Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kingston, Mary Nora (Molly) (1908–1992)

by Riley Buchanan

This article was published online in 2019

Mary (Molly) Nora Kingston (1908–1992), barrister and solicitor, was born on 29 May 1908 at Leederville, Perth, sixth surviving child of Irish-born John Kingston, sergeant of police, and his Western Australian-born wife Theresa, née Connor. Molly received her primary and secondary education at Sacred Heart School, Highgate Hill. In 1920 she was placed fourth in a State-wide examination for secondary school scholarships, winning an annual bursary of twenty pounds for five years. While attending the University of Western Australia (BA, 1928; LLB, 1931) she served as president of the Women’s Club and vice-president of the Guild of Undergraduates. She was on the executive of the Debating Society and was proficient in tennis and golf.

Articled to Lohrmann, Tindal, & Canny, Kingston was admitted to practise as a barrister and solicitor in Western Australia on 16 May 1933. She was one of three women admitted that day; Margaret Battye and Sheila McClemans shared in the honour. Female lawyers faced particular challenges to find employment because of their gender. Reputedly, in her first appearance before the court, the male judge scrutinised Kingston before exclaiming ‘and what do we have here!’ (Byrne 1992, 40). There was also the inevitable question of marriage: ‘Do you intend to marry … and if you do, will you give up your work?’ (Daily News 1933, 6). Steadfast in her conviction that marriage should not affect women’s capacity for employment, Kingston replied that if she married (she never did) she would ‘most certainly’ (Daily News 1933, 6) continue her work. In 1934 she and McClemans set up their own legal practice in Perth. The first all-female legal firm in Western Australia, Kingston & McClemans specialised in family law. The friends did not expect to ‘do as well as a men’s firm’ (Daily News 1933, 6) but hoped they might be successful. They were not and the firm amicably disbanded in 1939. Kingston then joined Stone James & Co., one of the largest law firms in Perth.

Kingston, who did not consider herself ‘much of feminist … because there is no need to be now’ (Daily News 1933, 6), nevertheless valued the work of trailblazing women. In 1935 she had delivered a lecture to students at Perth Technical School on the hardships endured by women in the early years of the Swan River Colony. Speaking in Sydney at the conference of the Australian Federation of University Women in 1938, she addressed the spread of reactionary attitudes towards the higher education of women, citing as its causes the Depression and the consequent growth of unemployment, as well as the international rise of fascism. Along with Katharine Susannah Prichard and Irene Greenwood, she was invited to speak at the International Women’s Day meeting at the Perth Town Hall that year.

After World War II broke out in 1939, Kingston became a member of the State executive of the Women’s Air Training Corps. Joining the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force on 19 July 1943, she was commissioned as an acting section officer in September (substantive, 1944) and employed on administrative duties at Royal Australian Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne, until her demobilisation on 2 November 1945.

Moving to Sydney in 1946, Kingston accepted a position as executive officer of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. She was instrumental in the postwar reorganisation of the Rockefeller Foundation–funded institute and in the creation of its journal Australian Outlook, the first journal devoted exclusively to the analysis of Australia’s foreign relations. In March 1947 she became assistant editor of the journal and played an important role in its early evolution, corresponding with prominent figures and friends such as (Sir) Paul Hasluck to discuss material for inclusion.

After moving to Melbourne in 1949 to resume her legal career, Kingston was admitted to practise as a barrister and solicitor in Victoria on 3 October. She joined the Legal Women’s Association, serving as honorary secretary (1952) and president (1953–54). By 1952 she had secured a partnership with P. J. Ridgeway & Pearce. That year she represented the National Council of Women in a wages case before the Full Arbitration Court. Employers were seeking to reduce the basic wage for women from 75 to 60 percent of the male wage. Opposing this action, Kingston argued that women workers deserved equal pay. The Arbitration Court did not agree, but neither did it agree with employers, fixing the female wage at 75 percent of the male basic wage—a win of sorts, though not the outcome Kingston wanted.

Kingston signed the Victorian Bar roll in 1962, becoming Victoria’s seventh female barrister. She continued to specialise in family law, lecturing on the subject part time at the University of Melbourne during the 1960s. A colleague described her court style as ‘fairly pugnacious. She was very forceful and she would make a point and persist with the point’ (Teasdale 2008, 1). Uncomfortable with some of the changes that accompanied the introduction of the new family court system in 1973, especially the less formal atmosphere of the court and relative inexperience of the judges, she retired in 1978. A tall, striking woman whose dark hair turned silver in later life, Kingston had ‘a presence about her and also a dignity’ (Teasdale 2008, 8). Although she had friends, she was something of a loner. In retirement, she studied history and politics at the University of Melbourne and took several trips abroad before returning to Western Australia. She died at Claremont on 26 December 1992.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Byrne, Geraldine. ‘Death of a Pioneer,’ Brief (Law Society of Western Australia), 1 February 1992, 40
  • Cotton, James. ‘The Institute’s Seventieth Volume: The Journal, Its Origins and Its Engagement with Foreign Policy Debate.’ Australian Journal of International Affairs 70, no. 55 (2016): 471–83
  • Daily News (Perth). ‘Do Men Resent “Varsity Women”?’ 8 February 1938, 8
  • Daily News (Perth). ‘Girl Barristers’ Firm in Perth.’ 25 April 1933, 6
  • Davies, Lloyd. Sheila: A Biography of Sheila Mary McClemens. Perth: Desert Pea Press, 2000
  • National Australian Archives. A9300, KINGSTON M C
  • Teasdale, Warwick. Interview by Juliette Brodsky about the late Molly Kingston, 16 September 2008. Transcript. Accessed 25 January 2019. www.foleys.com.au/content/WarwickTeasdale_re_MollyKingston.pdf. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Riley Buchanan, 'Kingston, Mary Nora (Molly) (1908–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kingston-mary-nora-molly-28479/text36073, published online 2019, accessed online 21 October 2019.

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