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 will bring together the exceptional interdisciplinary expertise of CI Kim Rubenstein in the fields of gender, oral history, biography, law and citizenship, CI Gavan McCarthy in social networks and cultural informatics research and CI Helen Morgan in biography, digital publishing and women’s history archiving.

In collaboration with key public institutions, 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. This exhibition was launched in November 2016 as Australian Women Lawyers as Active Citizens.


Hunter, R, 2003b. ‘Women Barristers and Gender Difference’ in Schultz, U and Shaw, G (eds) Women in the World’s Legal Profession. Hart Publishing, Oxford: 103.

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

McCarthy, G, 2007. ‘Mapping the socio-technical complexity of Australian science: from archival authorities to networks of contextual information’ Journal of Archival Organization 5(1): 149.

Wellman, B and Weatherell, C, 1996. ‘Social Network Analysis of Historical Communities’ The History of the Family 1(1): 97.