Australia was the second country after New Zealand to give women the vote, and that came in 1902. However, the inclusion of women in the workforce – and their acceptance into the legal profession – took much longer, especially in NSW.
Ada Evans was the first to test the waters. She had been born in Essex, England, to a legal family and after obtaining an Arts degree at Sydney University, decided to enrol in law.v
The Dean, Professor Pitt Corbett, was away at the time but she was accepted in 1899 by the Acting Dean, Professor Jethro Brown. On his return, Professor Corbett was less than encouraging, telling her she did “not have the physique for law and would find medicine more suitable”.
The greater glory
Professor Brown, however, encouraged her to press on, and in a letter said: “If you cannot reap all the reward of your toil, the greater glory may be yours of sowing what others may reap – the glory of the pioneer.”
Women were not allowed to practise law at the time and the Supreme Court took five months to formally approve Evans’ enrolment as a student. By that time, she had placed fifth (of 18) in her first examinations and was attracting national attention.
Not all of it was favourable. After a critical article in the Melbourne Punch of July 13, 1899, Evans contacted the paper. In its follow-up, Punch seemed relieved to report that Evans did not wish “to encroach on man’s sphere … she is not even a woman suffragist”.
“A man’s sphere”
Evans, the magazine said, was simply studying “a subject she very much likes”. Evans wanted to take the next step after graduating in April 1902 but her path was blocked. She explained her frustration in an interview published in the Evening News on April 22.
“‘Do you contemplate practising?’ Evans was asked.
“‘There are great difficulties in the way,’ was the reply. ‘I have tried to get admittance to practise in some form. The Chief Justice, when I wanted to be admitted some time ago, pointed out that women were not admitted in London and so could not be here. I didn’t like that, for I don’t think we should slavishly follow London. I consider conveyancing excellent work. In England, women do all the hard work and get no ‘kudos’ for it … At the present time, typewriting women do a lot, but in cases where women have the brains to do the other partof the work, why should they not be paid for it?’”
The value of being a “person”
Women were not specifically disqualified from becoming lawyers, but the common law had created a significant obstacle – it did not regard a woman as a “person”. In the absence of legislation that specifically conferred rights or privileges on women, such as the right to practise law, none existed. And the NSW Parliament was in no rush to pass legislation that would confer that specific right on Evans or any other woman.
When the law was changed in 1918, Evans, though, felt time had passed her by. She registered as a student-at-law in 1919 and in 1921 was admitted to the Bar. She was immediately offered work but declined to practise, citing family commitments.
She added that she didn’t want the standing of women “to be undermined by a show of incompetence”.
Extracted from Defending the Rights of All: A History of the Law Society of NSW by Michael Pelly and Caroline Pierce