The life of early conservationist, female bushwalker and the first woman to practise law in New South Wales has been commemorated in a new book.
Going on to become an avid mountaineer, Marie Byles was prominent throughout the mid-20th Century, seeking unclimbed mountains in China and bringing the teachings of Buddha to the West. However, so much of this woman’s extraordinary life could be lost to antiquity if not for the tenacity of author and Wild contributor Anne McLeod.
To mark the release of McLeod’s new book, The Summit of Her Ambition: The Spirited Life of Marie Byles, we asked a few pressing questions to discover more about this amazing woman.
What is your relationship to Marie Byles and how did you begin the journey to becoming her biographer?
I first came across Marie Byles while travelling through northern India visiting the significant sites where Buddha had lived and taught, the famous Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya being amongst them. This experience was enhanced by reading a book about Buddha’s life told through the eyes of one of his disciples, Footprints of Gautama Buddha. Reading this engagingly told story in the places where the actual historical events unfolded helped me to relate to Buddha as a real human being while absorbing the energy that still exists in these sites even after 2500 years.
I had no idea that the author of the book that had so greatly enhanced my experience was Australian. So I was surprised when a years later, I saw an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about Marie Byles. The article publicised an open day at her home “Ahimsa” in Cheltenham that she had gifted to the National Trust before she died in 1979. The property, named for Gandhi’s principle of non-violence, illustrated much about the woman who, I was to learn, was an influential environmentalist as well as being the first female solicitor to practise in New South Wales. When I visited Ahimsa and spoke with its current tenant and close neighbours, I discovered an Australian woman who had lived the most incredible life. I couldn’t believe she was not more well-known.
Is this the first biography you’ve written? How did you go about the research and production work involved?
This is my first biography although I have had a range of articles printed on environmental themes in Outdoor Australia, (now Australian Geographic Outdoor), Australian Geographic, Wild, Blue Mountains Life and I’ve also written two obituaries of eminent conservationists in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The more I learned about Marie the more compelled I felt to continue the research and writing. Besides the six book she had had published, her papers, stored in the Mitchell Library, contained a vast amount of material – letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and unpublished manuscripts. I became absorbed in her adventurous life through reading her accounts of bushwalking and mountain climbing expeditions published in the monthly journal of the Sydney Bush Walkers club. I also managed to interview a range of people who had known Marie – as well as her fellow bushwalkers I spoke with her colleagues in the legal profession, including her first partner in 1932, as well as a few of the women who had worked for Marie in her law practice in Eastwood from the 1930s-1960s. It was an education for me, learning about the history of women’s rights in law and the history of the conservation movement.
For the book design I had the assistance of a wonderful graphic designer who helped me put the book together. I had the text professionally edited and proof-read. An editor guided me through the process of working the contents/format up to professional standard and taught me how to do an index! Every step of the way has been a big learning curve – from research, writing and self-publishing. Fortunately, I have had very positive responses to the quality of the finished product.
What do you find most impressive about Marie and her life? Do you think she would make for a good role model for young women today?
The reason I persevered for so many years with this biography is because I felt so inspired by Marie achievements. I titled the book The Summit of Her Ambition because Marie strove to achieve her ambition in every sphere. She remains an outstanding role model for women to achieve their goals.
Marie challenged traditional attitudes that dictated: a woman may not choose to live without a man, she may not play with the boys, she may not control her sexuality, and should she speak of unpleasantness or she will be silenced. Marie didn’t buy into that at all. Her mother Ida Unwin was a suffragette who participated in protest marches in London in the struggle for the vote. She brought Marie up to believe in gender equality. Yet, due to the oppression she suffered in her marriage to a very dominating man, Ida was unable to maintain her own identity. That made Marie angry and determined not to enter into the House of Bondage that was marriage.
She became a leader in many fields.
After she graduated in law, she was told she could only work as a law clerk. Marie was indignant – she had passed the same exams as the men and knew she could handle the work. At the time there was a entrenched discrimination – women were seen as irrational and unable to keep confidences or handle the disputive side of law.
Marie was courageous in standing up for her rights – she never gave up. She established a highly successful law practice that employed an all-female staff who she trained up to run the office while she pursued her outdoor adventures. She was committed to women’s equal rights in law and fought to change discriminatory laws – women had no rights in marriage and divorce or custody of children.
Marie had very strong connection to nature. Her parents took their children bushwalking from a young age. Her father had free train travel in NSW and the family saw much of the state – they especially loved the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
Marie was a ‘new woman’ of the 1920s and 30s who became active in the bushwalking movement to the surprise of the men who had founded the movement and had the notion of outdoor adventure and exploration as male pursuits.
With a lifelong love of mountains Marie quit her job in 1928, aged 28, and took off travelling around the world by cargo boat. She sought experience in high altitude climbing, first in the Scottish Highlands, Norway and then the Canadian Rockies. She endured tough training camps and mastered the skills needed to climb Aoraki/Mount Cook, the second highest mountain in the southern hemisphere. She was only the second woman to do so after another Australian, Freda du Faur in 1914.
Having been brought up with conservation principles – that individuals could and should make a difference – Marie devoted her legal skills to work on behalf of the Federation of Bushwalking Clubs, the peak body of conservationists in NSW. She helped reserve vast tracts of land for national parks.
She was ahead of her time in so many ways. When she knew that she was onto something of benefit to herself and to humanity she publicly promoted it even though she was considered eccentric eg: bushwalking and camping out under the stars, the health benefits of communing with nature, yoga and mindfulness meditation.
What moments really stood out for you in researching this book?
I have really enjoyed visiting the places where Marie lived and the national parks she helped reserve: Bouddi NP on the southern tip of the NSW Central Coast, Era Beach south of Royal National Park near Sydney, and Kosciuszko National Park. Her brother Baldur was primarily responsible for ensuring that cattle grazing was restricted in the alpine regions of the Snowy Mountains. Bouddi is the most divine area – pink angophora trees and double grass-trees surrounding a half-moon bay. I love visiting there, knowing that without Marie’s efforts it would be just another built-up area – it is the only undeveloped stretch of coast between Sydney and Newcastle.
Also, finding out about what it took for women’s organisations to achieve equal rights in law – Marie acted as legal advisor for the National Council of Women (NSW) and worked with Jessie Street’s United Association of Women to change the law that denied mothers the right to guardianship over their own children. It took an almighty effort to get these laws changed with massed protests at the Attorney-General’s office. Marie acted as legal correspondent to various women’s magazines informing her readers about their complete lack of rights and how to make the most of the situation – almost revolutionary!
Ultimately, what do you hope this biography achieves, beyond giving people insight into the life and times of this interesting person?
Marie was devoted to humanitarian, social and environmental causes. Many of these causes are still relevant today, if not more so – women’s equal right and protection of the environment. She also was a role model for demonstrating how the spiritual path is compatible with a successful career. And how important it is to adhere to your values – it takes wisdom to realise your limitations and not lose perspective when on a mission to save the world. Humility is required for true progress on the path.
Have you come across anyone who might fit the bill for being a modern-day Marie Byles?
There are many female lawyers who have challenged the status quo and led the way towards more equitable laws i.e.: sexual discrimination in the workplace, divorce, human rights. There are also countless women involved in the environmental movement ensuring that future generations enjoy the pristine beauty of wilderness areas. So many women are now yoga teachers and meditation teachers, sharing their feminine qualities of empathy and compassion to support others on their journey from suffering to inner peace, from victim behaviour to empowerment.
The Summit of Her Ambition is a self-published work and is currently available for purchase via Anne McLeod’s website.