Kim Rubenstein delivers the 53rd National Council of Women of Victoria’s Australia Day Address

Trailblazing Women and the Law project leader, Professor Kim Rubenstein, was honoured to be invited by the National Council of Women of Victoria to deliver their 53rd Australia Day address on January 23rd 2014. In the picturesque and aptly named Pioneer Women’s Gardens, Professor Rubenstein gave the audience an update on the project and what has been achieved, ten months in. Her address can be read in full, below:

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman,

I would like to acknowledge the Kulin nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their Elders, Past and Present.

I would also like to thank the National Council of Women of Victoria, and its President Sheila Byard for the honour of being invited to speak today, at this ceremony – which seeks to recognise the Pioneer Women of Australia and in particular, Victoria. It is wonderful for us all to be standing here in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, opened with the cutting of the ribbon by Sir Stanley Argyle, then Premier of Victoria on 24 Nov 1934 – to commemorate the centenary of the founding of Melbourne. I have been interested to read more about the background to this garden in Ada Norris’s excellent book – Champions of the Impossible – A History of the National Council of Women of Victoria 1902-1977. When the Victorian Government began to think about commemorating the founding of Melbourne, they formed an all-male Centenary Celebrations Council. The National Council of Women got to work and set up its own Centenary Council and organized for Mrs Moss, then President to be invited to join the Executive Committee of the Government’s all male council. The Women’s Centenary Council pledged to erect a suitable memorial to the pioneering women of Victoria[1] and we stand her today indebted to them for that work and the commemorative tablet (we see here) records Mrs I H Moss as President of the Women’s Centenary Council.

I have also been looking closely at the National Council of Women of Victoria’s history and its objects and purposes as there are many links to the subject matter of my presentation today!

The National Council of Women of Victoria was established in 1902 – an important year for Australian women in terms of our newly constituted Federation. For the 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act ensured that for Federal elections, women of Victoria and indeed throughout Australia were enfranchised. As you all probably know, women in the State of Victoria had to wait until 1908 to vote in State elections – and that move had been vigorously encouraged by the National Council of Women of Victoria).

I should be specific too and say white women of Australia, for the 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act disqualified Indigenous Australians, Asian people, African people and Pacific Islanders (except New Zealand Maori) from voting. Voting and public participation in civic life is what I describe as a form of active citizenship, which you will hear is relevant to my topic today which as you have seen advertised, is Trailblazing Women and the Law.

I know the Council itself has always been intimately concerned with issues about women and the law. In Ada Norris’s excellent book we hear “In 1905 our first woman lawyer had awakened Council members to legal inequalities affecting women. Subsequently, particular aspects of this subject came before the Council. The demand for legal equality with men has grown ever since as more and more women have realized that many things they had taken for granted and considered inevitable and even right and proper were indeed unjust and discriminatory”[2]. And then in 1911 Mrs A Pymm, a member of the Social, Legal and Economic Standing Committee and a delegate from the Women’s Political and Social Crusade worked on a reply to an International Council of Women questionnaire on unequal laws bearing on women[3].

In the 1930s the Council was working on the campaign for uniform marriage and divorce laws and it is lovely to read of a further personal connection to the Council’s history in that my maternal grandmother’s older sister, Joan Rosanove – not yet and indeed not for another 30 years Victoria’s first women QC, my great aunt – had been asked to present at the Annual Conference on the Council’s Laws Standing Committee study on Swedish marriage law. Ada Norris writes – Mrs Rosanove said the Swedish Marriage law was based on the idea of partnership and equality; in Victorian law the underlying principle was that a woman when she married was merely added to the long list of her husband’s possessions.”[4] At that time we also hear in Norris’s book that the Law Committee also followed the course of the Health Bill, Income Tax Amendment Bill, the postponed measures concerning “Mental Defectives” – how language shows us how social values and language have changed. And throughout its history, the Laws and the Status of Women Conveners and Committee have been active in the National Council of Women in Victoria.

The rich information about women in Victoria who were active in legal questions through the National Council of Women, is relevant to my topic, and Ada Norris’s book will be examined further by my research team as great background to our project and its later output.

My aim this morning is to tell you a little more about the Australian Research Council grant that I am working on with my colleagues, Associate Professor Gavan McCarthy, Helen Morgan, and Dr Nikki Henningham from the University of Melbourne and Kevin Bradley from the National Library of Australia, with our ANU PhD student Louise Baker and our ANU research assistant Larissa Halonkin. Our partners, as this is a Linkage Grant whereby the partners contribute funding and or in-kind support – are the National Library of Australia, the National Foundation for Australia Women, the Federal Court of Australia, the Family Court of Australia and the Australian Women Lawyers Association.

The aims of our project link directly to the mission statement of the National Council of Women – of – seeking to raise the awareness of women as to their rights and responsibilities as citizens and encouraging their participation in all aspects of community life.

The project first began as a pilot project during 2010-11 when I worked with the support of the ANU College of Law in collaboration with the NLA and AWL, and during that time we tested the research focuses, scope and budget for The Trailblazing Women and the Law Project.

Women lawyers, legal academics and feminist historians, nominated over one hundred women trailblazers, as potential interviewees and this list was supplemented by local and national records which incidentally mention leading women lawyers. (The list continues to be supplemented to this day!)

I then tested out the substance and methodology of the project: that is the conducting of oral histories – complete life histories through the Oral History unit of the National Library of Australia. In that pilot stage approximately 50 hours, were recorded 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 – 2 in their 30s), diversity in ethnicity (Anglo-Australian, WW2 Austrian Jewish Refugee, Indigenous), diversity in geography (QLD, WA, VIC, NSW), diversity in legal community (Bar, Judiciary, Firm, Politics, International Law, Academia) and related to legal community, diversity in the type of legal role (Solicitor, Barrister, Judge, Entrepreneur, Lobbyist, International Advocate, Legal academic).

Those interviews have been transcribed, time marked and, subject to their release conditions, are available online through the NLA online archive.

For instance, after today’s presentation, if you have access to the internet, you can go home and listen in the comfort of your house to my interviews with Val French and Eve Mahlab – and with the benefit of the time marking you can see the topics and areas we discuss at different points of the interview and go straight to that point in the digital recording and just listen to those sections of interest. (eg. Rubenstein and French, 2010).

The interview material assisted us in developing exactly how to frame the ARC project application that I will explain further now:

Aims of the Project

The Trailblazing Women and the Law Project (‘The Trailblazing Project’) will create, showcase and analyse the first publicly accessible, national, oral history of seven decades of Australia’s pioneer, ‘trailblazing’, women lawyers. The project brings together my interest in the fields of gender, oral history, biography, law and citizenship, with Associate Professor Gavan McCarthy’s work in social networks and cultural informatics research, Helen Morgan’s in biography, ePublication and women’s history archiving and Dr Nikki Henningham’s experience and work in oral history and women’s history, through the National Women Archives Project and a related project on Women and Leadership in Australia.

In collaboration with key public institutions, our partners, the National Library of Australia (NLA), the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW), the Federal Court of Australia, the Family Court of Australia and the Australian Women Lawyer’s Association (AWL), this work fills the significant and well-noted absence of leading women lawyers’ lives from national history and Australian scholarly analysis.

Bringing leading women lawyers lives to the forefront of scholarship, public memory and legal culture will build the capacities of women lawyers across the country, whose potential societal and economic contributions are presently underutilised in the Australian civic and professional landscape.

Building on the research testing undertaken in the 2010-11 Trailblazing Women and the Law Pilot Project (‘The Pilot Project’), this major project will:

  • Identify and record interviews with 45 ‘trailblazing’ Australian women lawyers across regional, remote and metropolitan Australia, from diverse cultural, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds and across the breadth of the profession (including judges, barristers, solicitors, in-house counsel, government lawyers, parliamentary drafters, tribunal members and international legal advocates and advisors).
  • Produce a significant monograph analysing these women’s narratives. This analysis will use the rich research capital within the interview archive to understand the way these women have experienced trailblazing at the legal frontier, and to interrogate these women’s roles as pioneers in the push for greater recognition for women as Australian citizens. CI Rubenstein’s own internationally recognised, cutting-edge research on the legal and political recognition of ‘citizenship’ as a lived experience of civic activity and public authority will be applied to unpack the exciting and previously unheard stories of Australian women in the law.
  • Develop an unprecedented case study of the impact of social networks on the actions and capacities of individuals in historical work communities over multiple generations. This research – only made possible by the in-depth life histories at the core of the project – will map each personal, professional and institutional connection between the interview group, allowing for an in-depth, contained case study of how trailblazing women lawyers, Australian institutions, and individual actors have interacted historically. The study allows a detailed response to the hypothesised relevance of professional and personal networks to the career successes and difficulties had by trailblazing legal women (Hunter, 2003b; ‘Pilot Project’). It also contributes greatly to the extension of social network mapping (SNM) into historical and social movements research (see, Wellman and Whetherell, 1996). CI McCarthy’s internationally recognised and innovative application of social network mapping to social and historical phenomena will be applied (see, McCarthy, 2007).
  • Establish and theorise, on a large scale, the extension of oral history research methods into Australian sociolegal scholarship. In contrast to the previous use of women lawyer’s narratives in Australia, this project takes a post-structural approach to oral history, with the intention of both using the explicit content of these women’s stories to fill knowledge gaps, and considering the internal features of the text, such as its omissions and framing. In the Pilot Project, these implicit features of the narratives were critical to unpacking the lived position of women lawyers as citizens within legal and national culture (see, Kerwin and Rubenstein, 2011).
  • Deliver an outstanding national, cultural and scholarly resource by housing the interviews online in the NLA’s digital, oral history collection. This collection will provide unmatched research capital for the future study of women in the law, across the diverse experiential matrix captured in the interviews.
  • Showcase these unheard stories of trailblazing online in the NFAW’s Australian Women’s Archive Project (AWAP) ‘Showcase’ exhibition series, and through an interactive ‘digital storytelling’ website established by the eScholarship Research Centre led by CI McCarthy and CI Morgan.

The Trailblazing Project poses the following key questions:

  1. Has the professional authority and public influence accorded to lawyers enhanced these women’s civic authority?
  2. How have these women used their legal training to political effect and how effective has the influence of women lawyers as public actors been in socio-legal reform towards an equality of citizenship for women?
  3. Have women lawyers, in contrast to male lawyers, perceived their personal professional role as part of a gender equality movement? Did they, for example, choose law because of its reform potential?
  4. How has the intersection of gender with ethnicity, age, location, type of legal practice and religion influenced the way trailblazing women lawyers experience and retell their lives at the ‘legal frontier’ and in public life?
  5. Can the networks of associations captured in the social network map predict the likely outcomes of individual choices and experiences, historical policy phases and the future impact of proposed policy developments?
  6. What do the trailblazers’ different ways of retelling their experiences reveal about their position within the legal and national culture?
  7. What does the collection reveal about the mooted impact of ‘women in the judiciary’? Close attention to the extent of interaction between the personal histories, social associations, self-conceptualisations and the judging style and decisions of these pioneer women Justices will be significant to the citizenship and SNM inquiry.
  8. How do these pioneer narratives connect and compare to other stories of pioneering women in Australia, and with parallel International oral histories of trailblazing women lawyers?
  9. How should the use of oral history within legal history and ‘public memory’ research be theorised and how can an ethno-historical approach to life narratives extend the value of storytelling within legal scholarship?


By combining this cross-section of disciplines to build a national consciousness of women lawyers, the project will explode the detrimental and well-noted silence surrounding the first women of law in Australia. By recording and analysing these unheard narratives, the project aims not only to understand trailblazing and oral history methods further, but to tap and broadcast the wealth of experience possessed by living trailblazers to inspire young women to work towards an equality of citizenship in their professional and personal lives.

[1] Ada Norris, Champions of the Impossible – A History of the National Council of Women of Victoria 1902-1977, p 72-74

[2] ibid, p 27

[3] ibid, p 27-28

[4] ibid, p 69