“Don’t let anything defeat you.”
These were words of advice Her Excellency Governor of NSW Margaret Beazley AO QC shared earlier this month in an inspiring speech to an audience of students, parents and the broader Rosewood school community including principal Ms Elizabeth Stone & Governor Lucy Brogden.
Leading by example, with a distinguished legal career, including as the first woman to be appointed as the President of the NSW Court of Appeal, Her Excellency Margaret Beazley spoke eloquently and modestly.
The title of her speech was “A Century of Women’s Achievements: Unfinished Business…”, and she highlighted some of the challenges that women have faced over the past century, the progress that has been made, and some of the “unfinished business”.
Women have campaigned tirelessly over the past century in fields ranging from law to politics, and carved out careers and achieved milestones with wisdom & persistence.
How did the first woman enrol at Sydney University Law School?
Her Excellency Margaret Beazley referred to the late Ada Evans who enrolled in the Sydney University Law School in 1899 (while the Dean Professor Cobbett was on leave, as he wouldn’t have accepted a woman law student). After the late Ada Evan’s efforts and the support of various organisations, in 1902, she was the first woman to graduate from Law but was not permitted to practice as a Lawyer because it was against the law.
Sixteen years later, in 1918, the Women’s Legal Status Act was passed in NSW & the legal profession in NSW was opened to women. On 12 May 1921, the late Ada Evans also became the first woman admitted to the Bar. As a graduate of Sydney University Law School, I feel grateful to the late Ada Evans for opening up a pathway to law school. Education is empowering, and one of the key ways to address inequity.
What was it like for the Milicent Preston Stanley, the first woman MP elected to NSW Parliament?
We heard that after Milicent Preston Stanley was elected as the first female MP in NSW in 1925, a newspaper reported the next day about the type of clothes she wore, rather than the powerful content of her speech and the impact that she could make to Parliament. She opened the doors for future women MPs and aspiring women politicians, with notable words such as
“I am deeply conscious that the advent of a woman in parliament in this country is not exactly to be considered as a popular innovation…woman have a contribution to make to the life of the nation which only they can make I believe that woman’s questions are national questions & that national questions are women’s questions”
But most of the “firsts” achieved by women have been accomplished over the past decade, according to her Excellency Beazley. She provided her own personal anecdotes, including that she had been told that, as a woman, it was only appropriate for her to practice in “family law”. In addition, after she was appointed as President of the NSW Court of Appeal, a QC said to her that it was a “socially irresponsible appointment” because she was married with children!
She repeated her advice “Don’t let any of that stuff get to you” & cited a motivating quote from Joan Rosanove QC
“…to be a female lawyer you must have the stamina of an ox, a hide like a rhinocerous & when they kick you in the teeth, you must look as if you hadn’t noticed”
There are numerous areas which still require improvement for women. For example, as at 7 May 2019, Her Excellency highlighted that in NSW, about 32.6% of members of Parliament were women, & the national gender pay gap is about 14.1% (& sadly, it hasn’t changed considerably over the past two decades).
I believe that Diversity enriches Australia, whether it’s based on ideology, gender, race, disability, age etc. I was given an opal pin as a former People of Australia Ambassador, and it is the distinct differences of “colour” of the national gemstone that add to its beauty.
Although the debate around diversity should recognise that diverse individuals be recognised on their merits (and not solely because of their diversity), it must also recognise the significant differences and challenges faced by various groups.
The room was full of bright young female and male students. After hearing Her Excellency Margaret Beazley speaking so passionately, I felt stronger and motivated to continue to stand by my convictions, and to never give up on fighting for what is right. One may sometimes be fighting alone & it can a tough journey, but it’s a worthwhile one. And I think that we owe that to the women trailblazers that have paved the way for women of today, so that we can make a better future for women and all Australians of tomorrow.
Pallavi Sinha is a Lawyer, Notary Public & Academic & an AFR & Westpac 100 Women of Influence. She was a 2019 Liberal Candidate for the NSW Upper House She currently works as Principal of Lawyers with Solutions and lectures at the University of Sydney Law School. She serves on the NSW Council for Women’s Economic Opportunity. The views expressed in this article are personal.