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Brookes, Barbara --- "In the footsteps of Ethel Benjamin: New Zealand's first woman lawyer by Janet November" [2010] OtaLawRw 10; (2010) 12 Otago Law Review 421

Last Updated: 25 February 2012



In the footsteps of Ethel Benjamin: New Zealand’s first

woman lawyer

(by Janet November, Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2009)

An auspicious notice appeared in the Otago Daily Times on 3 May 1897 advertising a first in the history of New Zealand: ‘Ethel R. Benjamin, Barrister and Solicitor, Albert Buildings, Princes Street.’ Immediately the District Law Society worried what this new creature, a woman lawyer, should wear. J.H. Hosking proposed that Judges should impose a regulation following the rule of the Ontario District Law Society: ‘a black dress under a black gown with white collar and cuffs and bareheaded’. The judge declined the jurisdiction and Ethel Benjamin chose to wear the same gown, bib and wig as the male lawyers.

Janet November ’s imagination was captured by a photograph of Ethel Benjamin in a Law Talk in 1996 and hence began a voyage of discovery that resulted in this book. The book is driven by November ’s fascination with the story of our first woman lawyer who she sees as laying a foundation for other women in the profession. The book could not be a biography because there are few personal papers through which to chart the contours of a life. Hence the book’s title In the footsteps of Ethel Benjamin, which allows November to add an epilogue on women who she regards as having followed a journey similar to that of her prime subject.

Ethel Benjamin is both oddly at the centre of the book and on the periphery since little is known about her personal views. One way of handling this difficulty might have been to look more broadly at the careers of women with tertiary education and how their lives differed from those of the previous generation. We might then have more of a sense of the momentous change going on in women’s lives at the end of the nineteenth century. Ethel’s work on behalf of women and children might have been contextualized in an era where women had few rights within marriage, a topic that has been well-charted by historians. But it is the elusive Ethel herself that is the sole focus of this book, so other strategies to flesh out the life have had to be employed.

Because of the lack of personal papers, November is forced to rely on a good deal of scene-setting from secondary sources and to speculate about how the Benjamin family fitted into the picture. Those familiar with Dunedin might find the descriptions of the city at the time of Ethel’s childhood fascinating and those unfamiliar with the history of Otago Girls’ High might find the descriptions of school days equally so. For those who know this context, however, the scene-setting becomes laboured and creates a sense of padding out a thin story. Readers might, therefore, feel cheated. We don’t learn much about the national story of women in the legal profession, or women’s legal rights, and because of the lack of sources, we don’t learn about Ethel’s personal motivations (although they are constantly surmised).


Otago Law Review

(2010) Vol 12 No 2

The Benjamins were a Jewish family but November is forced to speculate on the degree of their orthodoxy. She suggests, for example, that Ethel would not have celebrated Christmas but on the other hand, notes that she worked on Saturdays. If Ethel had no qualms adopting gentile working habits, it may well have been the case that the family equally had no qualms in incorporating Christian festivals into their family routine. A greater familiarity with assimilated Jewish families might have made this part of the story more enlightening.

By far the strongest and most interesting section of the book is that on Ethel Benjamin as a business woman, whether as a lawyer acting for clients or on her own behalf. November is able to open an important window on a business woman’s life through the skilful use of legal records. Ethel had a sharp eye for a business deal, buying properties and investing in hotels. In fact, these prospects engaged her to the extent that she planned furnishing and menus, ordered fruit and flowers for her establishments, and instructed on careful recording of the takings. In a sense, her story shares less with that of the pioneering women teachers, and more with the enterprising women who ran businesses throughout New Zealand. Her legal skills worked to her advantage and helped ensure her enterprises were profitable.

The lure of success in business was such that Ethel saw a unique opportunity in opening a tearoom in Christchurch at the New Zealand International Exhibition in 1906-7. She secured an excellent arrangement from the Exhibition management and, in effect, had a captive population. The Exhibition attracted two million visitors and we can assume that many stopped for refreshment at the Cherry Tearooms. There they would have found the best pastries in Christchurch, scones, buns, pies, excellent tea, cocoa, and strawberries in season. A careful and hands-on manager, Ethel instructed staff that there should be no waste, and paid a great deal of attention to effective advertising.

Running the Cherry Tearooms meant Ethel spent more time in Christchurch than Dunedin and it was there she met her future husband, Alfred De Costa, a sharebroker and real estate agent. Thirty-one year old Ethel married the 36 year old Alfred in the Wellington synagogue on the Terrace, on Tuesday, 23 July 1907. She continued her practice from Wellington until sometime in 1908 or 1909, when the De Costas left Wellington to visit family in England, never to return. Family stories have it that during the First World War, Alfred worked for New Zealand offices in London while Ethel worked as the first woman bank manager in England. By the interwar years, the couple had amassed sufficient wealth to travel extensively in Europe. In the 1930s, they chose to live in Italy. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the De Costas returned to England where Alfred died, aged 71, in 1942. Ethel then lived with her two unmarried sisters until killed in a car accident in October 1943.

In this book, readers are asked to follow Janet November ’s trailing through any available source with might throw light on Ethel Benjamin’s life with the same fascination as the author. For this reader, that task

In the footsteps of Ethel Benjamin: New Zealand’s first woman lawyer


became too much at times. For example, November quotes the Otago Daily Times commenting on Ethel’s first court appearance; “Although Miss Benjamin had no difficulties to contend with (the case being undefended) she might possibly regard it as a good omen that she was ‘on the winning side’” (p 146). Not content to let her readers understand the quotation, November spells it out as follows: “This could be interpreted as an encouraging comment, suggesting Ethel might be ‘on the winning side’ in the future. But it detracts from any intended encouragement to note that she had no difficulties to contend with.” This kind of plodding repetition dogs the book as a whole.

My greatest difficulty, however, came with the Epilogue: “Ethel’s Legal legacy: Successors in the Footsteps of Ethel Benjamin.” These successors are defined by being graduates of Otago Girls’ High School and Otago University Law School. It is hard to see in what way these women are “successors” apart from having law degrees, all their lives are so very different. There are hints in these life stories of the flavour of different periods over the twentieth century but they remain unexamined by the author. Of Marion Thomson, who graduated in law in 1937, November notes that even with her law degree finished, no one in her firm thought to employ her as anything other than the typist she had always been

-because she was about to be married. Yet we have learned that Ethel Benjamin continued in business as a lawyer after marriage in 1907. What allowed Ethel to do what Marion Thomson, nearly 40 years later, could not?

The most surprising omission from the index to this book is the name of Ellen Melville. As the axis of New Zealand shifted northward and Dunedin declined, other centres burgeoned and women in those places also created history.

Readers need to know that Ellen Melville was admitted to the bar in December 1906, quickly followed by Geraldine Hemus in 1907. Ellen Melville had a very different set of priorities to Ethel Benjamin, believing women had a duty to serve their communities through participation in civic life. Ellen Melville served in Auckland local body politics and ran for parliament seven times without success. If November had widened her canvass beyond Dunedin to examine the careers of early women lawyers more broadly, the diversity of women’s experience would have been thrown into relief. Such a context would have enabled an evaluation of Benjamin’s role beyond being “the first”.

Barbara Brookes

Professor, History Department

University of Otago

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