Women in Law: Commemorating the first 100 years

NPG x90837; Helena Florence Normanton by Elliott & Fry

Helena Normanton was first called to the bar in November 1922, shown here  in 1950 shortly after becoming the one of the first female King’s Counsel with Rose Heilbron. [Copyright The National Portrait Gallery]

 

Ten years ago, in October 2006, I was formally called to the Bar of England and Wales.  It was an evening to remember and came at the end of, what I then felt, had been a lot of hard work.  I had applied to become a member of Lincoln’s Inn in February 2003 whilst a history undergrad at Royal Holloway.  I graduated in 2004 before completing the Graduate Diploma in Law and the Bar Vocational Course at The College of Law (as it was then known).  How little did I realise how easy it had been for me to take these first steps in my career as a lawyer.

When I applied to Lincoln’s Inn in 2003 it didn’t occur to me that I could be refused entry merely Because I am a woman and yet this is what happened to any woman who applied to join the Inns of Court or the Law Society before 23 December 1919.  This is when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, received Royal Assent.  This Act removed any barrier to women, including married women, working as lawyers on the grounds of their sex.

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Herbert Railton, Gray’s Inn (1895), where Bertha Cave was denied admission in 1903. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The approaching centenary of the passing of the 1919 Act is an opportune moment to look back and consider how much has been achieved by women in the law in the past one-hundred years and a number of projects have been set up to mark this anniversary.  The First 100 Years (@First100years) a public history project, is an interesting introduction to the topic of women’s legal history and a good starting point for further research.  Supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, the project charts the progress of women in the law from 1919 to the present day and in 2019 will be archived by the British Museum.

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Gwyneth Bebb with her daughter Diana (1919)   Image: The First 100 Years

The project’s timeline profiles pioneering women like Bertha Cave who, when her application to Gray’s Inn was refused by the Benchers, sought (unsuccessfully) to appeal that decision; and Gwyneth Bebb whose application to be admitted to the Law Society ended up in the Court of Appeal.  ‘In point of intelligence and education and competency’ the Court of Appeal acknowledged that Miss Bebb was ‘probably, far better than’ many male candidates but, because she was a woman, in 1913 she could not be admitted to the Law Society [1].

‘The First Women Lawyers in England, Wales and the Empire Symposia’ established in 2015 by Dr Judith Bourne of St Mary’s University, brings together academics and researchers working in the field of women’s legal history.   This is a five-year project and the next symposium, in 2017, will look at the women who, in 1922, became the first female barristers and solicitors.  Tragically, despite her earlier efforts, Gwyneth Bebb is not amongst their number as she died in 1921 following the birth (and death) of her second baby.  The pioneering women who will be considered include Ivy Williams, the first woman to be called to the Bar (as reported by The Guardian in 1922); Helena Normanton, the first woman to practice as a barrister; and Carrie Morrison, the first woman to be admitted as a solicitor.  This programme of events will conclude in 2020 with a symposium looking at “Legacy”.

As a catalyst in the study of women’s legal history, the approaching 1919 anniversary is certainly significant and, aiming to encourage collaboration and the exchange of ideas between those working in this field of study, the School of Advanced Study and Institute of Advanced Legal Studies are holding a conference on Doing Women’s Legal History on 26 October 2016.  As well as topics which obviously commemorate the 1919 anniversary there will be a wider examination on the effects the law has had on the lives of women.  The 1919 anniversary shouldn’t blind us to the fact that while having no official role in the legal system before 1919 the system has certainly had an effect on women’s lives.

 Today,  a third of all practising barristers are women and, over the course of the last five years, more women than men have been called to the Bar.  This is remarkable considering that less than one-hundred years ago women were barred from the profession altogether.  Of course, inequalities remain but, by taking the opportunity afforded by the forthcoming anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 to consider what has been achieved in the last one-hundred years, we can hope to look forward to greater equality in the next one-hundred years.

[1]Bebb v The Law Society [1914] 1 Ch 286 

Katie Broomfield is a current postgraduate student on the MA in Public History at Royal Holloway. We would welcome comments on this post or you can contact Katie via @KRBroomfield on twitter.

If you would like to read more about pioneering female lawyers and their role in inspiring woment today then do visit the Women in the Law: Inspired and Inspirations website,  researched and produced by Charlotte Coleman, a 2015 graduate of the Public History MA.

“PRESERVATION OF MORALITY AND MARRIAGE”: GERMAN CATHOLIC WOMEN AND THE LEBENSBORN PROGRAM

We are delighted to welcome guest blogger and American MA graduate Katie Chaka, who wrote this post about Catholic women’s response to the Nazi Lebensborn programme.

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‘Verein Lebensborn’ Taufe (1935), Bundersarchiv, Bild 146-1981-075-01

 

In Nazi Germany women’s primary function was widely considered to be reproduction. Their roles in German society during the rule of the National Socialist regime were increasingly limited and strictly defined by the traditional ideals of Küche, Kinder, and Kirche (kitchen, children, and church).  Women were expected to embrace the value of their reproductive capabilities and focus primarily on being mothers and moralizers of the nation. One organization that fully capitalized on this gender stereotyping of women, as well as the encouragement of reproduction through eugenic measures, was the Lebensborn programme.

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‘SS Photo’ (1937),  Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99621

Lebensborn, meaning ‘Fount’ or ‘Well of Life’, was launched on 12 December 1935 by the Nazi SS organization under the direction of Heinrich Himmler. This programme aimed to provide “racially healthy” families with welfare aid in order to encourage them to produce larger numbers of children. It also gave maternity and childcare services to unwed mothers who could still provide a racially valuable child to the state outside the boundaries of traditional marriage. This secretive programme consisted of multiple maternity homes where women were able to bring their pregnancies to full term, free from the judgment of traditional societal norms. The Katholischer Deutscher Frauenbund (KDF), was the most liberal Catholic women’s organization with 200,000 members.  It promoted women’s rights within the church and community, and thus particularly resented this type of intrusion by the state into family affairs. As a result, responses from the KDF display a distinct shift from adaptation to opposition in 1935, regarding issues related to motherhood and morality. This shift was largely due to the perceived negative social and religious effects of the Lebensborn program in German society.

As women and as Catholics, they met Hitler’s 1933 appointment as Chancellor with silence, as they awaited an official response from the Vatican in Rome. As Der Gerade Weg, a Catholic weekly journal explained, “The Church can wait. Her great strength lies in this waiting, in her ability to suffer..”.  Due to the  Concordat negotiations between the Vatican and Nazi leaders, women initially attempted to adapt to new Nazi ideas and policies, because Church leaders believed the regime would protect their religious autonomy. The KDF in particular fought to remain autonomous by rejecting mergers from not only Catholic male organizations, but from the NS-Frauenschaft as well. Unfortunately for German Catholics, almost immediately after Concordat negotiations were finished, the Nazi regime began stripping the Catholic community of its religious rights.

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‘Schwester in einem Lebensbornheim’ (1942), Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1973-010-11

Throughout 1934, Catholic institutions began to understand the extent to which Christianity and Nazism were incompatible ideologies. An article in the KDF journal Die Christliche Frau from 1934 argued that the state of modern marriage was a degeneration of its former self and warned against the “national license for sexual excesses”. The article critiqued society by asking its female readership if the Catholic Church even had authority over issues dealing with virginity anymore. Yet Catholic women were about to become increasingly more uncomfortable with the Nazis’ overt deviation from traditional religious norms of morality.

From 1935 onward, there is a perceptible shift that can be seen with regard to responses by the KDF towards issues of morality and motherhood in German society. Therefore, statements made by Catholic women, their organizations, and Church leaders that discuss the crumbling standards of morality should be read as a direct, but also veiled, response to the ideals for which Lebensborn stood, as well as the institution itself. There is no question that this was in response to the public propaganda blitz targeting the German youth on the basis of “biological marriages” instead of traditional marriages, launched that same year. A leading concern for the KDF was the subordination of “many adolescent girls operating in a downright sinister fashion”. It is also no coincidence that this was the year in which Lebensborn was founded. Therefore, the organization created a need for the eradication of Christian moral norms since traditional norms would harm Himmler’s overall goals. While it is unclear if women in the KDF knew the particularities of the Lebensborn program, they openly and consciously disapproved of, and openly responded to, the very foundation that the organization was built on.

KDF women consistently addressed these issues of morality in their writings, correspondence, and educational paths. Secular baptisms, educational classes favoring Germanic roots over religious teachings, and the validation of illegitimacy within Lebensborn homes caused many Catholic women to oppose the Nazi regime through their available outlets. The KDF specifically began to encourage women to educate their families on the sacraments of marriage and baptism within the privacy of their own homes. President Gerta Krabbel also wrote to Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber to inform him that her organization would be taking religious matters into its own hands, due to the lack of support from the male hierarchy of the Church.

As much as KDF women vociferously opposed the encouragement of the regime towards sexual “immorality” and bearing illegitimate children through the Lebensborn programme, they did not take nearly as strong a stance towards the treatment of the Jews and other minorities. Reoccurring themes throughout women’s documents present their willingness to stand up against political issues that they found incompatible with their religious beliefs, yet they did so on a selective basis. Nevertheless, the complicated, and sometimes heavily veiled, responses of Catholic women can greatly add to our understanding of women’s experiences during the Third Reich by giving new insights into how Nazi eugenic policies could conflict with Christian faiths.

Katie Chaka  is an M.A. graduate from Oakland University, Michigan USA.

We would like to thank Katie for her post and encourage other students working on women’s and gender history, in the UK and at overseas HE institutions, to submit posts for consideration.  We are always happy to receive them.