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Ada Evans

c. 1902-1911
The Swiss Studios, Sydney (photographic studio)

gelatin silver photograph on paper mounted on card (overall: 32.0 cm x 24.0 cm)

Ada Emily Evans (1872–1947) was the first Australian woman to attain a law degree and the first woman admitted to the Bar in New South Wales. Evans was eleven when her family moved from England to Australia and settled in Sydney. She finished her schooling at Sydney Girls' High and then undertook a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1895. Initially planning to become a teacher, she and her sister started a small private school at Summer Hill, until Evans had to give up the work for health reasons. With encouragement from her mother – who was from a family of lawyers – in 1899 Evans decided to return to university to study law, despite knowing that, as the law then stood, she wouldn't be able to practise after graduating. Nor for that matter, would the Dean of Sydney University's law school have tolerated a female student – so she applied (and was accepted) while he was on leave. He later told her that 'she did not have the physique for law and would find medicine more suitable'. Needless to say, Evans ignored this advice and graduated LL.B. in 1902. This achievement was reported on in a number of Australian newspapers, which also drily noted that 'the law at present in force does not permit ladies to practise the legal profession'. Accordingly, Evans' application to the Supreme Court for registration as a student-at-law was rejected – on the grounds of there being no precedent – as were her applications to be admitted to the Bar in New South Wales and in England.

From 1905, and with support from women's organisations, Evans petitioned successive governments, requesting that the law be changed. She was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, other jurisdictions had introduced bills allowing women to practise law. Eventually, a full bench of Supreme Court judges decided Evans' case was a matter for parliament. In December 1918, the New South Wales Parliament passed the Women's Legal Status Act, by which the legal profession was finally opened to women in the state. It also enabled women to stand for state parliament. Evans then completed the required two years as a student-at-law and was admitted to the Bar in May 1921. By that time, however, it was almost twenty years since she had completed her law degree. Although she was offered briefs as a barrister immediately, Evans declined to practise, not wanting 'women's standing in the profession to be undermined by a show of incompetence.'

In 1909, having edited the women's pages of the Australian Star for a while, Evans moved with her brother to Kurkulla, a sixteen-acre property at Bowral. Keen gardeners, they developed it into a productive mini farm that supported them, their widowed sister Florence and Florence's children. It was reported that while in Edinburgh in 1935, 'Miss Evans visited the Law Courts and was struck by the number of young women barristers whom she saw standing about in the lobbies and corridors. Miss Evans said that from inquiries she made, she gathered that these women barristers found the same obstacles confronting them in their profession as did Australian women barristers. They still had much prejudice to contend with.' Ada Evans died at Kurkulla in December 1947.

Purchased 2021

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

Artist and subject

The Swiss Studios, Sydney

Ada E. Evans (age 30 in 1902)

Subject professions

Activism

Law and justice

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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