A Listener article from Rod Vaughan looking at changes toward women lawyers since the first woman lawyer – Ethel Benjamin – became a lawyer in 1897 at the age of 22 but became largely frozen out of the profession she pioneered for women.
In her graduation speech she said “I knew little would be expected of me and even if I succeeded in talking nonsense the charitable verdict would be oh well it is all that can be expected of a woman”.
The legal profession was one of the very last professions to admit women to its membership, and in Ethel Benjamin’s case she had to wait upon an Act of Parliament to allow her to use her law degree.
The Female Legal Practitioners Act 1896 was just one of a number of Acts of Parliament which for almost a century saw New Zealand take a leading voice in the advance of women. But the profession has shown some trouble in getting its female-balance corrected with the influx of women law graduates that have occurred over the past two decades.
Regrettably, the article rehashed what we know about women in law in New Zealand so far as gender equality is concerned, or even the “unconscious bias” referred to the by the Law Society.
The article , quotes from the two first women QCs – Dame Sian Elias and Lowell Goddard.
Dame Sian Elias spoke about the issues that still arise for women lawyers, a bug-bear issue that continues to plague the profession both in New Zealand and overseas.
Along with Lowell Goddard QC, Dame Sian became the first two women QCs in 1988. The article quoted Dame Sian from a 2008 Australian Womens Lawyer conference.
“And for those in practice, my impression is that they still feel the chill that buffeted Ethel Benjamin. Only those who cannot seem to attract work know how it gnaws at self-esteem. And for many able women, those are still the conditions under which they practise.
“It is not surprising that women in the legal profession continue to exhibit the restlessness shown by Ethel Benjamin. Her movements in and out of the profession, her attempts to regroup and change direction, are still familiar patterns today.”
Lowell Goddard made a similar statement –
“The reality with big law firms is that they are commercial operations and they are all trying to meet their fees targets, so you are talking about a very commercial environment. It may well be harder for a woman to rise up through the ranks of a major law firm and become a partner than become a part-time judge.”
What the Others Said
But what did the other Ethel Benjamin Scholarship speakers have to say?
I have to say that I do not recollect ever hearing about Ethel Benjamin during my time as a law student or as a young woman practitioner. That I think is a measure of how the story of our profession has been dominated by male perceptions. I am not sure that has changed.
I have recently been shown a copy of the reminiscences of an outstanding lawyer of his experience of life in the courts over the past 30 years. Although he is generous, indeed lavish, in his acknowledgement of the increasing role played by women in the last ten years, we completely escape his notice during the 1970s.
Since I regard that decade as perhaps the most vibrant in my professional life, it is sobering to realise that, in recollection at least, I and my female colleagues appear to have had little impact. The increase in the number of women entering the profession in the 1980s coincides, in this writer’s estimation, with a “greying” of the profession.
He does not suggest there is cause and effect in this. But the sad truth is that the colourful advocates of the golden age of the oral tradition he describes and whose passing he laments were inevitably male.
Lowell Goddard’s commemorative address was a great deal more upbeat than anything her colleague Dame Sian had to say.
Lowell Goddard note that women like herself and Dame Sian had helped open the way for women to enter the higher ranks of the profession, noting in her commemorative address in 2008 –
It is twenty years since Sian and I were the first women to be appointed Queen’s Counsel. There are now women at all levels of the judiciary in New Zealand, along with many more women Queen’s Counsel, and of course women Prime Ministers, and women Governors General, as well as women in the senior echelons of the public service – including in that traditionally male profession – the Police.
I am now the first woman to be appointed to head the authority that oversees police conduct – formerly titled the Police Complaints Authority and now re-titled the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
Onward and upward for women, said Lowell Goddard –
What I am leading to is this: women entering the law today will face challenges. But those challenges will by and large be smaller than those faced by the women who have gone before because it is no longer remarkable to be a woman professional.
A young woman entering the profession of law today can do so with confidence – knowing that with the right combination of talent, knowledge, judgment and determination, she can reach the top of the profession. She may face glass ceilings.
But they will be much more fragile than the ones that have already been broken. And they will be much closer to open sky
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