120 years ago, a ground-breaking milestone occurred in the legal profession when Ada Evans became the first woman in Australia to graduate with a Bachelor of Laws.
Ada’s bold and inspiring journey to obtain her law degree was a struggle against patriarchy and bias. As a result of her perseverance and determination, she helped reshape the legal profession and pave the way for future women of law.
Since that time, many trailblazing women of Sydney Law School have displayed strength, courage, and resilience to empower future generations and create a legal landscape that supports inclusivity, diversity and equity.
In 2022, Sydney Law School celebrates Ada and all the changemakers who have followed in her footsteps.
Here we highlight Ada's achievements and three inspiring women of Sydney Law School who have followed in her footsteps. These inspiring legal minds, who demonstrate the impact of individual action, are helping to create for future women of law.
Australian and international society have been profoundly shaped by the efforts of these trailblazing women, whether in the judiciary, in the legal profession, in academia, in business, in public life or in civil society.
Associate Professor Penelope Crossley (LLB 2006, PhD 2015), Director of Alumni Engagement at Sydney Law School, said this: “Sydney Law School alumnae are notable not only for their extraordinary professional achievements but also for their efforts to challenge and overcome gender stereotypes, fight sexism and progress diversity and inclusion. These efforts have supported broad societal change, with our students now graduating with an expectation of equality, diversity and inclusion.”
In 1899, Ada Evans was the first woman to enrol in a Bachelor of Laws at Sydney Law School. Ada submitted her application when the Dean at the time was fortuitously on leave, as he had made it clear he would not accept a female law student.
Ada’s enrolment was accepted but upon the Dean’s return, he told Ada that she “did not have the physique for law and would find medicine more suitable.”
Despite there being no precedent of women becoming lawyers at the time, Ada made history in 1902 by becoming the first woman in Australia to graduate with a Bachelor of Laws.
Even after Ada graduated, she was denied admission to the Bar because she was a woman. At the time, admission rules applied to ‘persons’ holding a law degree, but this term was interpreted by the (male) judges as applying only to men, excluding women.
Change came with the passing of the Women's Legal Status Act 1918, which facilitated Ada's admission to the bar, 19 years after beginning her journey into the law.
Be alert to situations where the law does not correspond to your sense of what is fair and just, and try to do something about it.
Justice Elizabeth Evatt is a judge, scholar and human rights advocate. She has spent much of her career advocating for human rights, and specifically women’s rights, in Australia. Justice Evatt is the epitome of a visionary trailblazer, and her illustrious career in the law has been filled with “firsts”.
Justice Evatt graduated with first class honours and was the first female student to win the University Medal for law. She was also the youngest law student ever accepted and, later, the youngest barrister admitted in New South Wales.
In 1973 Justice Evatt became the first female Deputy President of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and in 1976 she was the first female judge of an Australian federal court when she was appointed as the first Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia. In 1992, she was the first Australian to be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
In 1982 Justice Evatt was made an Officer of the Order of Australia, and in 1995 she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.
Why is it important to celebrate women of law?
The law was traditionally the prerogative of men; women were excluded from participation and denied independent rights. The remnants of this situation persisted into the 20th century and beyond.
Describe your experience working as a woman in the law.
I was fortunate during most of my career to work in fields of particular interest to me, such as law reform, family law and human rights.
Being the first woman to hold a position creates a great opportunity to show that women can do the job and thus open the way for others.
Justice Julie Ward has excelled throughout her life in law, starting as an outstanding student. She completed her Bachelor of Laws in 1982 with first class honours and the University Medal for law.
In her early career, Justice Ward worked as an associate to Sir Nigel Bowen, the first Chief Justice of the Federal Court, and in law firm, Stephen Jaques Stone James (now King & Wood Mallesons).
A postgraduate scholarship from The University of Sydney enabled her to pursue further study at Oxford University where she completed a Bachelor of Civil Law with first class honours.
Some key milestones highlight Justice Ward’s trailblazing career.
Justice Ward was the youngest female partner to be appointed at Mallesons in 1998.
In 2008 Justice Ward was the first female solicitor to be directly appointed to the Supreme Court bench.
In 2022, Justice Ward was appointed as President of the Court of Appeal in the Supreme Court of NSW. She is the second female to be appointed as a President of the Court of Appeal. The first female was fellow Sydney Law School alumna, Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, who held the role she was appointed as the Governor of New South Wales.
How do you feel about being a woman of law?
I love being a lawyer – the law has fascinated me since I started my Arts/Law degree in 1977. As for being a woman in law – I feel fortunate to have started in the law in the era I did when the possibilities for women were opening up.
Describe your experience working in law
I have been very fortunate to work with formidable legal minds and to have had wonderful mentors. My year as associate to the first Chief Justice of the Federal Court (Sir Nigel Bowen) was an unforgettable experience. As for change in the legal profession that has occurred on all fronts – there have been too many changes to recount!
Study hard, maintain your academic curiosity, don’t be too precious, find strong role models and wear fabulous shoes!
Nora Takriti is a penultimate-year Bachelor of Laws student at the University of Sydney.
Nora is passionate about mobilising access to justice. She has spent much of her student years volunteering at the Welfare Rights Centre, SULS Community Legal Education Project and Juvenile Justice Mentoring Scheme, to enhance inclusion and provide broad societal benefit.
In 2021, Nora was appointed as the SULS Women’s Officer where she coordinated major projects to strengthen the support network and development of female law students.
Nora is driven by values of integrity, compassion and dedication, and is excited to see where her legal education takes her in the future.
What was your vision for your Women’s Officer role at SULS?
During a global period of disruption and academic uncertainty, my vision was to advocate on behalf of female students and to facilitate meaningful opportunities designed to empower their personal and professional growth. From launching the Women’s Mentoring Program, to organising an Intervarsity Women in Law Conference, the Women’s Portfolio instilled a genuine sisterhood within Sydney Law School and beyond!
What are your career ambitions following graduation?
As I forge my path into the legal profession, I will remain open minded and willing to seize opportunities that align with my values. In particular, I aspire to use my privilege of studying law at the University of Sydney to empower disadvantaged communities and to serve others.
Why are you passionate about pursuing a career in the law?
I grew up listening to family members share personal stories of injustice, repressive regimes and the failure of legal institutions. I learned that the law is a human response to the world around us, and sometimes, it can shock us out of our cocoons of comfort, like it did for me. Today, while much of my Assyrian heritage is destroyed, or sitting in a draughty museum, it is this potent symbol of justice that has coloured my passion to pursue law.
What does being a woman in law mean to you?
I have had the special honour of standing beside so many inspiring women in law, and celebrating their resilience and contributions.
I think it is very important to reflect on the women that paved the path to making the legal profession accessible, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to pursue my fundamental belief, that the law should be used to lift the bar to gender equality.
The Ada Evans Memorial Scholarship was recently launched to promote equity, diversity and inclusion for women of law.
Ada Evans was the first woman to graduate with an LLB in Australia in 1902. Since her achievements at the Sydney Law School, we are celebrating 120 years of women of law which include the many graduates who have followed in Ada Evans’ footsteps – trailblazing a transformative path for future generations.
Banner image (LtoR): Ada Evans (source: University Archives G3_224_1647), Justice Elizabeth Evatt, Justice Julie Ward, Nora Takriti