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Mary Tenison Woods.

Many people ask when they hear the name Mary, Tenison Woods: What relation was she to Father Julian Tenison Woods? The answer is, of course, no relation, except that she married into a family that was always very name conscious. Not only did they retain the Tenison name, that of their ancestor, Archbishop of Canterbury, but in every generation there has been at least one boy named Julian. Mary's husband was Julian, but more of that later. Mary herself was a pioneer whose legal career took her from Adelaide via Sydney to the office of the United Nations Organisation in New York.


Mary Cecil Kitson was born in 1893 in Caltowie, a small town in the mid-north of South Australia, where her mother, Mary Agnes McClure, married the local policeman, John Kitson. It was a region where Catholicism was strong, mainly owing to the early importation of Irish farm labour. They moved to Adelaide where John Kitson eventually achieved the rank of Inspector in the detective branch. With their seven children, Eugene, James, Bernard, Mary, Kathleen, Cecilia and Augustine, they lived not far from police headquarters, the Catholic cathedral and the school in Angas Street conducted by the Sisters of Mercy. It is important to note the part played by those Adelaide Sisters of Mercy in the education of many girls who became significant among the feisty, gifted women which South Australia seems to produce: girls like Mary Kitson; Clare Harris, whose legal career took her straight to London, the Foreign Office and post-war reconstruction; and the remarkable Roma Mitchell, fast woman QC, Chancellor of Adelaide University and the first and only Catholic Governor of South Australia since Sir Dominick Daly, over a hundred years before her time.

Mary Kitson shone at school, dux of the school and head prefect before she matriculated at sixteen, winning prizes for her essays, including one offered by the Catholic paper, the Southern Cross, on Irish history. Her picture there shows a serious fifteen-year-old with long curls. Adelaide University had been open to female students since the 1880s, but few women had enrolled in law subjects, since they could not practise. Serendipity decreed that Mary Kitson could begin law studies the year after the 1911 Female Law Practitioners Act made it possible for women to practise law. She graduated in 1916, the first woman to do so in South Australia, having been articled to the firm of Poole & Johnstone. J.S. Poole had been one of her university lecturers and examiners, but was also Grand Master of the Freemasons, Lieutenant Governor and soon to be promoted to the Supreme Court. When that happened, Mary became partner in the firm Johnstone, Ronald & Kitson. It almost goes without saying that it was judged suitable for her to concentrate on cases where children came before the court. Let me quote something which she wrote later (1935):
 'Treatment of child delinquents' is nothing but a phrase to most
 populations in any country of the world. It has even less meaning in
 Australia, because we have painted for ourselves a picture of the
 Australian child--sun-burned, happy, honest, courageous and
 lively ... What we need to rouse our understanding is a shock, the
 kind of a shock I got when I handled my first case before a
 Children's Court. I heard a boy of eight charged 'that he did
 unlawfully steal and carry, away' etcetera, 'a bag of sweets'. He
 had no idea what was happening beyond the fact that there were a lot
 of large policemen about, and he said: 'Yes, I took the lollies'
 and he was 'bound over'.

With many such cases behind her, it is not surprising that she began to devote her energies to the welfare of children under government policy and the ultimate overhaul of children's court procedures in South Australia.

The next barrier arose when she wished to include in her qualifications the role of Public Notary, hitherto restricted to male lawyers. The difficulty arose from the interpretation of the word 'person', which her former employer, Judge Poole, learnedly and ponderously investigated, and declared to mean 'man' in the relevant Act. Aided by others interested in justice, including Dr Edward Stirling (who introduced women's suffrage into the SA parliament years before), the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1921 was secured, stating that 'person' could mean either male or female, and another barrier went down.

During this time Mary, acted as one of the sub-editors on the University, magazine. Another sub-editor was described as a widely popular young man, of taking manners, fluent in speech and with a strong grasp of law--a description which proved to be ironic. Julian Gordon Tenison Woods was two years Mary's junior. They were married at St Laurence's Church, North Adelaide in 1924. Mary's husband was grandson to James Woods, Father Julian's brother. The new lawyer set up practice in the business centre of Adelaide, advertising as: J.G. Tenison Woods, Barrister & Solicitor, Commissioner, etc. Mary, no longer allowed to remain as a married woman in the partnership, set up what was possibly the first all-woman partnership in Australia, with a recent graduate, Dorothy Somerville.

The newly-weds settled in Glen Osmond, but it seems that Julian Gordon Woods had inherited not only the Woods family charm but also the inability to manage finance. Two years after their marriage, when Mary, was nine months pregnant, he was reported by a firm of trustees to have misappropriated over 500 [pounds sterling] from an estate, and submitted worthless cheques as repayment. One member of the complaining firm was his own father, Charles Woods. After a hearing by the Law Society, he was disbarred, and left South Australia for New Zealand.

Mary's response to this crisis was to leave immediately for Sydney, two months before the hearing. She accepted the advice and offer of the Sisters at Calvary Hospital to contact their hospital at Lewisham. After a long and stressful train journey, Mary went almost immediately into labour, and, although Lewisham had no maternity section, the sisters brought in one of their honoraries, Dr Harry Daly. After a long and difficult labour her son was born. The doctor's wife, Jean Daly, befriended them, and a lifelong friendship began.

Returning to Adelaide, she dissolved the partnership with Somerville and took a salaried position, so as to guarantee support for herself and her son. She wound up her affairs, secured a divorce and in 1933 returned to Sydney to work for Butterworth's, a legal publishing firm, as legal editor. Having been once readmitted under her married name, she continued to use it, and respected her previous commitment by naming her son Julian, although she never called him anything but Mac.


The next two decades were filled with an astonishing volume of activity. Motivated by the need to support herself and Mac, who had been diagnosed as suffering from cerebral palsy as a result of that difficult birth, as well as by her observation of the need for reform, she now became even more active in agitating for fair and compassionate treatment of children in the government system. Giving up court work, she accepted a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to study delinquency and, having completed the study, published her first book, Juvenile Delinquency, in 1935. She followed that with seven legal textbooks for Butterworth's: War Damage Legislation; Ex-Servicemen's Legislation; Landlord Tenant and Land Sales Legislation NSW; Prices Regulation Consolidated and Annotated; Commonwealth Law Divisions; Landlord and Tenant Legislation of Victoria; and a light-hearted book of anecdotes: Leaves From a Woman Lawyer's Notebook, in collaboration with Marjorie Robertson. No wonder that a friend could observe that her strength lay in analysis rather than in court work.

Between 1935 and 1940 she taught at Sydney University in their Diploma courses, on the legal aspects of Social Work, being a member of the University Board of Social Study and Training. From 1941 she belonged to, and chaired for a time, the NSW Child Welfare Council, as well as other similar councils. She was sponsored by these and other bodies to make a study of child welfare in England in 1942. After her return she chaired a statutory, body, the Delinquency, Committee of the Child Welfare Council. It was in her capacity as a member of this latter body that she visited and became familiar with the conditions at the various homes under government control. Having written about these in the strongest terms to the Minister for Education, Clive Evatt, whose portfolio included child welfare, she received no reply.

She then resorted to her friend, Kate Commins, a sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, and Kate saw to it that the Herald backed Mary in her published accounts of conditions at Gosford Boys' Home and the Parramatta Girls' Industrial School. In response to her descriptions of detention without rehabilitation and control by staff untrained in modern social work methods, Evatt made a statement in parliament, claiming that suitable buildings had been provided. 'We asked for bread mad he offered a stone' retorted Mary, and the battle continued via the Herald columns, with an editorial (written by Kate) in support. Changes were made as a result of this incursion into political action.

It was perhaps partly as a result of the reputation which she had won that an invitation came from the International Labour Organisation to join other experts at a conference on child welfare to be held in Montreal in 1945. It being wartime, she needed a permit to travel, which was withheld by the Department of External Affairs until it was too late for her to attend the conference.

This mark of official disapproval did not deter her and some of her independently-minded Catholic women-friends from forming a small group which they named Altair, with the object of monitoring public issues, in the hope of convincing legislators and church officials to include women's views on political and social issues. They had the blessing of Archbishop Gilroy, especially since they were actively opposing the statements of Jessie Street, herself a social rights activist, but devoted to the Russian cause. Those were the days, at the end of World War II, when communism was seen as a threat to world security, moving in our direction through China and North Vietnam. The Altair women, Jean Daly, the economist Phyllis Burke, Mary, and others, were strongly anti-communist, so when Mrs Street was proposed as a delegate to the first UN conference on a Women's Charter, they campaigned against it, trying to have Mary sent instead; unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

In 1944 the women of Altair, with Mary as spokeswoman, wrote to Archbishop Gilroy after the Australian bishops had published their first Social Justice Statement They offered a comment that the statement omitted any reference to the women's viewpoint, and that there had been no effort to consult women. They little dreamed the effect that this honest appraisal would have. But, when Altair decided to open their group to a wider membership, their choice was to form a NSW section of the St Joan's Social and Political Alliance in 1946. Jean Daly, Norma Parker and Mary were already members of the English Alliance, the founding body. The Victorian branch, approved by Archbishop Mannix, gave them every encouragement.

Not so Archbishop Gilroy. When Mary wrote on their behalf to ask for his blessing on the new venture, he replied that, although he approved of their opposition to Jessie Street, he would not countenance the formation of the St Joan's Alliance, citing the disapproval of the English and Victorian bishops, wrongly it seems. Eighty women had attended their opening meeting, and some notable women like Kate Burrows were already on the new council. This was enthusiastically reported by the Catholic Weekly.

A courteous exchange of letters between Mary and Gilroy followed, but the archbishop was adamant, forbidding members of the Legion of Catholic Women to join, and instructing the Catholic Weekly not to print St Joan news or advertisements. This although women like Jean Daly, Mary Lewis, Aline Fenwick and Norma Parker were clear about their aims for the Alliance: Catholic women observing and monitoring social and political issues and taking action where appropriate. No wonder in the Sydney church of those times they were accused of disloyalty and incurred the repressive distrust of their clerical rulers.

Despite their efforts to have Mary sent to the UN Women's Charter conference, and as a delegate to the UN Status of Women Commission, Jessie Street went twice, in 1947 and 1948, before the government became concerned about her sympathies for Russian affairs and withdrew support for her.

The St Joan's Social and Political Alliance continued to operate as a small body, and its international character ensured that it had consultative status at the United Nations. It was due to Jean Daly's suggestion, made as a member of the Australian National Committee of the United Nations, that Mary's name was again put forward, this time not as a delegate, but as a member of the staff of the Status of Women office. This was 1950, the year in which Mary was awarded the OBE. The quandary for her in accepting the appointment was Mac's welfare. It was her first international posting for more than a few months, and in her mid-fifties, she was faced with an unfamiliar posting in New York, with no friends or relatives nearby who might share the care of her son and help him cope with the hazards of life in a strange city. Friends like the Fenwicks had always helped out, and in the end Mac went to stay with them and she left for New York in 1951. She told Mary Lewis it was the most painful decision she had ever faced. Her appointment was as chief of staff in the legal office of the Status of Women Commission, a staff of women lawyers from member countries. The Commission is a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council, which coordinates bodies like the ILO, FAO, and arranges consultation between them and international NGOs. In turn the Economic and Social Council hands on to the General Assembly the recommendations of the Status of Women Commission, so that these can be voted on and promoted as a Convention.

From 1951 to 1958, therefore, Mary worked in company with women lawyers from Europe and Asia, preparing documents dealing with women's issues. In addition she was required to travel to some of the countries involved, such as Thailand in 1957, to provide data and disseminate the views of the Commission. Part of her work was to arrange seminars and conferences and to act as guest speaker at some of these. Her role was also to inform both local women and politicians about the technical assistance which was available from the United Nations, which could help them attain one or more of the rights which had been outlined by the Commission.

Some important submissions were prepared and issues researched during Mary's years at the Status of Women Commission. In 1952 the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women, which was intended to protect the rights of women to vote and to be elected to national office without discrimination. Subjects on their agenda during those years included the authority exercised in some cultures by husbands over the children of a marriage and the choice of the marital home; over a wife's property or her right to take employment. Information was gathered on the ritual practices within some cultures which affected women's dignity, such as female circumcision, child marriages, bride prices, the lack of free consent by both parties, and the dissolution of marriages. Resolutions which were formulated under Tenison Woods' supervision included those in 1954 and 1955 which provided for an equal share for women in ownership and management of matrimonial property and equality of rights between parents in guardianship of children. A woman's right to take employment was asserted, as well as the right to equal wages. The Nationality of Married Women Convention stated that no distinction should be made on the basis of sex in legislation or practice. The nationality of neither spouse should be affected by marriage or dissolution of marriage.

It was her concern for Mac that influenced her decision not to renew her contract in 1958. He was now thirty years old, and her Sydney friends had shouldered the responsibility for his care for long enough. She brought him to New York, then took him on a world trip before returning to Sydney. She was awarded the CBE in the birthday honours, and settled ha the guest accommodation at Mount St Margaret, Ryde, close to the Ryde homes, where she had now placed Mac in Weemala. She thus returned to the sisters of the Little Company of Mary, who had been her refuge at Lewisham many years before. She died there in 1971. Mac was moved with others to a residence in the western suburbs, with Aline Fenwick as his trustee. He attended the Beatification ceremony of Mary MacKillop as an honoured guest.

Mary's story is compounded of success and suffering, her own and that of the women and children whose champion she became. The accomplishments sometimes mask the real woman.

How did others see her? Let me quote a few observations from her own times, and from those who knew her best. The Sydney Telegraph in 1935 devoted an article to her work in the children's courts, and described her as 'good-looking, vivacious and smartly dressed, in contrast to the popular picture of a woman of her attainments'. Aline Fenwick, who succeeded her at the United Nations post, remembers her as a true diplomat, good with people, competent, non-aggressive and of a Catholicity that was deep and powerful. The late Mary Lewis, who studied under her at Sydney University, said Mary Tenison Woods was a true feminist, but never denigrated anyone, even members of the hierarchy who were anti-female and anti-St Joan's Alliance. She told Mary Lewis that Mac would never know the pain she endured to leave him in Sydney, so as to earn enough to provide for him. Kate Commins remembered her great reserves of strength, her sense of humour, as well as the respect that journalists had for her.

But there are questions. The Tenison Woods family condemn her 'desertion' of her husband. There is no record of her reasons for the flight to Sydney. Should she have taken Mac to New York or did she impose on the friendship of those who cared for him? Hopefully we can judge from her life story.

Margaret Press rsj has been a teacher, administrator and writer in Catholic schools and tertiary institutions (currently Catholic Institute of Sydney). Her writings include two volumes of South Australian Catholic history the stories of St Francis Xavier Seminary. Adelaide, and St Margaret's Hospital Darlinghurst, and several biographies, the most recent being Three Women of Faith (2000).
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Author:Press, Margaret
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Completed 2002 programme.
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