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CEL­E­BRAT­ING PI­O­NEER­ING NEW ZEALAND WOMEN

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - IN BRIEF - ETHEL BEN­JAMIN

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.

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