New Zealand Law Society - The voices of history

The voices of history

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Judith Potter
Dame Judith Potter

The stories of some of New Zealand’s pioneering women judges have been recorded for posterity – in their own voices.

The New Zealand Women Judges Oral Histories project was the brainchild of the New Zealand Association of Women Judges, and was overseen by Dame Judith Potter and Justice Susan Glazebrook. Professional oral historian Megan Hutching conducted most of the interviews, but also trained Dame Judith and Justice Glazebrook, who each carried out some interviews of their own.

The interviews capture what it was like to rise through the legal ranks at a time when women weren’t expected to forge high-powered careers. Dame Judith says one common theme to shine through was the bravery and determination of these convention-bucking women.

“They were women from an era where becoming a lawyer was not on the cards. They often had young families, they had husbands who expected them to stay home and look after those families, there were other impediments in their way, yet in various ways and in various circumstances, they soldiered on.”

Dame Judith said the interviews provide an insight into the wide range of backgrounds and experiences of these pioneering women. “One thing that shone through the interviews was that all of these women came to love the law. All of them saw bigger horizons for themselves than many women of their era did.”

She is hopeful the recordings will be inspirational to future generations. “I think they will provide comfort and strength and will also lead younger lawyers in their own careers, because young lawyers today still experience many of the challenges and difficulties these pioneering women experienced. I think they will take heart and encouragement from these interviews.”

The project

Susan Glazebrook
Justice Susan Glazebrook

An interview with Dame Augusta Wallace by Judge Ida Malosi sparked interest in creating a wider project. “We had that interview, which was a terrific initiative, and was the seed which led to the development of the project,” says Dame Judith.

Discussions were held at meetings of the New Zealand Association of Women Judges, and a small committee was formed to progress the idea. That committee was eventually whittled down to just Dame Judith and Justice Glazebrook. “When you have a project of this length and breadth you really need a couple of people to steer it otherwise you don’t make enough progress, so Susan and I took responsibility for it.”

The project received funding from the New Zealand Law Foundation and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

As well as co-convening the project, Dame Judith was the first interviewee. One of two women law students to graduate from the University of Auckland in 1965, she went on to become a senior partner at Kensington Swan and was the first woman president of the Auckland District Law Society and the New Zealand Law Society. Appointed a judge of the High Court of New Zealand in 1997, Dame Judith spent 15 years on the bench.

She says the interview process was “thoroughly enjoyable”, a sentiment echoed by other participants. “Other interviewees told me how much they enjoyed talking about their experiences. In some cases, they hadn’t realised how unique and valuable their own experiences had become.”

The process

Each interview was broken into stages, starting with an unrecorded conversation where all the details were discussed and notes were taken. That formed the basis of how the interviewer would approach the recorded interview.

“There was a gap between the two interviews so that both parties had time to consider and then the recorded interview took place. So, it was quite a lengthy and demanding process. Each interview would take two to three hours at least. It was a very professional undertaking and Megan Hutching was critical to that,” Dame Judith says.

Their own stories in their own voices

Hearing the women’s stories in their own voices brings their stories alive, says Dame Judith. “There is so much that is conveyed by their responses, by their tone, the enthusiasm, their concern – all of that comes through in the voice of the person being interviewed and it contributes to a dimension that you can’t possibly get from the written word.”

Conducting five interviews herself was a learning experience. “The women being interviewed were very articulate people and very used to speaking publicly, but also quite self-effacing. What was really interesting for me, was I was interviewing people I thought I knew. What I realised when I did the interviews was there was a whole lot more to know and understand about these women. I came to know them better and to admire and respect them even more than I had before, so it really was a most rewarding process.”

How to access the interviews

Audio copies of the interviews are being held at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, along with a written transcript of each interview and additional information about each interviewee. Some of the interviews have an embargo which restricts access or publication without permission for a number of years. Permission for access must be sought from the New Zealand Association of Women Judges, to ensure that access is restricted to genuine researchers.

The interviewees (in alphabetical order)

  • Dame Silvia Cartwright
  • Judge Dale Clarkson
  • Judge Patricia Costigan
  • Judge Frances Eivers
  • Judge Caren Fox
  • Justice Ellen France
  • Justice Marion Frater
  • Associate Judge Anne Gambrill
  • Justice Susan Glazebrook
  • Dame Lowell Goddard
  • Judge Carolyn Henwood
  • Judge Anne McAloon
  • Judge Stephanie Milroy
  • Dame Judith Potter
  • Judge Cecile Rushton
  • Judge Coral Shaw
  • Judge Heather Simpson
  • Judge Annis Somerville
  • Judge Vivienne Ullrich
  • Judge Carrie Wainwright
  • Justice Helen Winkelmann

Sir John McGrath and Sir Ronald Young were also interviewed to give insight into the early appointment of women judges from people involved with the appointment process.

An interview with Dame Augusta Wallace was completed by Judge Ida Malosi before the project began.

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