Women Judges, 'Maiden Speeches,' and the High Court of Australia

Beverley Baines, Daphne Barak-Erez and Tsvi Kahana (eds), 'Feminist Constitutionalism: Global Perspectives' (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

ANU College of Law Research Paper No. 12-23

20 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2012

Date Written: July 23, 2012


Since the Australian High Court was established in 1903, ceremonies have been held to mark the swearing-in of a new Justice. This chapter utilizes the speeches made at the swearing-in ceremonies of Gaudron, Crennan, Kiefel, and Bell as a prism to explore the representation of women judges in the Australian legal community, and in particular, the Australian High Court.

These ceremonies are a rich resource by virtue of the two kinds of speeches made on these occasions. First, leaders of the Australian legal community make speeches welcoming the new High Court judge to the bench. In a legal system where federal judges are chosen behind closed doors, the welcome speeches have performed a key role in introducing the new judges to the public, and attesting to their skills as lawyer and judge. Importantly, the litany of a new judge’s accomplishments on these occasions contextualizes the concept of “merit” in a High Court appointment. Furthermore, the speech by the Commonwealth Attorney-General has provided a measure of public justification of his decision to appoint a particular judge. This chapter explores how the welcome speakers have grappled with the novelty of the feminine in the stories about the four female High Court judges. I argue that gender too often dominated this narrative, to a discriminatory and feminizing effect. In this regard, however, Bell’s ceremony may signal a new direction in the Australian legal community’s attitude toward female judges.

The second element of the swearing-in ceremony is the judge’s response to the welcome speeches. As his or her inaugural speech as a member of the High Court, this speech is the judicial equivalent of the “maiden speech” by members of parliament. The judge’s speech is delivered in a setting rich with contradiction: a statement from the bench, yet of no judicial force; liberated in content and style from the boundaries of a legal dispute and yet constrained by the weight of convention regarding the “appropriate” remarks for an incoming judge; and, a statement of individual identity, values, and principles made from the “identity-less” judge of the common law tradition. For present purposes, the critical feature of the inaugural speeches of Australia’s four female High Court judges is how they tell their stories and the place of gender in that narrative. I argue that these speeches reflect a continuing pressure faced by women judges to distance themselves from the perception of their “otherness” on the bench. This pressure manifested first in Gaudron’s speech, Women Judges, “Maiden Speeches,” and the High Court of Australia when she tempered her bold acknowledgment of her identity as the first woman to join the High Court with affirmations of her sameness with her brother judges. Significantly, twenty years later, Bell’s swearing-in speech continued to display both a self-conscious silencing of her feminine voice and statements affirming her distance from outsiders on the bench.

Suggested Citation

Roberts, Heather, Women Judges, 'Maiden Speeches,' and the High Court of Australia (July 23, 2012). Beverley Baines, Daphne Barak-Erez and Tsvi Kahana (eds), 'Feminist Constitutionalism: Global Perspectives' (Cambridge University Press, 2012), ANU College of Law Research Paper No. 12-23, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2115272

Heather Roberts (Contact Author)

ANU College of Law ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200

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