In 1924 Marie Byles became the first woman allowed to practise law in New South Wales. Told she could only work as a law clerk, she triumphed over the patriarchal legal profession and a society that viewed women as second-class by establishing a successful practice. As legal advisor for women’s organisations in the 1930s she helped change legislation that discriminated against women’s rights in marriage and divorce – most cruelly, in the guardianship of their own children. Instead of the fame and fortune she could have earned through law Marie devoted herself to the conservation of the Australian environment.
An early member of the elite Sydney Bush Walkers club, Marie and her friends (including Paddy Pallin who made their camping equipment) spent every weekend exploring unmapped terrain within reach of Sydney. As they grew to know and respect the landscape, the bushwalkers developed a commitment to protect the most beautiful and ecologically sensitive areas and became leaders of the conservation movement.
A zealous advocate for wilderness Marie worked as legal advisor on behalf of the Federation of Bushwalking Clubs to petition the government to reserve vast areas of land for future generations. Before the National Parks and Wildlife Service was constituted in 1967, bushwalkers took responsibility for managing the reserved areas by serving on Trusts and attending regular working bees to make paths that are still walked today.
It was mountains though that held the greatest fascination for Marie. After reaching the summit of Mt Cook in 1928, she twice returned to New Zealand’s South Island to climb virgin peaks and map unexplored areas before leading an international expedition to south China in 1938. The failure of this dream became the catalyst of a journey into places not found on a map as she began a quest to find the meaning of life beyond success and failure.
Marie practised a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity in a cottage next to a nature reserve on the outskirts of Sydney and before she died, donated her property to the National Trust.