Deeds not dolls, Bill Hastings

In the Footsteps of Ethel Benjamin: New Zealand’s First Woman Lawyer
Janet November
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864736079

The title is important. Janet November has not, in fact, written a biography of Ethel Benjamin, New Zealand’s first woman lawyer. Her book is better described as a memoir of her search (one of two reasons for including “footsteps” in the title) for a better idea of who Ethel Benjamin was and the times in which she lived.

In searching for the idea of Ethel Benjamin, November acknowledges her debt to Carol Brown, who, having written about Ethel Benjamin for her Otago University history degree and the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, became a choreographer in London and is now a senior lecturer in dance studies at the University of Auckland, a career shift that would likely have resonated with Benjamin.

November locates her search for Ethel Benjamin squarely in late 19th and early 20th century New Zealand. This is natural: this is where the records of Benjamin’s life are. Benjamin was raised in a large Jewish family in Dunedin, went to Otago Girls’ High School, and enrolled in law at the University of Otago before the Female Law Practitioners Act was passed in 1896.

She practised law in Otago and Wellington, invested in hotel businesses and real estate, ran the Cherry Tea Rooms at the 1906 Christchurch Exhibition, married, and then abruptly emigrated to England and Italy. There, Benjamin lived a life largely unknown to us, although we know she did not practise law. She died a wealthy childless widow in 1943.

November pieces together Benjamin’s law practice from letters she wrote on behalf of clients seeking maintenance from deadbeat fathers and collecting money owed by miscreant debtors, letters arranging adoptions, and letters placing people in employment. Like Benjamin’s correspondence, November’s prose is at its best when she explains Benjamin’s role representing hoteliers against the prohibitionists, and the family law context of Benjamin’s work for the Society for the Protection of Women and Children.

The book is not, however, without its disappointments. November’s scholarship is to some extent burdened by the quality of the source material. Where records specific to Benjamin’s life are missing, November is prone to extrapolate from general propositions: for example, she writes “The magistrates probably relied on solicitors such as Ethel ….” and “no doubt Ethel would have followed the reports of her [Minnie Dean’s] sensational trial.”  All this really tells us is that Ethel was a sentient human being.

Points are occasionally laboured: in quoting an Otago Daily Times report that Benjamin could regard winning her first case “as a good omen that she was on the winning side”, November unnecessarily explains to us that this suggests “Ethel might be ‘on the winning side’ in the future.”  In other places, November fills the gaps in the Benjamin record with general descriptions of Dunedin, Otago Girls’ High School and Otago University from business directories and school anniversary publications (chapters 1 to 3), and with a 36-page epilogue containing biographies of five women lawyers who followed in Benjamin’s footsteps (the second reason for the title) in the practice of law.

While we don’t really discover much more about Benjamin than we already know from Brown’s work, November has made a noble attempt to locate what we do know of Benjamin in the wider context of her time and country.

The search for Ethel Benjamin could nevertheless have been located elsewhere. With the Benjamin family’s to-ing and fro-ing between England and Dunedin, it is surprising that comparisons are not drawn with the experiences of other women who were admitted to practise law in other countries. Benjamin was not alone.

Clara Brett Martin was admitted to practise in Ontario in 1897, slightly before Benjamin. Charlotte Ray, a black woman, was admitted to the Bar of the District of Columbia in 1872.  Flos Greig was admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1905. Belva Ann Lockwood was licensed to practise before the United States Supreme Court in 1879. An exploration of what any of these shared experiences said about cosmic shifts in the legal profession generally would have been welcome, and might have helped to fill in some of the context left by the gaps in the record we have of Benjamin.

Mabel French, for example, was the first woman lawyer admitted to practise in British Columbia. Some years after Benjamin was admitted to the New Zealand Bar, French challenged the conservative patriarchy in her home province of New Brunswick by using legal reasoning against the legal profession. After the Supreme Court of New Brunswick decided she was not a legal person and therefore could not be admitted to the Bar, French decided not to pay some bills.

When sued, her defence was that since she was not a person, she could not be sued for debt.  She failed, but not before she had forced one court to face the absurd consequences of the other’s judgment. The provincial legislature had little choice but to pass an act to permit the admission of qualified women lawyers to the Bar directly as a result of French’s public demonstration of the legal patriarchy’s hypocrisy.

Pretty much all we have in Benjamin’s case is the passage of the Female Law Practitioners Act the year before she was admitted to the Bar, the possibility that Members of Parliament were aware of her superb law school grades, and her stated preference for reading deeds instead of playing with dolls as a child. If Benjamin was not entirely responsible for this sea-change in the legal profession, what else was?

I wanted there to be common threads in these women lawyers’ experiences that might shine more light on the sources and consequences of first-wave feminism. I also wanted more of November’s own capable legal insight into the patchy records we have of Benjamin’s interactions with the legal profession and the greater social issues of her day.  But again, November was hampered by a paucity of source material. She writes that “I have not been able to locate” papers that Benjamin published on “Women and Workers” and “Women and the Study and Practice of the Law” that the Cyclopedia of New Zealand refers to.

November also records that she was “unable to locate the records of the Dunedin Branch of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children” to which Brown had access in 1985.  It is a shame that the latter records have been lost within the last 20 years, and it certainly raises issues about the quality of the custodianship of documents vital to our understanding of New Zealand’s legal and social history.

I wouldn’t say that Janet November has managed to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear of sources, but one can generally admire the craftsmanship.


Bill Hastings is Chief Censor. 


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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