If, like me, you are an avid reader of the Letters to the Editor page of the ODT, not only will you be aware of middle New Zealand’s almost manic opposition to the concept of a cycle lane but also of another current affair that has the denizens of our fine province all riled up. A few weeks ago, a panel of local historians compiled a list of 17 “notable characters” from each of the last 17 decades of Dunedin’s history. The list contained no women.
An all-lady list was also compiled and, as one of the historians Dr Page explained, herself repping the double X chromosome, there were historical reasons why the list ended up that way. Regardless, Ethel Benjamin — the bad bitch with a degree (to quote American wordsmith, J. Cole) — should have been on that initial list. Ethel Benjamin was New Zealand’s first female law graduate, beginning her studies in 1893 when women weren’t permitted to practise law. But institutionalised sexism ain’t gonna stop Ethel because Ethel “had faith that a colony so liberal as our own would not long tolerate such purely artificial barriers” as sex or gender. She was correct. When she graduated from Otago in 1897, she became the second female lawyer in the British Empire, beaten at the post by that cheeky Canadian, Clara Brett Martin.
Ethel incidentally was also a total babe — a picture of her hangs in the Otago law library where she looks down, with an alluringly disapproving gaze, upon hungover law students struggling to comprehend what the fuck a trust is. She graduated with outstanding marks, which is more than I can say for my own law degree and I didn’t even have to fight the patriarchy to get it. As such, she was asked, at the last minute, to speak on behalf of the graduates at their capping. Ethel said: “It was only yesterday that I was asked to undertake this pleasant task, and while deeply sensible to the compliment paid to me, I was somewhat diffident about taking so much upon myself at so short a notice. But I knew that little would be expected of me and even if I succeeded in talking nonsense, the charitable verdict would be, ‘Oh well, it is all that can be expected of a woman.’” It was a different time.