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July 20, 2009 | by  | in Books |
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In the footsteps of Ethel Benjamin

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In the footsteps of Ethel Benjamin: New Zealand’s first woman lawyer by Janet November, is a thoroughly researched account of—unsurprisingly—New Zealand’s first female lawyer. What is surprising however, is how accessible this part biography, part legal history, written by a senior researcher at the Law Commission, is to a layperson like me.

Beginning with a sketch of Ethel’s early life and the circumstances of her Otago University education, the book goes on to describe, to varying degrees of technical detail, her practice in the areas in which she specialised, as well as her more general ‘bread and butter’ legal work. Through the use of illustrative letters and anecdotes, which November has clearly gone to great pains to collect, Ethel comes across as a no-nonsense and passionate lawyer, whose interests included family law and working for the early twentieth century hoteliers against the prohibitionists. The book also includes a collection of well-chosen facsimiles and photographs, with the latter including a few snazzy shots of the remarkably foxy pioneer herself.

As well as her impressive contribution to the law, Ethel’s legacy is that of an inspiring, and sometimes unconventional first-wave feminist. She achieved many firsts for women both in and outside of the legal profession, and on a national and international scale. November suggests that she was probably the first female lawyer in the British Empire to appear in court as counsel, and in 1897 she was appointed one of the honorary solicitors for the newly-formed Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children. Her commitment to the plight of her own sex is further evidenced by her extensive pro bono work for women who suffered at the hands of their bastard husbands.

In the footsteps of Ethel Benjamin ends with an account of five significant female lawyers who have indeed trod the same path, which lends the book a sense of contemporary relevance. Ethel Benjamin’s story is an important part of our legal and social history, and November has rightly told it with great detail and respect.

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