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Mary Cecil Tenison Woods (1893–1971)

by Anne O'Brien

This article was published:

Mary Cecil Tenison Woods (1893-1971), lawyer, was born on 9 December 1893 in Adelaide, daughter of John Kitson, police detective, and his wife Mary Agnes, née McClure. Educated at St Aloysius's College by the Sisters of Mercy and at the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1916), she was the first woman to graduate in law in South Australia and to be admitted to the Bar (20 October 1917). She practised as a barrister with the firm of (T. S.) Poole & Johnstone with whom she had served her articles, becoming a partner in the reconstituted firm of Johnstone, Ronald & Kitson in 1919. Much of her early work was in the Children's Court and laid the basis for her later commitment to the cause of child welfare reform. Her application to become a public notary in 1921 led to a change in the law: the existing Act did not include women as 'persons'.

At St Lawrence's Catholic Church, North Adelaide, on 13 December 1924 Mary Kitson married Julian Gordon Tenison Woods, a lawyer who was two years her junior. A member of one of Adelaide's best known Catholic families and a cousin of Julian Tenison-Woods, he was described as 'widely popular, of taking manners, and fluent in speech'.

As her partners preferred not to work with a married woman, Mary Tenison Woods left the firm and with Dorothy Somerville formed what may have been the first female legal practice in Australia in 1925. Her son, also named Julian but known as 'Mac', was born on 8 April 1927, slightly disabled. Two months later she left her husband after his name was removed from the roll for misuse of trust funds. She was divorced in 1933 and never remarried. As the sole supporter of her son, she took a more lucrative position with the firm of Bennett, Campbell, Browne & Atkinson in 1928.

Her failed marriage may have sharpened her dedication to improving the status of women, although in 1950 she claimed that she had 'personally never…come up against sex discrimination in any walk of life, although it definitely does exist'. Certainly the care of her son kept her in the workforce all her life and his disability stimulated her public role in child welfare reform. She was to say later that 'After Mac was born [child welfare] became the love of my life. I came to feel that any child could become a delinquent, even, but for the grace of God, my own red-haired son'.

By the mid-1930s she and Mac had moved to Sydney where she worked as a legal editor with Butterworth & Co. Australia Ltd. The job provided her with a modest, steady income and left her enough time to look after Mac and pursue her other interests: she wrote or co-authored several legal textbooks on subjects ranging from landlords and tenants legislation to prices regulation; she contributed a chapter on 'Reforms and Law Affecting Women and Children' to A Book of South Australia (Adelaide, 1936); with Marjorie Robertson, she pseudonymously published Leaves from a Woman Lawyer's Casebook (Sydney, 1947), a humorous collection of legal anecdotes.

Before leaving Adelaide she had received grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to research into delinquency and published her findings in a book, Juvenile Delinquency (Melbourne, 1937), which argued for greater emphasis on rehabilitation and a larger role for psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers in the sentencing of offenders. From 1941 she was a member of the Child Welfare Advisory Council (New South Wales); in 1942 she was sponsored by that council—as well as by the Australian Council for Educational Research, the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust and the Australian Association of Social Workers — to study child welfare in England.

Her belief in the centrality of social workers in the rehabilitation process led to further honorary positions: she served on the Board of Social Study and Training of New South Wales (1935-40) and its successor, the University of Sydney's Board of Social Studies (1941-49); in 1940-50 she also lectured part time at the university on legal aspects of social work; in 1947 she was guest speaker at the first Australian Conference of Social Work, held in Sydney. During World War II she had sat on the board of the Women's Australian National Services.

While chairing the Child Welfare Advisory Council's delinquency committee, Mary Tenison Woods played a major role in creating a separate Child Welfare Department. In 1943 the committee reported that the Girls' Industrial School at Parramatta emphasized detention rather than rehabilitation, that its inmates were inadequately classified and that its staff was untrained. Rather than allowing the critical report to be shelved—as had been the fate of an earlier report of the pre-school child committee—Mary wrote two articles for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1944 which highlighted problems at Parramatta and at the Gosford Farm Home for Boys. A vigorous debate in the press followed. Her criticisms were endorsed by professional and women's organizations, and—with an election pending—a public service judicial inquiry was ordered which led to the creation of a Department of Child Welfare separate from the Department of Education and to the appointment of a new director of child welfare.

Tenison Woods gained companionship and direction from her involvement in Catholic laywomen's organizations. Although a committed Catholic, she criticized ecclesiastical attitudes and practices regarding women. In 1946 she was a founder of the New South Wales branch of St Joan's Social and Political Alliance, a small but vigorous group of educated Catholic laywomen. Despite its small numbers and opposition from the Church (membership was proscribed and reporting of its activities censored in the Catholic press), the alliance was a powerful lobby group. Strongly anti-communist, it joined the International Liaison Committee of Women's Organisations which was hastily formed in 1947 to prevent Jessie Street from representing Australia for a second term on the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women. Tenison Woods's nomination in 1948 was not accepted, but in 1950 she was appointed chief of the office of the status of women in the division of human rights, United Nations Secretariat, New York.

During her term two major conventions were adopted: the Convention of the Political Rights of Women (1952), the first international law aimed at the granting and protection of women's full political rights, and the Convention of the Nationality of Married Women (1957) which decreed that marriage should not affect the nationality of a wife. When she left the United Nations in 1958 Tenison Woods was commended by delegates for her dedication to the cause of women, her ability to inspire teamwork, her competence and her sincerity. Professor R. J. Lawrence, of the University of New South Wales, remembered her as a 'guide, philosopher and friend for many years'.

Appointed O.B.E. (1950) and C.B.E. (1959), Tenison Woods retired to Sydney. Survived by her son, she died on 18 October 1971 in Mount St Margaret Hospital, Ryde, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Delinquency Committee, Child Welfare Advisory Council, A Report on the Girls' Industrial School, Parramatta (Melb, 1945)
  • S. Kennedy, Faith and Feminism (Syd, 1985)
  • Women's Weekly, 10 June 1950
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2-5, 7, 11 Feb, 2 Mar 1944, 19 May 1950, 21 Oct 1971.

Citation details

Anne O'Brien, 'Tenison Woods, Mary Cecil (1893–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kitson, Mary Cecil

9 December, 1893
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


18 October, 1971 (aged 77)
Ryde, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.