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Oral history and discourse analysis as tools for empirical legal and linguistic research

Professor Kim Rubenstein, Dr Anne Isaac, University of Canberra


This paper reports on an innovative interdisciplinary and intercultural approach to legal scholarship that brings together feminist legal history and linguistics through the combined methodologies of oral history and discourse analysis.

The research draws on a corpus of over 50 whole-of-life oral histories of Australian women lawyers recorded for the Trailblazing Women and the Law (TBWL) project, led by Professor Kim Rubenstein.1 The project was in part inspired by the late Professor Karen Knop’s focus on the effects of gender and cultural diversity on public international law and her invitation to grasp ‘what is actually happening in the … legal community, who the actors really are, and what each does’, by examining how the unique life experience and identities of individuals have shaped their engagement with and contributions to the development of law.2

The overall goal of the TBWL project is to foreground and explode ‘the detrimental and well- noted silence surrounding the first women of law in Australia … by combining a cross- section of disciplinary questioning to build a national consciousness of women lawyers and to enable critical research of their diverse experiences.’3

The methodology adopted in the studies discussed in this paper is novel in combining legal analysis with discourse analysis of the participants’ narratives. This approach enriches legal scholarship by offering in-depth insights into the individual and shared gendered experiences of women lawyers, and into those aspects of their personal and professional biography that most influenced and enabled their contributions to legal reform and active citizenship on the local, national and/or international stage.

Unlike their traditional use in gender and legal analyses, oral histories in our research are treated as texts to draw upon and to question. Discourse analysis involves repeated close reading of the interview transcript with a focus, at the macro-level, on sections of the text of most relevance to the aims of the TBWL project and to specific research questions; and at the micro-level, on identification of recurring motifs in the narrative. At an even more fine- grained level, we adopted a model of voice4 to analyse salient patterns of each participant’s language use that form characteristic features of her self-portrayal, then compared these with the impressions generated by the participant’s acoustic voice through close listening to the audio recording of the interview.

The research reported in this paper offers insights for legal culture – which has largely continued to background women lawyers and their achievements – and for legal and linguistic academic scholarship, but also for the education of future lawyers. To this end, the TBWL data is also being used to develop curriculum materials that inform and promise to inspire secondary school students. The paper concludes by proposing avenues for future research based on comparative analysis of content and narrative styles across the TBWL corpus and other, international corpora.


  1. The Trailblazing Project began in 2010 in partnership with the National Library of Australia (NLA) and was expanded in 2012 under the auspices of an Australian Research Council (ARC) linkage grant (Project Number LP 120200367), with partners including the NLA, the National Foundation for Australian Women, the Federal Court of Australia, the Family Court of Australia and Australian Women Lawyers. Fellow Chief Investigators were Gavan McCarthy and Helen Morgan, then from the University of Melbourne, whose expertise in social networks, cultural informatics, ePublication and women’s history archiving assisted in the mining of interviews and development of research outcomes in those areas. A further contributor was the project’s PhD student, now Dr Louise Baker. Kevin Bradley was a Partner Investigator from the National Library of Australia who contributed substantial oral history expertise. Our Researcher/Coordinator Dr Nikki Henningham, formerly at the University of Melbourne, also brought to the team great oral history expertise.
  2. Knop, K. (1993). ‘Re/Statements: Feminism and State Sovereignty in International Law’ 3 Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems 293, 335.
  3. Rubenstein, K. & Isaac, A. (2023). Oral history as an analytical tool: Eve Mahlab and the Australian Trailblazing Women Law Project. Women’s History Review, DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2023.2209350
  4. Isaac, A. (2012). Modelling Voice as Appraisal and Involvement Resources (PhD thesis, The University of Canberra),


Kim Rubenstein is a Professor in the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law and a Fellow of the Australian Social Sciences Academy. She was the Chief Investigator on the Trailblazing Women and the Law project. Her email is Her website is

Anne Isaac is a discourse analyst and an editor. She has been collaborating with Professor Kim Rubenstein on her research related to the TBWL project. Anne’s PhD proposed a model for describing the writer’s voice (or self-portrayal) and its development in academic writing. Her email is Information about her academic background and publications can be found at and at