We are now in an age where there are more women on the solicitor’s roll than men (according to the Law Society official statistics for 2017). December 2019 will mark 100 years since the Sex Discrimination Act 1919 was passed so we thought we would look at the history and influence of women in law.
It wasn’t until the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1919 that women were officially allowed to practice law. The first women to pass their law exams at Girton College, Cambridge were Carrie Morrison (pictured), Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes in 1922.
Women however pioneered their place in law before this, going back to the likes of Eliza Orme, the first woman to get a law degree at the University College London, in 1888.
In 1893, Reina Lawrence obtained her Bachelor of Law from the University of London however she was not able to qualify as a Solicitor until after the 1919 Sex Discrimination Act. She didn’t settle for just that though and went on to become the first woman Councillor in London.
In 1913 there was a well known case of Bebb v Law Society where the Court of Appeal held that women did not fall within the legal definition of “persons” who could practice law. Maud Crofts was involved in this case and became a prominent suffragette.
In 1919 Ada Summers became the first female Justice of the Peace and was also the Mayor of Stalybridge from 1919 to 1921.
In 1922, Helena Normanton became the first woman to practice as a Barrister in England and went on to become the first female Barrister in cases at the High Court of Justice. Interestingly she also became the first woman to obtain a divorce for her client and the first female counsel of the Old Bailey in 1924. It wasn’t however until 1933 that the Bar Council announced that women could practice under their maiden name.
In 1922, Carrie Morrison became the first female to be admitted as a Solicitor in England.
1923 saw the Matrimonial Causes Act come into place which meant for the first time women could apply for a divorce based on adultery. Previously this was only available to men as women had to prove additional faults against the husband.
By 1931, almost a decade after Carrie Morrison was admitted as the first female solicitor there were only 100 women qualified as solicitors.
In 1939 Dame Rose Heilbron was one of the first women to be made King’s Counsel. She also later became the first female Recorder (in 1956) and the first female Judge of the Old Bailey (1972). She was influential throughout her career and led the way for the many women who came after her.
It wasn’t however until 1945 that we saw a woman become a full time magistrate. Sybil Campbell was the first woman to work as a full time magistrate and remained so until she retired in 1961.
In 1965 we saw the first female High Court Judge, Elizabeth Lane. Before her no woman had achieved this status.
In 1967 only 2.7% of solicitors were women. This figure then began to rise and in 1997 we saw approximately 32% of solicitors as women.
1975 brought the amended Sex Discrimination Act making it unlawful to discriminate in the work place based on your sex or marital status. This was a significant piece of legislation in relation to sexism in the workplace.
1979 was the first time in UK history that a woman was given the position of Prime Minister when Margaret Thatcher took on the role. We wouldn’t see another female Prime Minister until 37 years later when Theresa May became Prime Minister in 2016.
There was a further significant piece of history in 1984 when Lady Hale became the first female appointed to the Law Commission. She was inspiringly also the youngest person to ever be appointed.
In 1988, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss became the first female Lord Justice of Appeal. This however was 100 years since the first woman, Eliza Orme, obtained a law degree. Dame Butler-Sloss didn’t stop there though and in 1999 she became the first female President of the Family Division of the High Court of Justice.
In 1999 Lady Hale became the first ever female Law Lord. Another historic achievement for women.
It took until the 21st Century to see the first female President of the Law Society when Carolyn Kirby took on the role in 2002. For such an important organisation it is quite surprising that it took until 2002 to see a woman President.
Lady Hale continued to pave the way for women in law when in 2009 she became the first female Justice of the Supreme Court and in 2013 she was appointed the deputy President of the Supreme Court.
It wasn’t until 2014 when the number of women practicing as solicitors overtook the number of men for the first time. Considering the first female solicitor dated back to Carrie Morrison in 1922 it took 92 years for the progression of women to outnumber men within the profession.
In politics it wasn’t until 2016 that we saw the first female Chancellor and Secretary of Justice when Elizabeth Truss was appointed. This was the first time since the position was created in 1707 that a woman was appointed in this role.
Most recently, Lady Hale became the first female President of the Supreme Court in 2017. Some 98 years after the 1919 Sex Discrimination Act allowing women to practice law. She is the first woman to reach this level of Judiciary and has been a pioneer throughout her career. To date only 3 of the 12 Supreme Court Justices are women, including Lady Hale.
There have been some inspiring women who have paved the way for equality in law and whilst we may now be of an age where there are more women practicing as solicitors than men it is still significant that 100 years on there are still very few women in the top positions.
Sadly, sexism is not dead and there is still some way to go to actual equality but hopefully with the likes of women like Lady Hale, an avid advocate for equality for women in law, we will see more balance between men and women in law in hopefully the not too distant future.
One place we feel we have got the balance just right is here at Barber & Co. Family Law. The only slight imbalance is in the spelling:
Jacquie Birkett, Solicitor…Jackie Pemberton, Paralegal, Jackie Riley Receptionist….
Our advice is good because we listen.