As International Women’s Day approaches, on Friday 8 March, Catherine Urquhart reflects on the progress made by women in the law – and the distance yet to travel
The idea that women could not qualify as barristers or solicitors now seems extraordinary – but a century ago, there were none. Not until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed could women enter the legal profession.
The first woman to be called to the Bar of England and Wales, in 1922, was Dr Ivy Williams, who joined Inner Temple at the age of 42 – long after passing her law examinations at Oxford University in 1903.
The first practising woman barrister was Helena Normanton, who in 1919 applied to be admitted to Middle Temple within 48 hours of the change in the law. She went on to achieve many firsts – such as being the first woman to appear in the High Court, and in 1949 she became the first female King’s Counsel, along with Rose Heilbron, who achieved this feat at the remarkably young age of 34.
To mark the achievements of these and many other trailblazing female lawyers, a raft of events takes place throughout 2019, many spearheaded by the First 100 Years project (https://first100years.org.uk/), which is collecting stories of pioneering female lawyers and their modern contemporaries and creating a digital museum of their achievements.
In America, women lawyers fought similar battles for recognition. ‘On the Basis of Sex’ is currently in cinemas, a film about the achievements of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is now a justice in the US Supreme Court – but a scene from the 1950s provokes shock in contemporary cinemagoers, when Ms Ginsberg is invited to explain why she should have a place at Harvard Law School ‘that could have gone to a man’.
Even today, sexist attitudes persist towards female lawyers in some quarters, and there is still work to be done. For example, although for the first time the Supreme Court has a female President in Baroness Hale, there are only three female justices in the 12-seat Supreme Court, and the number of women in the higher echelons of the judiciary remains low.
To coincide with International Women’s Day there are events aimed at helping today’s female lawyers achieve equality in the workplace. For example, Inner Temple (www.innertemple.org.uk) is holding a Women in Law event on March 8, whilst Women in the Law (www.womeninthelawuk.co.uk) holds regular events aimed at networking with and supporting the next generation of lawyers and women in business.
Today Ely Place Chambers’ female members, working across all Chambers’ practice areas, are pleased to follow in the footsteps of the pioneering women who have broken who have broken down barriers over the last century.