Mary Tenison Woods

Mary Tenison Woods (1896-1971), lawyer, was born in Adelaide, daughter of John Kitson. She was educated at St Aloysius College and the University of Adelaide where she was the first woman law graduate (1916). She practised as a barrister with the firm of Poole and Johnston with whom she had served articles, becoming a partner in the reconstituted firm of Johnston, Ronald and Kitson in 1919 after Poole was appointed to the Supreme Court. Her 1921 application to be a public notary forced a change in the law: the existing Public Notaries Act did not include women as 'persons'.

She left the firm in 1924 when she married Julian Tenison Woods, barrister and solicitor (a relative of Jesuit geologist Julian Tenison Woods), as her partners preferred not to work with a married woman. She joined Dorothy Somerville in practice in 1925. A son, also Julian but known as Mac, was born on 8 April 1927, mildly disabled. On 21 June of that year her husband's name was removed from the roll for misuse of trust funds. They separated. As the sole support of her son, she took a more lucrative position with the firm of Bennett, Browne and Atkinson in 1928.

The misfortunes of her private life shaped her public career. Child welfare reform became the 'love' of her life. In the 1930s she received grants from the Carnegie Corporation to research delinquency and in 1937 published Juvenile Delinquency. By the mid 1930s she had moved with her son to Sydney, where she worked as legal editor with Butterworth's Book Co. until 1950, and wrote six legal textbooks. From 1941 she was a member of the New South Wales Child Welfare Advisory Council, a nominated statutory body introduced by the 1939 Child Welfare Act. In 1942 she was sponsored by the Child Welfare Advisory Council, the Australian Council for Educational Research, the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust, and the Australian Trained Social Workers' Association to study child welfare in England.

As chairperson of the Advisory Council's delinquency committee she played a major role in forcing change in the Child Welfare Department. The Committee's report on the Girls' Industrial School at Parramatta (1943) was highly critical, arguing that 'from the standpoint of modern social work' the school's problems were symptomatic of the inadequate process of dealing with delinquency in Australia: the emphasis was on detention rather than rehabilitation, inmates were inadequately classified, staff untrained. The report had no immediate impact. Rather than let it be shelved, as had been the fate of an earlier report of the pre-school child committee of the Advisory Council, Mary wrote two articles for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1944 highlighting problems at Parramatta and at the Gosford Boys' Home. Her criticisms were endorsed by professional and women's organisations, and - with an election pending - a public service judicial inquiry was ordered which led to the separation of Child Welfare from the Department of Education and the appointment of a new director of child welfare.

Her belief in the necessity for social work training reflected moves for professionalisation from the 1920s. In Juvenile Delinquency she argued for a greater role for psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers in the sentencing of offenders. She served on the New South Wales Board of Social Study and Training from 1935-40 and on its successor, the Board of Social Studies at the University of Sydney from 1941-49. She lectured on the legal aspects of social work and in 1947 was guest speaker at the first Australian Conference of Social Work, held in Sydney.

Mrs Woods remained a committed and active Catholic. In 1946 she was a founder of the New South Wales St Joan's Social and Political Alliance, a small but vigorous organisation of Catholic lay-women whose purpose was to influence social and political issues nationally and internationally. Working without the approval of the official church (membership was proscribed and reporting of its activities censored from the Catholic press), Woods and other leaders of the Alliance nevertheless succeeded in their aim of making Catholic women's voices heard. The Alliance was a springboard for her United Nations career. Strongly anti-communist, it was a member organisation of the liaison committee of the Australian Women's Organisations, hastily formed in 1947 to prevent Jessie Street (q.v.) from representing Australia for a second term at the Status of Women Commission at the United Nations. Mrs Woods' nomination as Jessie's replacement in 1948 was not taken, but in 1950 she was appointed Chief of the Office of the Status of Women in the Human Rights Division of the United Nations, a position she held until 1958.

During this time two major conventions were adopted; the convention of the Political Rights of Women (1952), the first international law aimed at the granting and protection of women's full political rights; and the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women (1957), which decreed that marriage should not affect the nationality of a wife.

After leaving the United Nations Mrs Woods lived in Sydney until her death on 19 October 1971. She was awarded an OBE (1950) and CBE (1959).

Anne O'Brien