Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Dunedin in 1875, Ethel was the oldest of seven children. At 18 she became the first woman in New Zealand and all of Australasia to be accepted to study law.
Ethel Benjamin excelled in her studies and many times achieved the highest grades in her class. She graduated in 1897; one year after Parliament passed an act making it possible for women to practice law. When it came to practicing law, however, the Otago District Law Society was not so keen. She was not allowed in their library, was excluded from the Society’s annual dinners and more importantly was not a part of the traditional mentoring of young lawyers by established lawyers.
In spite of this, her practice was successful, if mostly limited to the Jewish community and some independent businesswomen. As honorary lawyer for the fledgling Plunkett Society, she also handled divorce and adoption and defended women against spousal abuse. Her work there was particularly valuable as it coincided with the liberalisation of divorce laws and formalisation of adoption laws.
At the ripe old age of 32, Ethel married Alfred De Costa, a 36 year old Jewish real estate agent in Wellington. To the annoyance of the Wellington District Law Society, she opened a practice there and ventured into property. Soon after, the childless couple moved to England. After living in Italy and France with her husband between the wars, Ethel died in 1943.
Although Ethel Benjamin cleared the way for women in law, she was way ahead of her time. It was 14 years before another New Zealand woman recieved a law degree and not until after World War II did women, even in small numbers, begin to practice law in New Zealand. Ethel died in 1943.
Image header above: Ethel Benjamin 1875-1943, New Zealand's first female lawyer. Photograph reproduced with the permission of the Hocken Library S05-122b