- 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, 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.
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 .
‘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.
Bebb v The Law Society  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.