CELEBRATING PIONEERING NEW ZEALAND WOMEN
Born in Dunedin in 1875, Ethel Rebecca Benjamin was the first New Zealand woman to be accepted into law school and become a practising lawyer. As a high achiever at school, Ethel was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Otago, which was then the only university in Australasia and the UK to have all of its classes available to women. But it took a leap of faith for Ethel to enrol in Law, because the profession itself wasn’t open to women. This didn’t deter her, and she became one of the best students in the course. When she graduated in 1897, things weren’t smooth sailing: the Otago District Law Society restricted her access to the society’s library, gave her an alternative dress code and did not invite her to their annual functions. She also was offered very little help from older members of the society, unlike her male counterparts. But she persisted. She established a law practice in Dunedin and was the first female lawyer in the British Empire to appear in court. In 1899 she became an honorary solicitor for the Protection of Women and Children, helping many female clients in cases of wife abuse, divorce, and adoption. Ethel became known as a lawyer who worked to protect and promote women’s legal rights, as well as for paving the way for the women lawyers who followed.