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Jane Hamilton Mathews (1940–2019)

by Michaela Whitbourn

An "unstoppable trailblazer" who "spoke up for women lawyers at every opportunity". The state's first female judge, Jane Mathews, was celebrated on Friday for her contribution to the law, social justice and the arts at a moving state memorial service at the Sydney Opera House.

Mathews, who was appointed to the NSW District Court in 1980 and went on to serve on the Supreme and Federal Courts in a series of trailblazing legal roles, died last month aged 78.

High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel, who in 2016 became the first woman appointed to the country's highest judicial office, said the life of her friend "served as an example and an encouragement to many women lawyers".

Mathews "always called ... out" the prejudice she experienced in the law but tempered it with generosity and humour, Chief Justice Kiefel said. She spoke "for and with" other women lawyers and "agitated for cultural change".

NSW Governor Margaret Beazley said Mathews encountered "what I will diplomatically describe as old and male practices" and "spoke up for women lawyers at every opportunity".

She said Mathews "changed the educational opportunities for a generation of girls" in NSW when she found in 1985, as a senior member of the Equal Opportunity Tribunal, that public schools that failed to offer the same selective subjects to girls as boys had contravened anti-discrimination legislation. Her decision was upheld on appeal.

In her early career, Mathews swam against the tide of "traditional" areas of practice for female barristers by refusing family law work and opting to pursue a career in criminal law.

Her perseverance was rewarded in 1977 when she became the first woman in NSW to be appointed a Crown prosecutor, beginning what Ms Beazley described as Mathews' "lifelong love of the criminal law". She went on to appear in a series of sexual assault trials at a time when few participants in the courtroom, aside from the victim, were women.

The University of Sydney alumna was aged just 39 when she joined the District Court bench and notched up another first in 1987 when she was appointed the first female judge of the NSW Supreme Court. It would take another seven years for a second woman, Carolyn Simpson, to be appointed to the NSW Supreme Court.

In 1994, Mathews was appointed president of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a role which also meant she was appointed to the Federal Court. She retired from the Federal Court in 2001 but continued serving as an acting judge in NSW until last year.

Mathews' nephew, Dougal Kennedy, said his aunt's first battle against sex discrimination was with her own father, who did not want her to go to university.

"As we all know, she prevailed," Mr Kennedy said. "To all young women .... you must not let the gains that she made for all women evaporate."

A generous donor to the arts, Mathews served as a president of the Arts Law Centre of Australia and in 2005 was made an officer in the Order of Australia for service to the judiciary, the legal profession, and to music.

Emma Dunch, chief executive of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, said Mathews was an "unstoppable trailblazer for women in the law" and "life-long music lover and advocate" who "actively commissioned our country's leading composers to create exceptional works".

Among those paying their respects on Friday were former NSW governor Marie Bashir, former NSW premier Barrie Unsworth, the state's chief justice, Tom Bathurst, Federal Court chief justice James Allsop and NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman.

Chief Justice Kiefel said Mathews, who died after a short battle with cancer, met with courage "every challenge that was presented to her, whether it be advancement, or obstruction, or both".

"She accepted her fate with equanimity and maintained her enjoyment of life and good humour," she said. "This last lesson she was to teach us was perhaps her most important of all."

Original publication

Citation details

Michaela Whitbourn, 'Mathews, Jane Hamilton (1940–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

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