A century of women in Australian law

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Tracing the footsteps of Australia's legal heroines

This historical timeline marks the significant milestones, challenges and achievements of women in Australian law over the last century. Explore how women’s roles have evolved in the traditionally-male dominated legal landscape from the early 20thcentury to the present day.

Despite significant strides in the legal profession, there is still a long road ahead. Notably, we’re yet to see the appointment of the first female Chief Justice in New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. As we acknowledge the progress made and strive for a more inclusive future, let this timeline serve as a testament to the resilience and achievements of the women shaping Australia's legal industry.

1902 -1910

In 1902, Ada Evans graduated with a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Sydney, becoming the first Australian woman to obtain a law degree. After finishing school, Evans attempted to become a barrister in New South Wales, but her application was rejected on the basis of being female. She also faced the same rejection when attempting to join the English Bar.

In 1905, Flos Greig became Australia’s first female lawyer, overcoming initial restrictions for women in the legal profession. Despite facing discrimination, she successfully fought for her right to practice law and, in doing so, paved the way for countless other women.

The first woman is admitted to practice law in Australia
The first woman solicitor in Queensland.
1910 -1920

In 1915, Agnes McWhinney was called to the Queensland Bar and became the first female solicitor in Queensland. Despite Justice Pope Cooper’s disapproval of women in the legal profession, he had no grounds to refuse her and admitted her to practice as a solicitor on 7 December 1915.

In 1918, New South Wales became the second-to-last Australian state to grant women the right to practice law with the passage of the Women’s Legal Status Act.

In 1919, Joan Rosanove was admitted to practice and became the first female barrister in Victoria when she signed the bar roll on 10 September 1923. Rosanove eventually went on to become the first female Queen's Counsel in in Victoria in 1965. Rosanove advocated for women’s rights and justice both professional and within her community, accelerating acceptance of women in the legal profession.

1921 - 1940

In 1921, Edith Cowan became the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament, making headlines nationwide when she defeated Thomas Percy Draper on 12 March 1921.

In 1921, Ada Evans was admitted to the New South Wales Bar, 19 years after obtaining her LLB. Despite receiving immediate job offers, she chose not to practice, prioritising family responsibilities.

In 1924, Marie Byles became the first woman admitted as a solicitor in New South Wales. After clerking for four years, in 1929 Byles established her own practice.

Christian Jollie Smith, originally admitted as a solicitor in Victoria in 1912, established her practice on Little Collins Street, Victoria in 1914. After relocating to Sydney, she gained admission to the New South Wales roll of solicitors in October 1924, becoming the first woman in New South Wales to establish her own firm in 1927. 

The first woman to establish her own legal practice in New South Wales.
The first informal meetings of female lawyers.
1941 - 1950

In 1941, female lawyers in New South Wales began informal gatherings, initially meeting at lawyer Veronica Pike’s residence and later at the Feminist Club in King Street, Sydney.

1951 - 1960

In 1952, the Women Lawyers Association was formally established due to the informal women’s association no longer being sufficient to represent the increasing number of women in the legal profession.

The Women Lawyers Association was formally established.
The first woman judge of a supreme court in Australia.
1961 - 1970

In 1962, Roma Mitchell AC, DBA, CVO, QC became Australia’s first female Queen’s Counsel earning her the title ‘Roma the First’ . Mitchell achieved numerous milestones, including being the first female Supreme Court Judge in 1965, Acting Chief Justice in 1983, Deputy University Chancellor in 1972, Chancellor in 1983, and South Australian State Governor in 1991, making her a pioneer in the Australian women’s rights movement.

In 1965, Roma Mitchell made history as the first woman appointed to a superior court in Australia, serving on the Supreme Court of South Australia.  

In 1970, Margaret Stephen became the first woman appointed as a Magistrate in New South Wales, later becoming the first woman to serve on the Coroners’ Court.

1971 - 1980

In 1976, Elizabeth Evatt AC made history as the first Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, marking her as the inaugural female judge of an Australian federal court. Additionally, Evatt became the first Australian elected to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

In 1976, Pat O’Shane became Australia's first Aboriginal barrister. After receiving a study grant, she earned a Bachelor of Laws from the University of New South Wales in 1976. She went on to be appointed permanent head of the New South Wales Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs in 1981, becoming both the first Aboriginal person and the first woman to become a permanent head of ministry in Australia.

In 1981, Mahla Pearlman made history as the first female President of the Law Society after becoming a member of the Law Society’s Council. In 1979, she had previously achieved a milestone as the first female representative on the Solicitors Admission Board.

The first Aboriginal barrister is appointed.
The first woman appointed to the High Court of Australia.
1981 - 1990

From 1984 to 1989, Catherine Branson made history as the first woman appointed as the Crown Solicitor of South Australia and Chief Executive Officer of the Attorney-General’s Department. Branson was the first woman who was a permanent head of a South Australian government department. Branson was later appointed Queen's Counsel in 1992.

In 1987, Jane Mathews AO became the first female Judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court. She was also the first female Crown Prosecutor in New South Wales in 1977, the first woman appointed a Judge in New South Wales in 1980, and the first woman President of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in 1994.

In 1987, Mary Gaudron AC became the first female High Court Judge in Australia. Her appointment instigated a protocol change, transitioning from 'The Honourable Mr Justice X' to ’The Honourable Justice X.’ An inspiration to women in law Gaudron continues her passionate advocacy for equity in the legal profession.

In 1989, Mahla Pearlman achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first female President of the Law Council of Australia, following her earlier role as the inaugural female President of the Law Society of New South Wales eight years prior.

In 1990, Deirdre O'Connor became the first woman appointed to the Federal Court of Australia. Throughout her tenure, she served as the President of both the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

1991 - 2000

In 1992, Mahla Pearlman achieved another milestone as the first woman appointed as President of the New South Wales Land and Environment Court, making her the first woman to become Chief Judge in any jurisdiction.

In 1993, Margaret Beazley made history as the first woman exclusively appointed to the Federal Court. She later served as a Judge in various roles, including the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory in 1994, the Industrial Relations Court of Australia in 1994, and the New South Wales Court of Appeal in 1996.

In 1996, Margaret Beazley became the first woman appointed to the New South Wales Court of Appeal, and in 2013, became the first female President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal.

In 1998, Margaret McMurdo became the first female President of the Queensland Court of Appeal. McMurdo resigned in 2017 and was later appointed Chair of the Legal Aid Board of Queensland.

In 1999, Ruth McColl became the first female President of the New South Wales Bar Association, serving for two years. In 2001, she broadened her impact by assuming the role of President of the Australian Bar Association.

In 2000, Diana Bryant became the first female Chief Federal Magistrate of Australia, overseeing the Federal Magistrates' Court. Prior, she specialised in family law and de facto property disputes at the Victorian Bar, focusing on appellate-level cases. Bryant earned the title of Queen's Counsel in 1997 and played a pivotal role in founding Chancery Chambers in Melbourne.

In June 2000, Norah Hartnett, Christine Mead and Judy Ryan became the first female Federal Magistrates for what is now the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.

A group of female legal students gathered in front of a university building.
The first woman to become Managing Partner of a big six law firm.
2001- 2020

In 2013, Margaret Beazley became the first female President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal. In 2020, Beazley was promoted to Companion of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to the people of New South Wales, particularly through leadership and mentorship of young female lawyers.

In 2015, Gabrielle Upton, a former solicitor and Young Lawyers executive member, became the first female Attorney-General of New South Wales. Upton currently serves as the Parliamentary Secretary for the New South Wales Premier.

In 2015, Catherine Holmes became Queensland's first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court marking a significant milestone in advancing gender equality within the legal system.

On 2017, Susan Kiefel AC was appointed Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, following her tenure as a Justice of the High Court since 3 September 2007.

In 2020, Jacqueline Gleeson SC, a solicitor, barrister, and Federal Court Judge, became the sixth woman appointed to the High Court.

2021 - Present

In 2023, Debra Mortimer became the first female Chief Justice of the Federal Court. Mortimer initially joined the Federal Court in 2013, having been a Senior Counsel at the Victorian Bar since 2003.

In 2023, Louise Taylor made history as the first Indigenous woman appointed as a Judge to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory. Before this, Taylor was a Magistrate in the Australian Capital Territory from September 2018. Taylor's achievement is remarkable, as she is the first Indigenous person to hold a judicial role in the Australian Capital Territory and the first Indigenous woman to attain the position of a Supreme Court judge in Australia.

The women defining excellence for the next century

At the heart of Year 101's mission is our #CelebratingWomenInLaw campaign, an online movement highlighting the stories of women who have left their mark on the legal profession. Explore stories of mentorship, leadership, and the ongoing commitment to foster a more inclusive legal community below, and don't forget to keep up to date with us on LinkedIn and use the hashtag #celebratingwomeninlaw.

Archana Acharya

Chief General Counsel

Gallagher Bassett

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Jana Pennington

Senior Associate

Maurice Blackburn

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Gina de la Cruz

Director

ANZ

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Jennifer Harris

Special Counsel

Clayton Utz

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Natasha Blycha

Managing Director

Stirling & Rose

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Jillian Barrett

Principal Lawyer

Maurice Blackburn

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Contribute to the rich tapestry of women in Australian law

This campaign is not just a reflection of the past; it's an invitation to join the celebration of women in law. We invite you to nominate other women within the legal industry to share their stories, anecdotes, and tributes. Together, let's honour their legacy and inspire future generations.

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