Geraldine Hemus was the fourth woman to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor in New Zealand. Over a long life she was an active advocate for the rights of women and in the theosophical movement while carrying on a legal sole practice. She died in Auckland in February 1969 aged 92.
Born in Auckland in 1876, her parents were Charles Hemus and Gertrude Evangeline Edger. Her father had migrated from England in 1864 and became a well-known Auckland photographer, while her mother had migrated from England in 1862. The couple had two daughters and two sons.
Geraldine attended Ponsonby College and did well academically. She passed the matriculation examination at the end of 1893 and the Senior Civil Servants Examination at the end of 1895. She also studied shorthand with the Auckland Shorthand Writers' Association, passing a 120 words a minute speed examination at the end of 1895.
From school she proceeded to Auckland University College where she studied law. In 1898 she became an articled clerk with the sole practitioner Christopher James Parr - the first woman to do so in Auckland. At some stage she moved to work with the firm Neumegen and Elliott, the partnership of which was dissolved in August 1906 and carried on at 33 Shortland Street by Walter Martin Neumegen.
Hemus was admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 15 February 1907 by Justice Denniston upon the motion of Neumegen. The Auckland Star commented: "The appearance of ladies in the legal profession is not a novelty. An Auckland lady [Eliza Ellen Melville] was admitted as a solicitor some months ago, and to-day, upon the motion of Mr WG Neumegen, Miss GM Hemus was admitted by Mr Justice Denniston to the honourable practice of the law. Miss Hemus served her articles in the office of Mr Neumegen where she will continue to find scope for her professional talents. She is the fourth lady to enter into practice in New Zealand." (Auckland Star, 15 February 1907, page 2).
At some stage Hemus left Neumegen's firm and moved into sole practice, in which she continued throughout her professional life.
Outside the law she became prominent in the National Council of Women. In 1934 she was among a deputation of women citizens who visited Ellen Melville (the second woman to be admitted as a lawyer in New Zealand) with the request that she should consent to accept nomination as a candidate for the Mayoralty of Auckland in the 1935 elections. Melville did not win, but was elected to the City Council.
Geraldine Hemus was treasurer of the Auckland branch of the National Council of Women for most of the 1930s, becoming branch President in 1938. As President she led an initiative in 1940 in which a letter was sent to Justice Minister HGR Mason, urging the appointment of women associates in Magistrates' Courts for domestic proceedings. The letter stated that the same reasons which supported the functioning of women associates in the Children's Courts had value when applied to the work of magistrates in domestic cases.
She retired as branch President in May 1941. Her retirement speech was well reported, and gives a good insight into her opinions.
"We lament the lack of women in Parliament," Hemus said, "but I feel it is no use to have them there, unless they are fully qualified. For the work of Government, they need long and specific training. They should have a strong sense of truth and justice, the womanly quality of sympathetic understanding and an ardent desire for the welfare of humanity.
"They must also have trained minds, a broad outlook, and the ability to sustain an argument, to marshall their facts and put their case clearly. Especially do they need a working knowledge of the science of government and of the science of living. When we have more of such women, then we shall have a happier world.
"I look to the younger University women particularly to qualify themselves for high positions. As their children grow up, let us hope they will be ready to take an important part in helping to bring about peacefully the great social changes which must inevitably come after the war. When women are thuse qualified, I feel sure their sex will not be a bar to their attainment."
As a child Geraldine Hemus and her siblings were introduced to theosophy at the Hemus family home in Ponsonby Road was a centre of theosophical activity. She held the post of treasurer for the New Zealand executive of the Theosophical Society for many years. Hemus also frequently spoke at the Theosophical Society public lectures which took place on Sunday nights. Some of her topics were "The Power of Thought", "Justice or Mercy, Which?", "The change that we call death", and "Prohibition: Some points of view".
Hemus was closely involved in the establishment of the Vasanta Garden School in Epsom in 1918. The school, which opened in 1919, was based on Theosophical ideals in education. It closed in 1959, although Vasanta House is now headquarters of the Theosophical Society in New Zealand. Miss Hemus was President of the Vasanta Garden School Trust Board for some time during the 1930s.
*Note that available records show Miss Hemus was the third woman to be admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor. However, newspapers at the time all stated that she was the fourth.
Sources: Auckland Star, 19 December 1889, page 3; New Zealand Herald, 20 December 1894, page 5; Auckland Star, 20 February 1896, page 3; Auckland Star, 23 November 1899, page 5; Auckland Star, 1 August 1906, page 12; Auckland Star, 15 February 1907, page 2; New Zealand Herald, 1 November 1913, page 4; New Zealand Herald, 25 June 1921, page 5; Evening Post, 29 December 1925, page 9; Auckland Star, 24 April 1930, page 12; Press, 30 December 1930, page 7; Auckland Star, 29 May 1934, page 10; New Zealand Herald, 20 July 1934, page 12; New Zealand Herald, 28 December 1935, page 11; Auckland Star, 30 November 1936, page 12; New Zealand Herald, 23 July 1940, page 11; Auckland Star, 27 May 1941, page 10; Jack Patterson, Auckland Theosophical Centre, The History of Theosophy in Auckland.