"It is true that the Legal Profession was not then open to women... but I had faith that a colony so liberal as our own would not long tolerate such purely artificial barriers. "
Ethel Benjamin became New Zealand's first female lawyer in 1897, and in 1898 was the first woman in the British Empire to represent a client in court.
Six years earlier Ethel had enrolled for a law degree at the University of Otago, without knowing if she'd be able to actually use it; women weren't allowed to practise law in New Zealand until 1896, when the Female Law Practitioners Act was passed. The university was the first in Australasia to allow women to do a law degree.
While she was studying Ethel was frequently at the top of her class, but despite her obvious talent she suffered constant discrimination from the Otago District Law Society including:
- restricted access to their library
- an attempt to have her banned from practising law
- an attempt to enforce a separate dress code on her, i.e. without the traditional gown and wig
- no invitations to official functions, such as their annual dinner
- no mentoring or support from established lawyers
However, despite the adversity she managed to set up a successful private practice. She also ran the Dunedin branch of the NZ Society for the Protection of Women and Children, handling cases of abuse, divorce and adoption.
Ethel married in 1907, eventually moved overseas with her husband, and died in England in 1943 from a fractured skull after being struck by a car. Her hard work paved the way for others, although the next female lawyer did not graduate in NZ until 1911 and women lawyers were not common until well after World War Two.
These days, in recognition of her success, female law students can apply for two $20,000 scholarships known as the Ethel Benjamin Prize.
Source: Carol Brown, New Zealand Dictionary of Biography. Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand