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Phyllis Maughan: An unconventional life
Phyllis Maughan has lived what she calls an unconventional life. And at 83, the attorney, who still practices out of her Point Fortin office, has no intention of retiring soon. When asked for the reason she's kept retirement at bay during an interview at her office recently, Maughan replied: “What would I do?” “I am that type of person, extremely independent. I’m independent almost to stupidity,” she added. Yet, this is the sort of answer you would expect from a woman who was called to the T&T bar in 1967 – at a time when she can remember only four or five female lawyers besides herself. Earlier in 1967, Maughan was called to the bar in the UK after graduating from the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple in London. She estimates that only 25 per cent of her class was female at the time.
Maughan’s journey to law school was also unconventional. When she began studying law in 1964, Maughan was a wife and mother of three, who had worked as a public servant for a little over a decade. The Naparima Girls High School alumna had hopes of becoming a probation officer, but after some friends suggested law to her, the idea didn’t seem farfetched. “It wasn’t that I had a burning desire for law but I saw an opportunity to advance myself,” said the great-grandmother. In England, Maughan “kept close” to the T&T High Commission and worked when she could to fund her studies. “It wasn’t easy because I was up there alone with no friends. My family was in Trinidad. It was really quite tough. In those days we were still experiencing a lot of colour prejudice so even though I had experience in the civil service in Trinidad it was difficult to find placement.”
In 1968, Maughan, who grew up near La Romain, moved to Point Fortin with her family after her husband began working with Petrotrin. Maughan was able to open a practice, but she had to deal with the sexist attitudes of male lawyers and also sexist laws - like the income tax requiring her husband to pay on her behalf. “You would think this is a profession in which women would have equal rights but there was discrimination. We (female lawyers) fought for whatever we have attained.” She also had to balance raising a family with practising law, an area where Maughan says “female lawyers suffer.”
Even though women in law have made significant gains, Maughan doesn’t necessarily advise that young women join the profession in the current societal landscape. “I think that the law as a profession is losing its position in society. In a developing country, the law as a profession has not assumed the role that it should have.” Maughan believes lawyers should be at the forefront of the push for constitutional reform.
A full life
• In addition to being a lawyer, wife and mother, Phyllis Maughan has also been involved in politics and charity. She was a United Labour Front candidate for representative of La Brea in the late 1970s and former vice president of the National Coterie of Social Workers. Her interests in both politics and charity, said Maughan, were inherited from her father who was a steadfast trade unionist. Other major influences on her “personal connection” to “working class politics” are CLR James and Audrey Jeffers. Nowadays, Maughan occupies her spare time with reading and yoga, which she describes as the “purest religious pursuit to which I have been exposed.” All in all, Maughan’s life has certainly been unconventional, but there isn’t anything she would change. “There were times when I had to conform. My life has not been easy, but I have enjoyed it and in retrospect I am comfortable with it,” she said.