Today is the 100th anniversary of the first woman to practise law in SA
20 October 2017
On this day 100 years ago, Mary Cecil Kitson was admitted to legal practice in South Australia, paving the way for countless other women to enter the legal profession.
Mary Kitson was the first female lawyer in South Australia, having taken advantage of the Female Law Practitioners Act of 1911 which for the first time allowed women to practise law.
“Being the first female lawyer in the State is a profound achievement in its own right, but Mary Kitson was much more than that,” Law Society President Tony Rossi said.
“She was an outstanding lawyer who became an authoritative and widely published voice on child welfare matters, and was also a tireless and effective advocate for the advancement of women”.
“Her life was not without challenges. Her husband abandoned her and their disabled son after he was struck off the roll of practitioners for misuse of trust funds, but she forged ahead with her remarkable career while being the sole carer for her son.”
Mary Kitson was a brilliant student who, at age 16 was head prefect and dux of St Aloysius, and went on to become an exceptional lawyer, particularly in the area of juvenile justice and child welfare.
Mary completed her articles with Poole & Johnstone in 1917 and was promptly employed as a managing clerk of the firm. Two years later she became a partner of the firm, which changed its name to Johnstone, Ronald & Kitson.
She made history again when, shortly after marrying Gordon Tenison Woods in 1924, Mary partnered with Dorothy Somerville to form the first firm in the history of the Commonwealth to comprise solely of female partners.
Mary, upon obtaining her divorce form Gordon in 1933, moved to Sydney to work as a legal editor, so she could work from home and care for her child, who had cerebral palsy. She wrote many text books over the next 15 years.
Mary was appointed Chair of the Delinquency Committee of the Child Welfare Council and was instrumental in achieving a number of reforms, including the establishment of a Department of Child Welfare.
Among numerous other roles, Mary was appointed Chief of the Status of Women Commission in the Human Rights division if the United Nations. She was also awarded an OBE for her child welfare work.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Mary Kitson’s admission to legal practice, the Law Society has published a special “trailblazers” edition of the Bulletin, which features a fascinating article by Elizabeth Olsson about the remarkable lives of Mary Kitson and fellow pioneering women Dorothy Somerville and Sesca Zelling.