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100 Years of Women in Law

In today’s society, women in the English legal profession is becoming the norm. However, this has not always been the case. Women for 100 years have been fighting for today’s generation of women to have the same stand as men in the profession. These women can only be described as courageous and determined and deserve the right to be recognised as we celebrate 100 years of women in law.

‘First 100 years’ is a project, supported by the Law Society, Bar Council and Cilex, in which it raises awareness of women in law, as well as inspiring a future generation of female lawyers.

So let’s take a walk through history!

1878 Janet Wood was the first women to complete a law degree at Cambridge. This involved Janet sitting a ‘special exam for women’ which made her qualification equivalent to the men’s degree exam. However, degrees at Cambridge were not awarded to women until 1947.

In the same year, University College London became the first uni to admit women onto the law degree on the same equal footing as Men. One of the first women to be admitted on to the course at the Uni was Eliza Orme, who in 1888 at the age of 35 became the first women to earn a law degree in England. Orme was already unofficially practising law in an office in Chancery lane.

In 1892, armed with a degree from Bombay University, Cornelia Sorabji was the first women at Oxford University to sit the Bachelor of Civil Law exams. However, as women were still not recognised as equals in law, she did not obtain her degree until 30 years later. She was also the first female to practice law in both India and Britain.

By 1903, women were becoming more determined to been seen as equals in the legal profession, and saw Bertha Cave apply to Grays Inn with the intention to go to the Bar. Gray’s Inn decided that this should be a decision which included all four inns. The case was taken to the Board, in which the decision was made that the Bar should only be accessible to ‘males and males alone’. Cave appealed to the House of Lords. However the chancellor was unwilling to change precedent.

Christabel Pankhurst, the daughter of the famous suffragette Emmaline Pankhurst, applied and was accepted to Victoria University. During her three years of studies, from 1903-1906, she was the only female to study the course. She obtained her degree in 1906 with first class honours.

1912 saw Edward Bell purpose to the law society that women be allowed to practice as solicitors. This is something that the Law Society did not take well and his proposal was rejected. However in 1913 Gwyenth Bebb took the Law Society to court in an unsuccessful action, in which Bebb and others claimed that under the Solicitors Act 1843 the meaning of the word Person applied to women as well as men. Although the judge ruled against them, stating that women were not classified under the meaning, the case made a huge impact in the step towards sex disqualification and the only way he could rule in favour of them was if parliament changed the law.

1919 saw the biggest movement in Parliament in which the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed. This was the changing point for women in the legal profession and the Act paved the way for women in the profession today. This year also saw Nancy Astor take her seat in the House of Commons, when she was elected as MP for Plymoth Sutton. Astor was responsible for the legal drinking age limit for under 18’s being raised from 14 to 18. This year also saw Ada Summer become the first female magistrate.

The following year in 1920 saw Bristol Quarter session swear in the first female jurors in England. It was the first time prosecuting counsel used the term “Ladies and Gentleman of the Jury”. The counsel also congratulated the women of the jury stating “At last women have taken their proper place in the administration of justice in England”. 1920 also saw Madge Easton become the first woman to be admitted to practice as a solicitor in the UK.

Whilst she never practised as a Barrister, Ivy Williams in 1922 was the first woman to be called to the English Bar. However, instead of practising, Williams was the first female to teach law at an English university. As a member of Inner Temple, her achievement of being called to the Bar was documented in the Law Journal as “one of the most memorable days in the long annals of the legal profession”.

Whilst Williams was the first women, called it was Helena Normanton who was the first female to practice as a Barrister in England. A member of Middle Temple, Normanton was the first female to obtain a divorce for a client.

1922 also saw Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes pass the Law society examinations to be admitted as solicitors in England. One year later saw the first female Mary Heron be admitted as a barrister in Ireland and Agnes Hughes, the first female to qualify in Wales.

In the same year Mithan Tata became the first women to be called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn and was the first practising Barrister from India. In 1925 Daw Hmee became the first Burmese Female Barrister. 1930 then saw the first female Jewish woman to graduate in Law from Leeds University.

Since women had started practising law in England in 1919, they had only been allowed to practice under their married name. This was okay for the women whom were already married when they started in their profession but for those who married during their practising years they found it difficult to establish themselves once their names had changed. Many had spent years building their reputation in the profession to only have to start again when they took on their married name. This led to a change in position from the Bar council who in 1933 allowed female barristers to continue practising under their maiden name once they were married.

Until 1936 scholarships from the 4 Inns of Court had only ever been awarded to men, that was until Rose Heilbron came on the scene, when Gray’s Inn awarded her a scholarship. 1939 saw Heilbron called to the Bar and became known as ‘a woman of many firsts’. She was the first woman to be made a king counsel. In 1949 Heilbron was made a silk and in 1950 was the first female barrister to lead a murder case. In this year the Daily Mirror named Rose as ‘Woman of the Year’. Whilst Rose was unable to secure a win for her client, the case become known in 2003 as Britain’s oldest miscarriages of justice, when her client’s conviction was quashed. 1972 saw Rose became the first female judge at the Old Bailey.

By 1962 women were up and coming in the legal profession in which more and more females were given the opportunities to represent their sex in courts. 1962 saw Dame Elizabeth Lane be appointed as the first female judge in the county court. Lane was the individual responsible for introducing the term ‘your Ladyship’ into the legal vocabulary.

Jumping forward to 1974 and Barbara Calvert QC was the first female to head up chambers when she set up 4 Brick Court Chambers.

1975 saw Parliament take another step towards women in the Legal profession and other professions with the introduction of the Sex discrimination Act 1975. The act made it illegal to employ a man over a woman, if the man’s experience or qualifications were lower than that of a female applicant. By 1976 the intake a women into the legal profession was at an all-time high and the Bar Council saw a 16% rise in female applicants. 1977 saw Mella Caroll become the first practising barrister at the Inner Bar of Ireland. Caroll also went on to become the first woman judge of the Irish High Court.

It was not just the legal profession that saw women becoming more popular but the intake of female politicians was at an all-time high and 1979 saw Margret Thatcher become prime minister. Until recently with the election of Theresa May, Maggie Thatcher was the only female prime minister to have taken position.

1984 to 1991 saw Lady Hale become the first female to be appointed to the law commission; Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss appointed as the first female Lord Justice of appeal and Baroness Scotland of Asthal become the first black women appointed to the Queen’s Counsel at the age of 35, the youngest silk for over 200 years.

1992 saw Betty Boothroyd become speaker of the house. She made this position her own and took the stance that just because she was a woman she was not to be told what to do by her male MPs. She was in charge.

In 1993 Dame Mary Arden was the first female high court judge to be assigned to the chancery division. Arden was named by Women’s Hour as one of the most 100 powerful women in the UK.

Dame Heather Hallett was elected as the first female to chair the Bar Council in 1998 and went on to become treasurer of Inner Temple in 2011.

In 2002 Carolyn Kirby became the first women president of the law society.

Between 2004 and the present day, one of the biggest names of women in the legal profession is that of Lady Hale. In 2004 she joined the House of Lords as a lord of appeal in the ordinary and was the first female justice of the Supreme Court. In 2014 she saw a rise in the number of women practising as a solicitor overtake the men. 2017 saw Lady Hale take over the highest position in the legal profession as president of the Supreme Court. To the present day Lady Hale is making a number of firsts for women in the legal profession by appearing in February’s edition of Vogue.

Hale went on to reflect the fact that three women are currently residing on the Supreme Court Bench with this statement ““One of the reasons that it’s very good is that we are each very different from one another, just as the men are different from one another. If it’s only you, people tend to think, well that’s the woman’s perspective, that’s how women think, and, of course, we women don’t all think alike. But it’s also good to have it normalised. To hear ‘My Ladies and My Lords”[1]

Women from Maria Grey, founder of the women’s education union, to Lady Hale, have dedicated their lives to make women more profound, in what was once described as ‘a man’s world’. Without these women fighting and not taking no for an answer, is the reasons why women such as myself are able to complete an education and career in the legal professions today. Still today women are fighting for our right.

Every woman who has helped us get this far deserves recognition. 120 years ago if you told these women by 2019 we would be celebrating 100 years of women in law and not only that but the head of our courts system would be female, I think they would have laughed us out of town. If the ladies didn’t laugh then the men surely would! We still have a long way to go in establishing women into the foundations of the legal profession. There are still many firsts for women to have, and with the determination of today’s society and the foundation we are setting for future solicitors/Barristers, I am sure that each milestone will be met, but not only that, we will turn heads at the same time.

But society today is not about who rules who, but who is best for the job at the moment in time. It could be a women, it could be a man. What really matters is that now in the legal profession women are equals.

For more information on 100 Years of Women in Law please visit the first 100 years website here.

Written By: Victoria-Jayne Scholes LLB (Hons)

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