"My grandfather erected a notice at the door of his church,” wrote Marie Byles in her unpublished memoir, “‘Jews, infidels, heretics – all are welcome.’ The term heretic was one of pride in our family, not shame.”
It’s a telling anecdote of a true pioneer. While not a heretic herself, Byles was a trailblazer who cared not for convention or established rules, who became the first female solicitor in New South Wales, after completing her degree in law at the University of Sydney. It was a significant moment in history – and one that was only possible because of the work of another revolutionary and Sydney graduate, Ada Evans.
The stories of these two women overlap and intertwine – indeed, Byles’s life and career would have been markedly different without Evans’s influence, and without Byles, Evans’s legacy would not have been so remarkable.
Evans, born in England in 1872, was Australia’s first female law graduate. After completing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney in 1895, Evans returned to the University four years later, at her mother’s urging, to study law. She was the first woman enrolled in the degree, and legend has it that her application was only successful because the then–Dean was away at the time and unable to thwart the attempt.
While Evans was the first woman to graduate with a law degree in Australia in 1902, she was not the first to practise the law; that honour went to Marie Byles. When Evans graduated, women were in fact not permitted to practise law. It was an injustice Evans worked for the next two decades to overcome.
Marie Byles was the recipient of Evans’s campaigning efforts. A rabble-rouser from the very beginning, Byles’s life was almost too bombastic to be believed. After winning a scholarship to the University, she graduated with a degree in arts in 1921, followed by law in 1924. She was the first woman admitted as a solicitor in New South Wales, a feat only managed due to the diligence and persistence of Evans.
When Byles established her own practice in 1929 – the first woman in New South Wales to do so – she quickly became known not just for her sharp legal mind, but for her nifty organisational skills, with a reputation for speedily processing matters. She also gained a reputation for taking on female clients, assisting them with divorce settlements at a time when divorce was still rare and stigmatised.
For her part, Evans never practised law. She applied twice to the New South Wales Bar and was rejected twice. She applied to the English Bar, also unsuccessfully. Finally, after her efforts to overturn the ban on women working in the law came to fruition, Evans successfully applied to the New South Wales Bar – the third time, it seemed, was the charm. But on graduating, even though Evans was made several lucrative offers of employment, she declined. A visionary to the last, Evans was concerned that it had been too long since she had studied the law, and worried that being the first woman to practise in her state might be detrimental to her sex.
Byles, by contrast, was a polymath renaissance woman, never too far from adventure. A keen traveller, she climbed mountains – literally, this time – across Norway, Canada and England, and was an early Western visitor to modern China. There, she discovered an affinity for Buddhism, and returned to Australia eager for more people to know about it. A conservationist, she campaigned for land rights and led bushwalking expeditions. Byles frequently contributed to newspapers, including The Australian Women’s Mirror, where she opined on legal issues affecting her female readers, including a memorable imploration to keep their names upon marriage.
Largely forgotten to history, Ada Evans and Marie Byles have an influence and impact that they might find difficult to believe, over one hundred years after their lives converged through their connection to the University of Sydney’s Law School. For the generations of women who have come after them – consciously or not – they made the law possible, and penetrable.
Written by Lauren Sams, photography by David Woolfall & Louise M Cooper.
The University of Sydney congratulates all alumni and staff who were included on the distinguished Australia Day 2023 Honours List announced last week.