From Oddities to Ordinary? the Legal Profession's Changing Attitudes to Women Lawyers in Australia

Thursday, 14 July 2016: 09:20
Location: Hörsaal 17 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Heather ROBERTS, ANU College of Law, Australia
In the last five years women lawyers have held prominent and powerful positions in the Australian community. In 2012, for example, when Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ‘misogyny’ speech went viral on social media, the positions of Prime Minister, Governor-General, and national Attorney-General were all held by women lawyers, and three of the seven members of Australia’s highest court were also female. This paper examines how the profession’s attitudes towards women lawyers, and particularly women judges, have changed in Australia as women have graduallygained greater prominence in the profession.

Feminist scholars such as Thornton and Hunter have demonstrated that after the Australian legal profession’s doors were opened to women, women lawyers still faced a culture of hostility. This manifested variously through discriminatory briefing practices; the sexualisation of the female form; and, the gendered criticism of the appointment of women to the bench. However, as women became ‘ordinary’ in the profession and on the bench, did this also herald a change in attitude towards women in the law?

This paper explores this question through the lens of judicial swearing-in ceremonies. These ceremonies consist of speeches by leaders of the legal profession welcoming the new judge, followed by the judge’s inaugural address. Described as a 'eulogy for the living', this ‘ceremonial archive’ records how lawyers, including women lawyers, speak about gender and the profession, while the repetition of the ritual over time and across Australia’s vast geography provides a unique lens through which to explore changing attitudes.

Adopting a thematic approach, this paper demonstrates how key trends, including the depiction of the ‘mother judge’, and the ‘trailblazing women of the law’, dominate these ceremonial narratives. These are also themes which connect with international feminist analyses of how women have been welcomed to, and excluded from, the legal profession.