Women in law: a century of change

On 23 December 2019 the legal world celebrated the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which first allowed women to enter the legal professions. Celebrations have already been going on for a while, most notably through the First Hundred Years project. There have been events, lectures, podcasts and books all marking the progress of women in the legal professions over the last century.

That progress was, initially, slow. Speaking recently at the BACFI Denning Lecture on 4 December 2019, Lady Hale, President of the Supreme Court noted:

‘how long it took for [women] to gain a real foothold in the professions – as late as 1970, 50 years after the [1919 Act], women were still only 5.8% of practising barristers and 3.3% of practising solicitors; but the proportions have leapt over the succeeding 50 years, so that the latest available figures show that women are 36% of practising barristers and just over half of practising solicitors’.

In her lecture Hale examined the progress of women in law in the context of women’s rights more generally, both in the workplace and at home, with various forms of discrimination and oppression being removed eventually – often only after hard-won battles for public and parliamentary recognition.

The First Hundred Years

A good way to chart the long slow march of progress for women in law is to listen to the decade-by-decade discussions recorded in the First Hundred Years project’s podcasts. Each 45-minute discussion between legal pioneers, historians, academics and legal practitioners is based on key themes, including gender stereotypes, the work/life balance and diversity.

As well as capturing the key developments, the discussions also record some of the abject silliness women encountered in the workplace, such as the excuse that chambers didn’t have a female lavatory so, if admitted at all, any women members or pupils would have to go and use the loos in a coffee bar in Fleet Street. (Did the Inns themselves not provide toilets for their staff and guests?) Another mild absurdity was the initial insistence on using the title “Lord Justice” for Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss (as she then was) although, as Lord Donaldson MR pointed out at the time, his own wife was Lord Mayor of London. And we have recently (if rather briefly) had our first female Lord Chancellor without it being seriously suggested that Liz Truss MP should be called Lady Chancellor.

Among the ‘firsts’ recorded on the Timeline of the project’s Digital Museum are:

1892: Cornelia Sorabji, an Indian graduate, becomes the first woman at Oxford University to sit the Bachelor of Civil Law examinations. However, she could not officially receive a degree until after the 1919 Act, nearly 30 years later. She was also the first female advocate in India.

1920 (after the 1919 Act came into force): Madge Easton Anderson becomes the first female solicitor in the UK. In the same year, the first female jurors in England were sworn in at Bristol Quarter Sessions.

1922: Ivy Williams is the first woman to be called to the English Bar, though she never practised, instead becoming the first woman to teach law at an English university. Helena Normanton, called later the same year, becomes the first woman to practise as a barrister in England.

1945: Sybil Campbell becomes the first woman to be appointed to the professional judiciary full-time, becoming a stipendiary magistrate at Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court.

1949: Rose Heilbron (after only 10 years’ call) and Helena Normanton become the first two women appointed King’s Counsel at the English Bar. Heilbron went on to be the first woman to lead an English murder case (1950), the first appointed woman Recorder (1956) and the first woman judge to sit in the Old Bailey (1972).

1962: Elizabeth Lane appointed first female judge in the County Court. She went on to become the first woman High Court judge (1965), assigned to the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division. She eventually persuaded practitioners to refer to her as ‘Your Ladyship’.

1974: Barbara Calvert QC becomes first female head of chambers in the Temple, having founded chambers at 4 Brick Court with three other women.

1979: Margaret Thatcher, a barrister, becomes the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

1984: Brenda Hale becomes first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission.

1988: Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss is the first woman appointed as a Lord Justice of Appeal. Her title was later changed to Lady Justice. She went on to be the first female President of the Family Division (1999).

1990: Barbara Mills becomes the first female Director of the Serious Fraud Office. Mills went on to be the first female Director of Public Prosecutions (1992).

1991: Patricia Scotland (later Baroness Scotland of Asthal) becomes the first black woman to be appointed to Queen’s Counsel. She went on to become the first woman Attorney General for England and Wales (2007) and the first woman Secretary General of the Commonwealth (2016).

1998: Heather Hallett QC elected first woman chair of Bar Council.

2001: Harriet Harman MP becomes the first woman Law Officer, appointed Solicitor General.

2002: Carolyn Kirby elected the first female President of the Law Society of England and Wales.

2004: Lady Hale is first woman to join the House of Lords as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. Hale went on to be the first woman Justice of the Supreme Court (2009) and the first to be its President (2017).

To learn more about some of these pioneers, there is currently an exhibition at Middle Temple, where many of them were members. Celebrating a Century of Women in Law consists of 25 portraits of women Middle Templars over the last 100 years as well as a digital exhibition of many more of the Inn’s distinguished women members. It runs until Friday, 31 January 2020.

The next hundred years

Lady Hale’s BACFI lecture is titled ‘Women in law – the next 100 years’ and she devotes its concluding pages to what still needs to be done to complete the process begun with the 1919 Act. First, she says:

‘we need genuinely equal opportunities and equal treatment in the legal profession. We know that women are joining the profession in equal if not greater numbers than men. But they are not making it to the top in private practice, either at the Bar or in solicitors’ firms.’

Owing to what had been referred to as ‘gendered instructions’ and unequal briefing practices, particularly for corporate clients, the proportion of women appearing before senior appellate courts was much lower than that of men, and that was even more noticeable in the Supreme Court.

Following on from that, ‘we need genuine equality of opportunity and equal treatment in the judiciary’. We need, she said:

‘to find ways of assessing judicial potential which do not focus on experience of advocacy in the courts in question. We need to find ways of enabling women who took a different career path to enter and make progress in the judiciary.’

Other problems were of a more general nature, not confined to the legal professions, but sometimes exacerbated by the demands of self-employed practice: sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, and the gender pay gap. But there was also a need to “maintain the recognition of the family as its own little social security system” and to “recognise and condemn the discriminatory effect of certain policies in the field of social welfare”. Despite all these tasks ahead, Lady Hale concludes on a note of optimism:

‘My hope for the next 100 ears is that the parity which women have achieved in joining the profession will lead both women and men to do whatever they can to promote the cause of women’s equality in the future – not all women are feminists but many men are and that gives us hope for the future.’

Paul Magrath is head of product development at the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales (ICLR) and a member of the Transparency Project. He is one of three authors of Transparency in the Family Courts: Publicity and Privacy in Practice.

Written by Paul Magrath

Paul Magrath is head of product development at the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales (ICLR) and a member of the Transparency Project. He is one of three authors of Transparency in the Family Courts: Publicity and Privacy in Practice.

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