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A biography of Sheila Mary McClemans OBE, CMG, SJM, BA, LLB

By Lloyd Davies


In 1933 Sheila McClemans and Molly Kingston, refused employment elsewhere, set up Western Australia's first all female law firm. Sheila went on to become one of the State's most distinguished daughters.

She was wartime Director of the Women's Royal Naval Service; National President of the Australian Federation of University Women; Secretary of the WA Law Society; foundation member of the WA Legal Aid Commission; of the State Parole Board and of the WA committee administering the Commonwealth Canteens Trust Fund. She was awarded an OBE, a CMG and the Silver Jubilee Medal.

But she was denied the traditional rewards of the legal world. Not QC, not Judge, not Dame. Not even pre-selection for MP. This is Sheila's story. Feisty, entertaining, outspoken, Lloyd Davies does full justice to a remarkable story.


Foreword, by Moira Rayner
Acknowledgements / List of illustrations

The forerunner

Foundations of a career

Learning the law

Kingston and McClemans

"I was a WRAN"

Postwar practice

"Our greatest achievement"

"Now I can rest in peace"

Bibliography/ Index / Index of Cases/ Index of Statutes


[A] biographical account of the life and work of arguably one of the most successful, professional and compassionate women in Australian history. .. [I] now feel somewhat ashamed at having asked the initial question of "Who is she?" … This is a book that is highly recommended … It is written with great subtlety and thought

… [T]his book is able to take the life of a successful yet relatively unknown woman and create a story full of energy and cultural relevance.

Newcastle Law Review, Vol 4 No 2, 2000

A well researched book, valuable for its historical perspective and for giving Sheila her due.

Broadsheet - Newsletter of the Women's Electoral Lobby (WA), September 2001

This is a wonderful expose of a person that any of us would feel proud to be associated with. It shows that [McClemans] did not seek earthly plaudits for her work, that she was almost certainly not made a QC simply because of her sex and, just as certainly, not considered for the Bench for the same reason.
It is also a very moving book which, I can say, makes me very proud and at the same time, very humble, to be a member of the same profession as such a person. Parts of the book also make one very angry …

Law Society of Tasmania Newsletter, 2001

Sheila McClemans was a pioneer legal practitioner in Western Australia. She was the first woman to appear as counsel in the Western Australian Supreme Court and with Molly Kingston established the first all-female legal practice in WA. She was secretary of the Law Society for a number of years and was instrumental in the establishment of the Law Society's Legal Aid Scheme. Furthermore she served as the wartime Director of the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service and was President of the Australian Federation of University Women.
Not only does this book trace the life of a remarkable woman but it also gives us a glimpse of various aspects of life in Perth during the 20th century ...
[It] is an interesting and informative resource not only for those interested in women in the law but also those interested in the broader social history of the legal profession.

Australian Law Librarian, Vol 9(1) 2001

Barrister Lloyd Davies' Sheila is well worth the read, if only for the hard-hitting foreword by Moira Rayner …
Rayner's deliberately trumpeted feminism might have struck a discordant note with Sheila McClemans who tended to understate her achievements and recoiled from the label 'feminist', but a woman who pioneered entry into legal practice for Western Australian women and filled a range of high-level offices, among them Director of the Women's Royal Naval Service [WRANS], National President of the Australian Federation of University Women, Secretary of the WA Law Society, and foundation member of the WA Legal Aid Commission, and who was awarded an OBE, CMG and the Silver Jubilee Medal, was clearly familiar with systemic discrimination and had the resolution to resist it.
Davies … has meticulously researched his subject …
McClemans brought scholastic excellence, energy and formidable strength to her legal and military careers. The eldest of five girls, abandoned by an alcoholic father and raised by a working mother, she learnt early compassion towards others and to rely on her own resources to achieve her goals. She and her friend Molly Kingston, unable to find work in a law firm after graduating, formed a partnership together, practising briefly as solicitors in WA before Sheila joined the [WRANS] and directed her energies to the war effort. WRANS became her passion, a showcase for her superb leadership and administrative skills. …
Despite the soubriquet 'Hard-as-nails McClemans', applied to her by some male contemporaries critical of her chain-smoking and standing up for the rights of other women - like not making women barristers robe in the toilets - Sheila never forsook her femininity. She was not hard as nails, but caring and compassionate.
In a fairer world she would have been made a judge.
As Moira Rayner says, however, "one of the greatest mistakes women can make is to believe that merit and hard work will be rewarded".
Sheila Mary McClemans's story certainly illustrates that. Her legacy to women is more than that, however. It is to remind them that strength, passion and resolution are enhanced by care and compassion for others.

Law Society Journal (NSW), August 2001

Sheila McClemens had a distinguished legal career and achieved a number of firsts [in Western Australia]. Despite her achievements and a career spanning more than 50 years, Sheila was never accorded the traditional recognition conferred by the legal profession. … Sheila initiated change and became a proponent for women’s rights within the profession, a mentor to many legal practitioners and was instrumental in establishing a system of continuing legal education.
Sheila also had a distinguished career as the Director of the WRANS [in World War II] both as an officer and as a humanitarian. …
This is an insightful book which provides a balanced view of [her] life.

Marina Belmonte, Ethos (Law Society of ACT), Sept 2004


Foreword, by Moira Rayner

Achievement is not just a matter of will. There may be barriers which, with all the will in the world, cannot be surmounted to enter onto a "level playing field". One of the greatest mistakes a woman can make is to believe that merit and hard work will be rewarded. It is more complicated.

The law assumes that all human beings have the power to choose how they will live their lives. Society assumes that people are treated on their merits and desserts. That is why, when one person chooses to drive through a red light, they are punished for it, and when another works for high-profile and self-evidently charitable causes, she will probably receive some kind of award, eventually.
But, sometimes, society punishes people who did not have any, or the full range of, choices to make. A teenage car thief condemned to a life of poverty and neglect by his Aboriginality and his nation's racist history didn't have too many other decisions to make. When someone with real ability does not have the opportunity to use it, the choice made is not really "free", and society is not "fair".
Our legal system provides only a framework in which individuals can claim remedies if their rights are infringed. That is all very well for those who can use the framework. Those who cannot use systems that are denied to them in practice, because they are not designed with them in mind, can't claim "rights". They are alienated by the very system that we like to think protects them. Middle class children will ask a policemen the way when they get lost, but Aboriginal children simply find another way to get home.
Sheila McClemans was a brilliant naval officer and lawyer whose achievements were limited by the ignorance and mediocrity of the sexist and parochial society she graced. She was also a strong, passionate and deeply disciplined woman who would never have suggested, let alone complained of, anything of the kind, and who would probably be distressed that her colleagues and friends might perceive that she had been disadvantaged by the neglect or malice of others. She seems to have learned from her difficult childhood life never to complain, and to look for support from nobody but herself.
Sheila was the kind of woman who made it her business to support and advise other women entering into the legal profession, as she did me, without once mentioning the word "discrimination" or displaying (or encouraging the display of) frustration or anger at the constraints of the profession she loved. She was the kind of woman lawyer who did not, as I originally did not, support "women's" organisations, such as the formation of the Women Lawyer's Association in Western Australia in the early 1980s. She believed that the Western Australian Law Society was the proper vehicle for the expression of women's aspirations. She held those views even though it is probably now explicitly recognised that she should have been appointed to the Supreme Court Bench, and was not appointed only because she was a woman. Perhaps she, like me, would eventually have seen that women lawyers do benefit from combining their professional voices.
The practice of law, my careers mistress said when I went to see her about my choices at school, was "not very ladylike". Had it not been for that line, I might never have taken law seriously. A well-meaning fellow law student took me aside in my first year of law studies and warned me not to go into practice, because I, too, would "lose my femininity", and cited chain-smoking, pioneer practitioner Sheila, "Hard as Nails" McClemans, as a dreadful example not to follow. So I did.
Sheila did not describe herself as a "feminist" because she did not need to. A woman of such high achievements, and who was so conscious of the need to support other women, Sheila was a humanist and a human being, who was fully conscious of the systemic injustice of the community that enfolded her - or at least some aspects of it. She was certainly not backward in claiming for women the right to be treated with respect. Women barristers had been required, until she forced the issue to be re-considered, to robe in the "Ladies" - the lavatories - in the Supreme Court, for instance, because they were excluded from the men-only Robing Room.
She would be delighted, now, at the range of brilliant young women entering into law. She would no doubt be astonished that they should continue to suffer discrimination and block-headed disparagement from the dinosaurs of legal practice, and not yet have taken their place at the pinnacle of the profession.
Though anti-discrimination laws came into effect well and truly after her public working life was over, I have no doubt that Sheila understood at least the justice of the fundamental principles. Anti-discrimination laws are human rights laws. They are meant to protect and promote the rights of all human beings to be treated with respect for their innate dignity as human beings - whatever shape or strength or beauty or colour of their bodies; wherever they were born and whom their parents might have been; whether they have or haven't procreated and the structure of their living arrangements; and whatever they believe.
Sheila McClemans was often denied the respect due to her, though never complained about it. She lived through a time when the law was still described as "an unsuitable profession" for women. Australian courts, those well-known bastions of human rights protection - well, at times they are now - opined that women had never been, and therefore never could be, lawyers: thus, the word "person" in the Legal Practitioners Act did not include women.
It is timely to write about Sheila's life, not only because of the intense interest in "equality before the law" and the prejudice of some judges affecting women, but because there is a resurgence of culpable blindness. The barriers of prejudice and superstition and old custom deprive society of its greatest asset, diversity, and individuals of their fundamental right, to strive and to achieve to the best of their ability.
Sometimes these barriers are, as they were in Sheila's case, explicit, even if they are expressed obliquely. Some years ago, I considered a Horacek cartoon to make a point in an equal opportunity newsletter which I reluctantly decided not to use: a man behind a desk saying to a female, clearly an applicant for a job, "Not because you're a woman of course, but because you can't urinate standing up".
Far more often, however, discrimination arises from unwritten rules that are so hard to challenge because they seem "fair" because they apply to everybody. These "indirectly discriminatory" rules and practices are not easy to identify because they make no apparent distinction between different classes or groups of people. These are the rules which failed to recognise the outstanding merit of Sheila McClemans as a naval officer, as a manager, and as a jurist.
Many of the rules, practices and structures of society are indirectly discriminatory. They grew from assumptions about people because of their sex, or where they were born, or what they looked like. Many industrial practices grew up because "the worker" is presumed to be a man. These rules tend to feel "right" and are difficult to challenge because they fit dominant cultural norms. Appointments to senior judicial office, for instance, are actually made on the recommendations of referees.
Practices grow up, such as an unwritten rule that the successful applicant should be a member of a particular club or simply a particular social set where his - less often, her - "merits" are displayed and approved. These indirectly discriminatory practices need to be identified, named and changed. Sheila did it by her life, but never by asking for anything for herself.
Sheila McClemans stood up for the rights of other women, while underplaying the magnitude of her own obstacles. She would never have asked for special treatment, and when denied even an equal opportunity soldiered on. She was a hero. We need to know about her life. She was tough - not as "Nails" as she was disparagingly described by some of her male peers - but resilient. She was compassionate, and she was funny, courageous and kind. If she and others of her time had not demanded "equal opportunity", I would never have practised law, and many women today would not even have economic independence.
Thanks to those women who got laughed at, belittled, overlooked and joked about. The women of today don't have to prove, any more, that they are "mature enough" to vote; that they do not become homicidal maniacs according to the phase of the moon, pre-menstrual tension, motherhood or lactation, any more than men become irresponsible brutes according to their testosterone count.
Women like Sheila McClemans have demanded respect for all of us. I do not apologise for calling myself a feminist, as Sheila did not do. There are many brands of feminism, including women who want to work at home with their children, and women who want to live only with women, and women who just want to get on with their chosen careers, without having to act a role. People like me, who "made it" in a man's profession, did it because we knew that being excluded was wrong, and because we had the self-esteem to demand a right. We got that confidence from the acts and writings of other women, and because people fought for international guarantees of human rights, and because enlightened women and men fought for anti-discrimination laws and policies, and because of the trail-blazers who made it so much easier for us. I'm proud that I follow in Sheila McClemans' footsteps.
Moira Rayner, 2000

Published November 2000
Publisher Desert Pea Press
ISBN 9781876861018
Australian RRP $49.50
International Price $47.00
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Law - Legal History
Law - Women & the Law

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