Mary Tenison Woods (née Kitson)

Mary Kitson was born in 1893 in the South Australian town of Caltowie. The family moved to Adelaide and Mary attended St Aloysius College from 1906-1910, where she was both head prefect and dux of the school.

In 1912, Mary was the only female law student at the University of Adelaide and in 1917, became the first woman to practice law in South Australia. She practised as a barrister for several years before applying to be a public notary, a role that had been restricted to men. A change in the law, which didn’t recognise women as ‘persons’, allowed her to be appointed to the office.

After her marriage to (Julian) Gordon Tenison Woods in 1924, she left the law firm as her partners preferred not to work with a married woman and joined Dorothy Somerville in the first law firm composed solely of female partners.

Mary Kitson
Mary Tenison Woods (nee Kitson), Golden Wattle, 1912, p.18
Mary Tenison Woods (nee Kitson), 1916.
Mary Tenison Woods (nee Kitson), 1916 (SAC Archives)

Divorcing in 1933, she became the sole supporter of her son and became an advocate for child welfare reform.

A long and distinguished career took her eventually to a senior appointment as Chief of the Office of the Status on Women in the Human Right Division of the United Nations from 1950 – 1958. While she occupied this office two major conventions were adopted:

  • the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952), the first international law aimed at the granting and protection of women’s full political rights
  • the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women (1957), ensuring marriage should not affect the nationality of a wife.

These were key political gains for women (Gayle ed. 2000, p. 181).

By Carol Grantham, 2020


Gayle, F (Ed.) 2000, Making space: women and education at St Aloysius College Adelaide 1880-2000, St Aloysius College, Adelaide.

O’Brien, A 1990, Tenison Woods, Mary Cecil (1893-1971), Australian Dictionary of Biography, viewed 1 August 2020, <>.