kate Dwyer and her sisters, Annie and Isabella. Others such as Lady Cullen, Lady Hughes, Mary Louisa Owen, Vera Deakin, Ethel Curlewis, and Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson demonstrated through their public lives that women could be active in the world of men.

Six years after the law was changed, Marie Byles became NSW’s first female solicitor when she graduated from the University of Sydney Law School.

Tony Cunneen is a historian who teaches at St Pius X College Chatswood and is a member of the Francis Forbes Society for Australia Legal History.