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The Women's Legal Status Act 1923, which Edith Cowan introduced in 1923 as a Private Member's Bill, opened the legal profession to women. The Act specified that "a person shall not be disqualified by sex from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from being admitted and entitled to practise as a practitioner within the meaning of that term in the Legal Practitioners Act, 1893 or from entering or assuming or carrying on any other profession, any law or usage to the contrary notwithstanding". The legislation was modelled on the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, passed in Britain in 1919. The debate of the Western Australian Parliament on this legislation proved to be the forerunner of many later equal opportunity legislative initiatives.

Edith Cowan's second reading speech makes it clear that she wanted the Bill passed as a stand alone bill that was separate from the Interpretations Act so that any changes to women's employment status did not require the Interpretations Act to be amended - "we shall not have to be continually coming to Parliament in order that women may be admitted to various functions and offices from which they are now debarred". She also pointed out that "similar legislation has been passed in Great Britain and in New South Wales. In other parts of the world also women are admitted to many professions and avenues of employment not open to them in this State." As William Angwin interjected: "You want a Bill that people can understand".

There was a very important amendment, with the exclusion on the grounds of marriage excised from the Bill, without a vote in the Committee stage. Mitchell had recounted the main argument when he spoke of the need to preserve the structure of the family in which wives were economically depended on their husbands. William Angwin believed that to include the words 'or marriage' in the legislation would have the effect of taking mothers away from their children. Edith knew that insisting on the inclusion of marriage could jeopardise the passage of the Bill before the end of the session, which she was not prepared to do. The Bill with the amendments moved to the Legislative Council where it was passed.



As a result of this legislation women are able to participate in the full spectrum of employment. Today there are many female lawyers able to practise law in Western Australia and across the nation. It has taken longer for women to become barristers and judges. The gender balance is still uneven with females comprising only 22 per cent of law practitioners in Australia. (The Australian, 8 July 2011).



Since the Women's Legal Status Act 1923 there have been many successful women lawyers. It has taken much longer for women to become members of the judiciary. The first female judge in Western Australia was Her Honour Antoinette Kennedy appointed as a Judge in the Western Australian District Court 15 March 1985. She was made the Chief Judge 1 January 2004. It has taken longer for a female Supreme Court Judge to be appointed, with only two female judges appointed to the Supreme Court, Christine Ann Wheeler (1996 -2010) and Narelle Johnson (2003 -2012).


Sources:
  1. The Voice of Edith Cowan, Australia's first woman parliamentarian 1921-1924 by Harry C.J. Phillips. Perth: Edith Cowan University, 1996.
  2. Women's Legal Status Act 1923. Legislation as Passed. Perth: State Law Publisher, Department of Premier and Cabinet. Website accessed September 2015.
  3. An Interview with Chief Judge Antoinette Kennedy by Catherine Fletcher. In UWA Law Review, 35, 2010, p. 197-203.



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