The Pilot Project
During 2010-11 CI Rubenstein, in collaboration with the NLA and AWL, undertook a pilot study of trailblazing women lawyers, aimed at testing the research focuses, scope and budget for The Trailblazing Project. Over 100 women trailblazers were nominated by women lawyers, legal academics and feminist historians as potential interviewees and this list was supplemented by local and national records which incidentally mention leading women lawyers. Complete life history recordings, totalling approximately 50 hours, have been made with six trailblazing women lawyers:
- Valerie French (first woman to sign the WA Bar Roll)
- Eve Mahlab (law reform lobbyist, founder of Mahlab Recruitment, Liberal Feminist Network, and early WEL member)
- Megan Davis (first Indigenous Australian woman appointed by the Australian Government to a permanent UN Body)
- Jane Mathews (first woman judge of the NSW Supreme Court and former Federal Court Judge)
- Rebecca Irwin (the first Australian woman to speak for Australia in an International Tribunal), and
- Mary Hiscock (first full-time female academic and reader of Melbourne University Law School).
These interviewees also represent the diversity we aim for overall in the project in terms of age (61, 73, 35, 70, 39, 71 years old), ethnicity (Anglo-Australian, WW2 Austrian Jewish Refugee, Indigenous), geography (QLD, WA, VIC, NSW), legal community (Bar, Judiciary, Firm, Politics, International Law, Academia) and type of legal role (Solicitor, Barrister, Judge, Entrepreneur, Lobbyist, International Advocate, Legal academic).
The interviews have been transcribed, time marked and, subject to their release conditions, are available online through the NLA online archive (e.g. French and Rubenstein, 2010). Each step taken in the pilot project has been timed and these requirements are built into our planning for this major work.
The interview material has been invaluable to the development of our analytical framework. The histories have highlighted the methodological importance of treating oral histories as a text upon which to draw and to question, in departure from the traditional treatment in gender and law analyses of the narrative as primarily a source for compiling data on types of experience (e.g. of promotion or discrimination).
Thematically, we have seen real divergence in the women’s self-perception as political actors and multiple types of engagement with civicprofessional activity, from the judicial reinterpretation of parole regulations in WA (French and Rubenstein, 2010) to political campaigns to reform rape law in Victoria (Mahlab and Rubenstein, 2010). The interweaving of informal and professional networks in stories of work success and public participation has been clear and consistent.
This project’s methodology and analytical foci were applied to an extended analysis of Valerie French’s life narrative (Kerwin and Rubenstein, 2011). In this work we begin to discuss the value of oral history methodology to legal history, Valerie’s overwhelming framing of her life as ‘accidental’, her emphasis on the impact of others in her life and her determined dismissal of conscious leadership, despite her involvement in a number of key reforms.
The Pilot has sparked responses in the legal and academic community, inciting the online publication of papers from trailblazer Eve Mahlab’s law reform campaigns and a sister Trailblazing New Zealand Women Lawyers Oral History Project.
Publications arising from the Pilot Project
French, V and Rubenstein, K, 2010. ‘Valerie French interviewed by Kim Rubenstein for the Trailblazing women and the law pilot oral history project’ [sound recording], http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn4852444 LISTEN ONLINE
Mahlab, E and Rubenstein, K, 2010. ‘Eve Mahlab interviewed by Kim Rubenstein for the Trailblazing women and the law pilot oral history project’ [sound recording], http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn4970740 LISTEN ONLINE
Davis, M and Rubenstein, K, 2010. ‘Megan Davis interviewed by Kim Rubenstein in the Trailblazing women and the law pilot oral history project’ [sound recording], http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn4977921 CATALOGUE RECORD
Mathews, J and Rubenstein, K, 2011. ‘Jane Mathews interviewed by Kim Rubenstein for the Trailblazing women and the law pilot oral history project’ [sound recording], http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn5160658 CATALOGUE RECORD
Irwin, R and Rubenstein, K, 2011. ‘Rebecca Irwin interviewed by Kim Rubenstein for the Trailblazing women and the law pilot oral history project’ [sound recording], http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn5160662 CATALOGUE RECORD
Hiscock, M and Rubenstein, K, 2011. ‘Mary Hiscock interviewed by Kim Rubenstein for the Trailblazing women and the law pilot oral history project’ [sound recording], http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn5632356 CATALOGUE RECORD
Kerwin, H and Rubenstein, K, 2011. ‘Reading the Life Narrative of Valerie French, the First Woman to Sign the Western Australian Bar Roll’ in Davis, F, Musgrove, N and Smart, J (eds) Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-century Australia, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne: 172-187. READ ONLINE