This year is the centenary of the NSW Women’s Legal Status Act 1918, and it was commemorated by Justice Virginia Bell in an excellent speech to the Forbes Society for Australian Legal History.

She gives a thorough review of the slow and stuttering move towards formal legal equality for women in the UK and Australia. Despite having a broad brushstrokes understanding of this history, it was nevertheless shocking to be reminded how recently the law enshrined opinions like these:

The provisions of legislation stating that in the Municipal Corporation Acts, “words importing the masculine gender shall include females for all purposes connected with the right to vote at the election of councillors” was held [in 1872] not to confer a right on married women to vote in municipal elections. The Court accepted Mr Farrer Herschell’s (later Lord Chancellor Herschell) economical submission that “[a] married woman is not a person in the eye of the law. She is not sui juris”.

I was pleased to see that her Honour has not, since her rise to the highest bench, abandoned her critical perspective. She notes that formal equality did not immediately create actual equality:

The social and economic pressures which largely kept women in the home were not about to give way in the face of a change to their status at law.

Don’t put excessive faith in the legal system. It is a tool, but only one tool, to organise society for the benefit of the people. Law reform is important only to the extent that it creates social and economic equality in people’s day-to-day lives.