Friday, July 10, 2009

Gender and the New Zealand Bar, 1926

While I'm traveling, here's a research note I recently rediscovered from my Fulbright in New Zealand over a decade ago. I still think it's revealing of the masculinist assumptions of the early twentieth-century New Zealand bar, albeit acted upon back "home."

The note is summaries two letters among the papers of Sir Francis H.D. Bell at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, which is now part of New Zealand's National Library. Bell was New Zealand's leading lawyer in the early twentieth century, a very imposing figure who revered the bar and its traditions, not least of all as a proving ground of masculinity, which he tended to think of in athletic and fraternal terms, as one would expect from the president of the Wellington Rugby Football Union and the Wellington Cricket Association, and the Grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of New Zealand.

When Bell wrote these letters he had just finished a lengthy term as Attorney General under a Reform Prime Minister. He was in London and writing the current Attorney General (Francis Rolleston) and Solicitor General (Arthur Fair, who had served under Bell).

Bell to Francis Rolleston, May 28, 1926. "I am concerning myself with the matters of retaining Counsel for the Government in the Flour Milling Case, and I hope that I am not thereby infringing any of the privileges of your office. As you know, I argued the case when A.G. with the Solicitor-General and have had something to do with the direction of the preparation of the papers to go to England from New Zealand. I told [William Downie] Stewart [, Jr., Bell's immediate successor as AG] before I left that I meant to have as one of the Juniors a young lady lawyer because of the enormous mass of evidence and the necessity of getting somebody at a reasonable cost to master (or mistress) it for the Conferences of Counsel. And I have, after conference with the Government solicitors in London, sent preliminary papers, including the evidence, to Miss Clarkson who is a grand-daughter of Sir John Gorst and a daughter of a lady born in New Zealand. She will not, of course, be heard in the P.C., but she is already doing what I want in absolutely mastering the evidence. My difficulty in previous cases, which I have had to control in the P.C., has been to have the Counsel coached in the facts."

Bell to Arthur Fair, May 28, 1926. "I have arranged with the young lady barrister to be a Junior without audience at a moderate fee and to get up the whole of the evidence. I sent her the print and she is doing the job exactly as I hoped, so that at any conference of Counsel or at the Hearing if any question of fact arises, she will be able to supply the answer. The solicitors will never do it and since Northcote's death we have never been able to get a Junior to master the facts when the evidence is voluminous."

For the New Zealand context, see Jock Phillips, A Man's Country, rev. ed. (Penguin, 1996) and Carol Brown, "Ethel Benjamin: New Zealand's First Woman Lawyer" (B.A. Hons. thesis, University of Otago, 1985). For the U.S., see Michael Grossberg, "Institutionalizing Masculinity: The Law as a Masculine Profession," in Meanings for Manhood, ed. Mark C. Carnes and Clyde Griffen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

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