In honour of International Women’s Day, we at Survive Law thought it’s a good time to celebrate some trailblazing women lawyers in Australia and New Zealand, the homes of many of our readers. Unfortunately, women still face some very real challenges in the legal profession. For all those women feeling a bit discouraged, here are five women whose stories will inspire you to keep going and shatter that glass ceiling:
1. Ethel Benjamin was New Zealand’s first female lawyer and the first woman in the British Empire to appear as counsel in court. When she enrolled in a law degree at the University of Otago in 1893, women were still not permitted to be admitted as lawyers in New Zealand. Fortunately, by the time she graduated in 1897, the law had changed and she was able to be admitted as a lawyer. However, she was met with hostility by the almost exclusively male legal profession - the local Law Society restricted her access to the law library and did not invite her to profession-wide events. Her career included acting for women in marriage separation and divorce cases and acting for several hotels in prohibition-related cases. She also tried her hand at non-legal pursuits, including running a large restaurant. Talk about multi-tasking!
2. Grata Flos Matilda Greig, known as Flos, became the first Australian woman to study for a law degree in 1897, when she enrolled in the University of Melbourne law school. At the time of her enrollment, women could not even vote, and Flos initially encountered some hostility from men at the law school. However, in her first year, her male classmates voted in favour of women being allowed to practice law. Upon graduating from law school in 1903, she helped change the law in the state of Victoria to allow women to practice as lawyers. She practised as a solicitor, and her work included helping women and children and advocating for women’s suffrage. Just like generations of powerful women after her, Flos had to put up with the media’s fixation on her clothing choices, once telling a reporter, “What did I wear? Don’t ask me!”
3. Dame Georgina Te Heuheu is the first New Zealand Maori woman to earn a law degree and become admitted as a lawyer. She graduated from Victoria University of Wellington in 1971 and was admitted to practice in 1972. After practising as a lawyer, she was elected to the New Zealand Parliament in 1996. She later became the board chair of Maori Television. Her desire to become a lawyer had literary origins; she once claimed she was inspired to become a lawyer by Shakespeare’s Portia in The Merchant of Venice, a character who disguises herself as a male lawyer and wins a legal argument. Dame Te Heuheu is just as much, if not more, of a trailblazer as Portia!
4. Patricia O’Shane has racked up a ridiculous amount of “firsts” in her life. She is the first Aboriginal Australian person to earn a law degree and first Aboriginal Australian barrister. Initially, a primary and high school teacher, Patricia completed a law degree at the University of New South Wales in 1975 and became a barrister in 1976. As if this wasn’t enough of an achievement, she went on to become the first female Member of the New South Wales Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board in 1979. In 1981, she became the first woman (and first Aboriginal person) to become a permanent head of a ministry in Australia when she became head of the New South Wales Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.
5. Maddison Harrington is one of the first (possibly the first) openly transgender Australian female lawyer. She works as a graduate legal officer at Griffith University and is an advocate for the trans community. Her advocacy was recognized in late 2019 when she was awarded an “Out for Australia 30 Under 30 LGBTIQ Role Model award”. Maddison’s story is nothing short of inspiring; she did not know any openly transgender lawyers in Queensland when she decided to come out, a decision she partly made because (in her words) “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Although she’s still early in her career, it’s obvious Maddison is going to go on to do more amazing things!