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Brennan, Anna Teresa (1879–1962)

by Ruth Campbell and Margaret Morgen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Anna Teresa Brennan (1879-1962), lawyer, was born on 2 September 1879 at Emu Creek, Victoria, thirteenth child of Michael Brennan, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Maher. Anna was born into a household devoutly Catholic and intellectually stimulating, conducive to social conscience and individual achievement. Several of her brothers enjoyed distinguished careers, notably Thomas and Frank in both law and politics, and William in journalism. She attended the co-educational St Andrew's College, Bendigo, and in 1903 continued to drive daily by buggy to a coaching college some ten miles distant. Her brothers encouraged her to take up a profession, and as each in turn was supported financially by the others throughout his studies, so was she. She entered the University of Melbourne in 1904 to study medicine but 'was ploughed', being 'too nervous to do the dissections'. In 1906 she began a law course and graduated in 1909. In 1904 she had joined the Princess Ida Club for women students, held office in 1907-09 and remained on the committee until 1913; she represented the club on the National Council of Women in 1912.

Anna did her articles with Frank Brennan & Rundle and Thomas moved her admission on 1 August 1911. She was the second woman, and the first native-born woman, admitted to practice in Victoria. She was active in the firm to the end of her life: the partnership had become Frank Brennan & Co., with Anna, the senior partner, calling herself 'the Co.'. The practice was general but, despite early reservations, Anna entered the matrimonial field. She campaigned within the profession and publicly for the revision of laws which obstructed proceedings, invited collusion, or brought inequitable ancillary relief; she favoured the payment of maintenance to husbands in justifiable circumstances. In spite of personal objections to divorce, she stressed in the late 1940s the need for more expeditious dissolution, where sought, of hasty unions between Australian war brides and American servicemen.

In the 1940s the National Council of Women appointed Miss Brennan to appear before a Commonwealth parliamentary commission, whose findings eventually produced revision of the law governing nationality of married women; she later worked to remedy situations created by conflict of matrimonial laws between the States. For some time she was president of the Legal Women's Association, formed in 1931; it awards an annual prize in her name to the woman placed highest in the final-year law class-list at the University of Melbourne.

Anna Brennan supported the assumption by women of responsibility. With her brother Frank she attended the League of Nations Assembly at Geneva in 1930 and observed that 'Women delegates might have much to contribute on legal, economic and international questions… valuable aid was perhaps lost because it was taken for granted that their interests would be solely humanitarian'. When the Lyceum Club for women was founded in 1912, Anna joined as an 'original' member. She immediately became a trustee of club property, was honorary legal adviser until 1918, and president in 1940-42. A short-lived venture of the club was her 'Walking Circle' (1928): the bush tracks defeated all but its founder.

Her Catholicism was deep and rational, and she had that sense of Christian duty which leads to serving others. When admitted to practice she was a committee-member of the Newman Society at the university. She sat on the first central committee of the Catholic Women's Social Guild, established in 1916, which undertook, among other things, hospital visiting, the management of hostels and girls' clubs, and provisions of catechists to lay schools. She lectured widely, wrote for Women's Social Work, organ of the guild, and for its successor, Horizon, and was the guild's second president in 1918-20. Her principles and devotion to Joan of Arc encouraged her association with the international St Joan's Alliance, which originated in England in 1910 as the Catholic Women's Suffrage Society, and championed innumerable humanitarian causes, predominantly those affecting women. Anna attended the inaugural meeting of the Australian foundation of the alliance in 1936, having joined the English chapter while abroad, and was president of the Victorian section in 1938-45 and 1948-62.

Diminutive, ever sprightly and an individualist, Anna Brennan had an incisive mind, and a delightful wit. Her opinion was valued, her criticism was constructive; she condemned only prejudice and culpable ignorance. She appreciated beauty, intellect and people, about whom she could be less than flattering but never cruel. She never married and had little domestic inclination, her sister Mary Catherine (May) (1874-1963) gladly undertaking the household duties. According to Frank, Anna was 'Always looking for experience when she ought to be saying her prayers'; her spirit never dulled. She fell while negotiating steps at the university before a lecture on nuclear fission and succumbed to pneumonia on 11 October 1962; May soon followed, for want, it seemed, of Anna's companionship. They were buried side by side in Coburg cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Gillison, A History of the Lyceum Club (Melb, 1975)
  • Austral Light, Sept 1911 (Melbourne)
  • Catholic Citizen (London), Nov 1962
  • Law Institute Journal, Feb 1963
  • Horizon (Melbourne), Oct 1966, jubilee no
  • Southern Sphere (Melbourne), Sept 1911
  • Lone Hand, Sept 1914
  • Herald (Melbourne), 12 Oct 1962
  • Princess Ida Club, minutes and papers (University of Melbourne).

Citation details

Ruth Campbell and Margaret Morgen, 'Brennan, Anna Teresa (1879–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brennan-anna-teresa-5344/text9035, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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