The First Women in Law:

Normanton and Heilbron

In 1949 Helena Normanton and Rose Heilbron, became the first female King’s Counsel     [image: The Guardian]

Celebrating the past to shape the future of women in law

Thursday 4th May, 6.30-8.30pm at Royal Holloway, University of London

2019 will mark 100 years since of the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act which removed any barrier to women working as lawyers on the grounds of their sex.  To celebrate this forthcoming anniversary the Bedford Centre has teamed up with the First 100 Years to run a public panel event and discussion at Royal Holloway, University of London in Egham, Surrey.  We are delighted to welcome three exciting speakers: Dana Denis Smith (First 100 Years), Dr Judith Bourne (Lecturer at St Mary’s University, Twickenham) and Charlotte Coleman,  an alumna of Royal Holloway’s Public History MA whose work on how female lawyers in the past can inspire the next generation you can see and hear at Women in Law: Inspired and Inspirations. All three will explore the  legal and social challenges women faced to become lawyers at the turn of the last century and to highlight how much women have achieved and how history can help ins51hoN4FCT6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_pire and shape the future of women entering the profession now.  Professor Rosie Meek (Head of Royal Holloway’s School of Law) will introduce the event which will be followed by a reception and book signing by Judith Bourne to mark the publication of her new book, Helena Normanton and the Opening of the Bar to Women. We will also celebrate the achievements of Mary Sykes, who graduated from Royal Holloway College in 1917.  In November 1922 women were permitted to sit the Solicitors’ Final Exam, which she passed with honours, and in 1923 she become one of the first female solicitors in England and Wales.

This free public event is open to all, but we are extending an especially warm invitation to Royal Holloway and Bedford College alumnae who have gone on to work in law and any college or 6th Form students who might be considering a legal career.  There will also be refreshments and an opportunity to talk to the panellists, so do join us for what promises to be an enjoyable evening and engaging discussion.  To reserve a place please go to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-first-women-lawyers-tickets-32973122497

We would also welcome any comments relating to this topic and to the event itself so do let us know your thoughts and experiences.

 

 

 

 

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Celebrating the past to shape the future of women in law

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“Get thee behind me (Mrs) Satan!”  A caricature of American suffragist and presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull by Thomas Nast, published in Harpers’ Weekly (February, 1872)    [Wikimedia Commons]

Women’s history has always been ‘political’ but following the US Presidential election it has taken on a new significance, as campaigners for Hillary Clinton revived memories of American suffragists and  the media sought comparisons with previous female presidential candidates.  Former lawyer Katie Broomfield teamed up with fellow Public History MA student Emily Petretta to write this post about the effect the US election result had on them and a conference run by the First 100 Years campaign, which aims to promote gender equality by commemorating inspirational female lawyers.

 

Waking to a cold, rainy, November morning last week, many of us were hoping to hear that America had elected its first female president and despite losing, former lawyer Hillary Clinton certainly came closer than any woman before her.   She was not, however, the first woman to run for president nor was she the first woman to seek selection as the Democratic Party’s nominee.  Those honours fall to Victoria Woodhull, who announced her intention to run for president in the New York Herald in April 1870; and to the first black congresswoman  Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 also became the first woman to contend (albeit unsuccessfully) for the Democratic Party’s nomination.  Unsurprisingly, at a time when women were still denied the vote, in both Britain and America, Victoria Woodhull also failed to win the nomination of any major party.  A prominent women’s rights campaigner and advocate of Free Love,  she was known as Wicked Woodhull and spent election day in prison after having been arrested under the Comstock Laws for sending ‘obscene’ letters.  Hillary Clinton faced similar media attacks and, following accusations that she should be in jail for her use of a private email server, was dubbed Crooked Hillary by supporters of Donald Trump.  Many commentators have viewed these as misogynistic,  and speaking in 1982, Shirley Chisholm was clear that she ‘met more discrimination as a woman than for being black’.

have-women-been-trumpedPanel, chaired by Dame Jenni Murray, discussing ‘Have Women Been Trumped?’   [Image: Katie Broomfield]

On the day of the election results a more positive outlook for women was presented at the Second Annual Spark 21 Conference organised by the First 100 Years project with the aim of celebrating the past to shape the future of women in law.  Starting with a video interview of Baroness Hale, the first and still the only female Justice of the Supreme Court, the overriding theme of the day was one of optimism and courage.  A panel discussion on ‘Have Women Been Trumped?’ ended in spontaneous applause following a comment from the audience that Hillary Clinton should not be dismissed as a loser but celebrated for her courage, resilience and tenacity.  She gave it a go and as Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC said this is the best advice for success.  Sharing advice that she was once given Vanessa Davies urged women to have courage and remember that we have as good a chance as any and a better chance than many.

Speakers highlighted that by supporting each other women can achieve greater equality and diversity. Caroline Criado-Perez emphasized that she tries never to criticise other women on social media; Sarah Davis explained that by exerting their buying power women can and should support each other to force change; and Funke Abimbola emphasised how mentoring, coaching and sponsorship can provide mutual help and support.  Of course, this does not always happen.  On Tuesday, we assumed that the women pictured on twitter queuing to place ‘I voted’ stickers on the grave of suffragist Susan B Anthony were representative of broad female support for Hillary but, while New York State voted for her, over 50% of white women who voted, did so for Trump.  This highlights the importance of women’s history and the need for more public role models, like the suffragists, to remind women what we can achieve when we work together.

Underlining why the First 100 Years project is so important, Katherine McMahon revealed that when she was researching her book The Crimson Rooms she found virtually nothing written about early female lawyers.  In an attempt to rectify the absence of pioneering women from our public history, Caroline Criado-Perez, having already led a successful campaign for a woman (Jane Austen) to appear on a Bank of England bank note, outlined her next campaign to put the statue of a suffragist in Parliament Square in celebration of the centenary of votes for (some) women in 2018.

 

liz-trussLiz Truss speaking at the Second Annual Spark 21 Conference before presenting the Inspirational Women in Law Award [Image: Katie Broomfield]

 

As public role models go, Liz Truss, the first female Lord Chancellor in 800 years, is surely high on the list.  Although her appearance at the conference was overshadowed by recent events she certainly had some promising things to say about the judiciary, gender equality and diversity before presenting the Inspirational Women in Law Award to Keily Blair.  Keily’s prize was a limited edition toilet roll in a presentation bell jar symbolising the alleged lack of female toilet facilities at law firms and legal institutions which was used as an excuse to avoid the employment of women.  It is a striking visual representation of the barriers put up to women entering the legal profession; a reminder that these barriers can be overcome; and a demonstration that learning about women’s history can give us courage to overcome the barriers put up today.

 

Katie Broomfield (@KRBroomfield) and Emily Petretta (@EmilyPetretta) are both students on Royal Holloway’s MA in Public History

 

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.

herbert_railton_-_grays_inn

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.