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Marie Patricia Sexton (1920–2010)

by Elisabeth Sexton

'Three Young Portias" was the Sydney Morning Herald headline in 1949. Women law graduates were rare and newsworthy.

Two years earlier the trio had gained admission for the first time to the annual law dinner at Sydney University. In 1945 they were allowed into the student common room.

Marie Kinsella left other marks in Sydney, including as a founder of the Women Lawyers Association. But in 1953 she moved to Canberra to join the Attorney-General's Department, loved what was then a small town and never left.

At the Lawley House hostel she not only met her future husband, Noel Sexton, but formed friendships that kept her in Canberra after his death in 1983 and the successive departures for Sydney of her three adult children.

Public service work appealed to her. Although she could claim the distinction of being among the first handful of women admitted to the NSW Bar, she never went into private practice. Her best subjects were constitutional law and public international law, in which she was awarded prizes before graduating with honours from the University of Sydney in 1949. Marie Patricia Germaine Kinsella was born on August 18, 1920 in Waverley, Sydney. She was a product of World War I.

Her father, Edward Kinsella, returned home, after service that included action at Gallipoli, with a Belgian wife, Marie Louise Graff.

They had met as the war ended when he was billeted with her family in a town outside Brussels.

Marie's French-speaking mother used to call the first of their five children "ma fifille", or my little baby girl. The name Fif stuck, and was used all of Sexton's life by the Kinsellas, and in recent years by her grandchildren.

The Kinsella family moved all over Sydney and Marie attended many schools, including Fort Street Girls' High, where she matriculated. She completed an Arts degree, majoring in English and history, in 1943 and a Diploma of Education the following year.

A one-year posting to Inverell in northern NSW made her realise teaching was not for her and she returned to the University of Sydney to begin a law course in 1946.

Her early jobs included research work for Professor Julius Stone at the university and several years as associate to her father after his appointment as a judge of the NSW Supreme Court.

There was a close bond among the few women lawyers in Sydney. In March 1952 Marie and three others, Peggy Crawley, Zena Sachs and Judith Selig (later Cohen), drafted a constitution to create the Women Lawyers Association of NSW.

They asked Nerida Goodman to be the first president and Marie was the first secretary.

Marie and Noel Sexton married in Sydney in 1955.

She responded to the ban on married women working in the public service by returning briefly to work in Sydney. The couple commuted as Noel cemented his specialisation in legislative drafting in Canberra. The imminent birth of their first child forced Marie out of the workforce but allowed her to return to Canberra where the family settled into a house they had built and discovered a love of gardening.

Sexton returned to work in 1969, initially at the Public Service Board, until the Attorney-General's Department learnt she was back in the job market. When an offer was made, she said she would only consider it on the terms she had negotiated with the board: finishing work at 3pm so she could be at home when her children, now three of them, arrived from school, and all school holidays off. The department, unusually for the time, said yes.

One of Sexton's major assignments was producing the Australian Constitution Annotated, published in 1975 and supplemented in 1980, the year she retired. In 2002 Justice Mary Gaudron of the High Court referred to it in a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the Women Lawyers Association of NSW.

"Although now out of date, it never leaves my side," Justice Gaudron said.

The Sextons took an extended trip to Europe when Noel followed her into retirement. They traced the origins of forebears in Ireland and Belgium and travelled through England, France and Italy. It turned out to be time well spent when Noel died suddenly from a heart attack in 1983. Always absorbed by reading, art, music and current affairs, Sexton deepened these interests after Noel died. She took lecture courses, subscribed to concerts and plays and travelled overseas often. She spent more time on her old hobbies of gardening, playing bridge and walking in the bush.

Marie Sexton is survived by her children Julian, Louise and Elisabeth and grandchildren Jack and Emma.

Original publication

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Citation details

Elisabeth Sexton, 'Sexton, Marie Patricia (1920–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kinsella, Marie Patricia

18 August, 1920
Waverley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


6 May, 2010 (aged 89)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


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