For decades, women have worked hard and fought to gain equal opportunities and rights for themselves and the generations of women who follow them. March’s Women’s History Month offers a peek into the past, to remember the plight of women so that everyone in society can keep moving forward. Here at IQ Legal Training, we thought women’s history month would be the perfect time to stop, look back, and celebrate the history of women in the legal profession.
Prior to The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, women were forbidden to practice law and so it was of course a male-only profession. However, this didn’t stop Eliza Orme, (also called Elizabeth Orm), from becoming the first woman to earn a law degree in England, from University College London in 1888. Eliza received awards and scholarships in Political Economy, Jurisprudence, and Roman Law, but was unable to graduate as the University of London did not allow women to receive degrees at this time. In 1874, Eliza took it upon herself to write two notes for The Examiner on the subject of degrees for women at the University of London, arguing in favour of women’s education. It took some time, but four years later, the university reversed its policy and permitted women to receive degrees. In 1878, Eliza passed the first two exams for the Bachelor of Laws with honours and in 1888, she received her LLB degree from the University of London. Although Eliza did not receive her degree until 1888, she began working in legal practice in 1872 and then went on to work in the chambers of a barrister in 1873 until 1875 when she opened her own office, drafting documents for conveyancing counsel and patent agents. She continued to work on legal matters in various formats until about 1904 but was never able to reach her aspiration to be recognised as a conveyancer under the bar.
Another landmark moment for women occurred in 1892, when Cornelia Sorabji, an Indian Lawyer, became the first woman to study law at Oxford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. This was without a doubt a mile-stone moment for both the university and for women everywhere. Following her studies in the UK, Cornelia returned to India, where she became involved in social and advisory work on behalf of women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. Unable to defend them in court since, as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system, she presented herself for the LLB examination of Bombay University in 1897 and the pleader’s examination of Allahabad High Court in 1899. Cornelia became the first female advocate in India but would not be recognised as a barrister until the law which barred women from practising was changed in 1923.
Whilst no one can argue that history had been made by both Eliza and Cornelia, this was a small step on the road to equality and there was still a long way to go for women wishing to enter the legal profession. The 1900’ saw a succession of highly educated women fight for the right to have careers in the legal profession.
Bertha Cave was one of these women. Bertha was a legal campaigner who fought, unsuccessfully, to be accepted to the bar. In 1903 Bertha applied to become the first female member of Gray’s Inn, in order to allow her to be called to the bar. Despite her application initially being accepted, this decision was quickly overturned, and she was rejected based on her gender. Later that year Bertha appealed the decision, but unfortunately the proceedings which were held in the House of Lords returned the verdict that the decision would be upheld, once again on the grounds of gender.
It was argued by the Lords that woman “were under a disability by reason of their sex”. Following the decision, Bertha continued with her campaign to fight for change alongside Dame Christabel Harriette Pankhurst DBE, a British suffragette until she moved to India two years later following her (unofficial) marriage to Colonel Ali Altafin 1905.
There would be little change for females wishing to practice law over the next decade or so, however this did not mean that the fight for change had ended. In fact, many other women had gone on to study law at university during this time including Gwyneth Marjorie Bebb, now the ninth woman to study law at Oxford University.
Gwyneth Marjorie Bebb completed her studies at Oxford University in 1911, gaining First-Class degree marks, but at that time women were still not awarded degrees or allowed to graduate. In 1913, she applied to join the Law Society but was denied entry due to her gender. Gwyneth is best known for being the plaintiff in Bebb v. The Law Society, a test case in the opening of the legal profession to women in Britain. She was expected to be the first woman to be called to the bar in England; in the end, her early death prevented that, and Ivy Williams was the first woman to qualify as a barrister in England, in May 1922.
Ivy Williams studied law at the Society of Oxford Home Students. By 1903, she had completed all her law examinations, but was prevented by the prevailing regulations concerning the qualification of women at Oxford from matriculating or receiving her BA, MA, and BCL, until the regulations were reformed in 1920. She obtained LLB from the University of London in 1901, and LLD from the same university in 1903. As the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 came into force, she joined the Inner Temple as a student and was called to the bar in May 1922, having received a certificate of honour (first class) in her final bar examination in Michaelmas 1921 which excused her from keeping two terms of dinners. Her call to the bar was described by the Law Journal as “one of the most memorable days in the long annals of the legal profession”. Ivy, however, decided not to go into private practice, instead opting to teach and thereby becoming the first woman in UK history to teach law at a university. In 1923, she became the first woman to be awarded the degree of DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) in Oxford for her published work.
There is no doubt that The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 changed the course of history and allowed women like Ivy to pave the way for other women in the UK who wished to pursue legal careers or indeed to teach the law. It didn’t take long before numerous other women followed in Ivy’s footsteps, including Helena Normanton who was the first practising female barrister in the UK. In November 1922, Helena, who was the second woman in England to be called to the bar, went on to become the first woman to obtain a divorce for her client, the first woman to lead the prosecution in a murder trial, and the first woman to conduct a trial in America and to appear at the High Court and the Old Bailey.
As well as a highly prestigious legal career with many well documented firsts, Helena also had a monumental first for women in her personal life too. Following her marriage, Helena chose to keep her maiden name as opposed to taking her husband’s name, as tradition would dictate. Whilst she was not the first woman to do this, she was the first married British woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name after choosing not to take her husband’s name for professional reasons. Although not uncommon today, when Helena did this in 1922, a period when women did not have the same rights to vote as men, this would have been very unusual and a little scandalous. Later in her career in 1949, Helena also became one of the first two female barristers to be appointed King’s Council.
The other female barrister appointed to Kings Council alongside Helena was Rose Heilbron. Rose was another woman who achieved many well documented firsts during her career: she was the first woman to achieve a first-class honours degree in law at the University of Liverpool in 1935; she was England’s first female judge as Recorder of Burnley in 1956; and the first woman to ever sit as a judge in the Old Bailey in 1972. Rose was the second female in history to become a High Court judge in England and did so in 1974 (the first being Elizabeth Lane). And not only that, but she was also the first female Presiding Judge of any Circuit when she became Presiding Judge on the Northern Circuit in 1978, which was another huge step towards equality for women in the legal profession.
Becoming a High Court Judge is a prestigious honour, and for a woman in 1965, the possibility of being appointed in a judicial role in the High Court was almost unthinkable. Even today only 26% of Senior Court appointments are female, so to become the first woman to ever sit as a High Court Judge in England marks a monumental turning point in history for women in the legal profession.
Dame Elizabeth Kathleen Lane DBE was an English barrister and judge, and the first female in history to become a High Court judge in England, leading the way for other women such as Rose Heilbron (as mentioned) to follow in her footsteps and to go on to wear High Court robes. Elizabeth became a student member of the Inner Temple in November 1937 and was called to the bar in 1940. Eight years later, in 1948, she was appointed as a member of the Home Office Committee of Enquiry to examine the use of depositions in criminal trials. Shortly after, in 1950, she was appointed King’s Counsel and in 1962 she became the first woman to be appointed as a judge in the County Court, another huge milestone towards equality for women in law. Three short years later, Elizabeth went on to become the first female High Court judge in England. Elizabeth was then appointed as Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, corresponding to the customary knighthood received on appointment by a male High Court judge. In 1966, Dame Elizabeth was made a bencher of the Inner Temple and in doing so, becoming the first female bencher of any Inn of Court.
These women led the way for females in the legal profession and in doing so changed the course of history for all women today. Having the courage to stand up and fight for your rights in today’s world can be a challenging and daunting task, but as a millennial woman living in a world where change happens much more frequently and at a quicker pace than it would have in the 1800s and 1900s, where people are far less inclined to sit back and accept that they cannot change the wrongs in society and when choosing to take a stand against those wrongs, often do so with the support and backing of the masses thanks to the help of the internet and social media.
One can only imagine the bravery it must have taken for these women to stand up for the change they wanted to see at a time without technology when tradition and men largely dictated the future.
References, images and sources courtesy of Wikipedia, for a full list of references see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_law_in_the_United_Kingdom