It has been 100 years since NSW passed the Women’s Status Act, which gave women the right to practise as solicitors and barristers in the state among other forms of political participation, and the struggle to be considered legally equal to men is one that Justice Virginal Bell AC does not want us to forget.
Speaking in Sydney last week, High Court of Australia (HCA) Justice Virginia Bell AC gave a short history lesson on the long battle for equality that women in the common law world have fought.
By 1912, vocal advocates like the pioneering feminist Rose Scott — who was financially independent and “famously considered life too short to waste it in the service of one man” — were speaking out about the notable absence of women in power. It was from positions of power that women could help shift attitudes and accommodate a more equitable state of affairs, Ms Scott reasoned.
Noting a speech that Ms Scott delivered to the National Council of Women, Justice Bell said that the vocal feminist made a clear-eyed riposte that women often gave up unequal pay for no pay when they married.
“[Rose Scott] argued that women should receive payment for bearing children and that mothers should have equal guardianship of their children. She urged the need for testator’s family maintenance legislation so that men could be prevented from disinheriting their wives and children,” Justice Bell said.
“Importantly she pointed out that the disadvantaged position of wives and mothers, the majority of women, was maintained through the exclusion of women from the practice of law and from positions of authority and dignity in the state.
“She called for women to be eligible for appoint as magistrates, justices of the peace, jurors, judges, members of parliament and local councils.”