Since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which first allowed women to practise as lawyers, progress on gender equality has been made, but there is still a way to go. In 2019, the Bar Council announced a drive to mark the centenary of this Act by generating discussion and highlighting the positives about the future for women at the Bar—what will become the next 100 years.
In celebrating the First 100 Years across the profession, it is crucial to take account of the specific obstacles faced by women practising at the Bar in the present as well as the past. The self-employed Bar still presents especially tough challenges for women, for example, as does working at senior levels of the profession. Evidence shows that while there’s an almost equal split of male and female pupils studying to be barristers, the Bar struggles with retention of women—as of December 2017, only 14% of QCs are women. By examining the past, hopefully changes can be made to improve the future.
Key people & milestones in the history of women at the Bar
1878 Janet Wood (Girton College, Cambridge) is the first woman to complete a law degree in the UK. University College London becomes the first university to admit women to law on equal footing to men.
1879 Eliza Orme applies for, and is refused, permission to take the Law Society’s exams to become a solicitor. At the time, women were obliged to take a “Special Exam for Women” of equivalent standard to the men’s degree exam, in which she obtained first-class honours. Women were not granted degrees at Cambridge until 1947.
1888 Eliza Orme becomes the first woman to earn a law degree in England, at University College London. She was 39 years old and already unofficially ‘practicing’ law out of an office in London’s Chancery Lane, where she and a colleague prepared paperwork for property transactions, patent registrations, wills, settlements and mortgages.
1892 Cornelia Sorabji is the first female graduate from Bombay University and the first woman and the first Indian national to study the postgraduate BCL degree at Oxford University. However, she would not receive her degree until 30 years later with the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. She was the first female advocate in India and the first woman to practise law in India and Britain.
1906 Christabel Pankhurst graduates with an LLB from the Victoria University, Manchester (now the University of Manchester). She was the first woman to graduate from the university and the only woman studying law throughout her degree 1903-6. She received first-class honours.
1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 passes, allowing women to enter the legal profession. This law ensured women’s entry into the professions for the first time, after a protracted legal battle. It also stipulated that women would receive their degrees from universities on completion of study, and that women could act on juries and as magistrates.
1919 Ada Jane Summers is the first British woman to sit as a magistrate, sworn in as the first female Justice of the Peace on 31 December 1919, one week after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act.
1920 The first female jurors in England are sworn in at Bristol Quarter Sessions. Women had been summoned to Colchester Quarter Sessions earlier that year, but this was the first time women actually served on a jury. Madge Easton Anderson is the first woman admitted to practise as a professional lawyer in the UK, after qualifying as a solicitor in Scotland.
1922 Dr Ivy Williams is the first woman to be called to the English Bar, although she never practised as a barrister, instead becoming the first woman to teach law at an English university. Ivy described being called to the Bar as "the dream of my life".
1939 Rose Heilbron is called to the Bar and went on to be one of the first two women to be made King’s Counsel, the first female recorder and the first female judge of the Old Bailey.
1945 Sybil Campbell becomes the first woman to be appointed to the professional judiciary full-time, as a stipendiary magistrate at Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court. She remained the only full-time female professional magistrate or judge in England until she retired in 1961.
Lucy Frazer QC, MP and the prime minister’s Solicitor General
Following in my own grandmother's footsteps and practicing as a barrister is something that fills me with tremendous pride. Fortunately, we have come a long way in regard to gender equality since her day and the direction of travel is promising.
Between 2016 and 2017, the proportion of female QCs increased from 13.7% to 14.8%, and I’m also hugely encouraged by the fact that there’s currently a greater proportion of female pupils in comparison to male.
We still need to support and encourage women not only to start at the Bar but to stay there and apply for silk. The proportion of female QCs is still too low at 14.8%. And isn't it shocking that the special shoes that must be worn by new QCs for the formal 'silks' ceremony start at size six, when the average shoe size for a woman is a size five?!
The First 100 Years project focuses on those women who have pioneered in the field of law since 1919. Incidences of birth such as sex, religion or race should never impact anyone's role in the workplace, and this project is so important in celebrating, informing and inspiring the future generations of women in our profession.
I welcome any opportunity to recognise and applaud the work that women do, not least in the field of law, but I also look forward to a future when women are lauded for what they have done as individuals, not for their achievements as women.
I’m confident that the strides we have made, and are continuing to make in so many areas in society, will mean that milestones and headlines that are noteworthy today will soon become the norm, and the future will be one of far greater equality and fairness for women in law and everywhere.
Athena Markides, 2019 chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee (YBC)
For my year as chair of the YBC, there are a number of issues about which I’m really passionate, including pay for the publicly funded Bar, social mobility, equality, diversity and wellbeing. I know this doesn't sound very sexy, but I’m a big believer in data driven decision-making. So I want to focus this year on canvassing views and assembling the evidence that we need to enable us to identify all the relevant issues and to tackle them effectively.
The greatest threat facing young women at the Bar today is burnout. The pressures on all junior practitioners are immense and wellbeing is one of the easiest things to sacrifice, until it isn't. Barristers are expected to give their all to their profession, and women are expected to give their all to their family. Even candidates on The Apprentice don't give more than 110%.
In terms of the next 100 years of gender equality at the Bar, we've gone from a ratio of one to a few thousand to roughly 50:50 for new pupils over the past 100 years, which is obviously hugely encouraging. The main problem today is in relation to retention—particularly for women around ten years post-qualification. I hope that a future focus on wellbeing and flexible working will help more women thrive in the profession for longer.
I was recently reading about Helena Normanton QC. She'd be a remarkable pupil today: the daughter of a piano maker and a grocer, who trained as a teacher before forging a path to the Bar. She’s all the more remarkable for the fact that she also forged that path for every other woman practising at the bar of England and Wales.
Her petition to the House of Lords led to the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and in that year Helena Normanton was able to secure admission to Middle Temple and become the first woman to practise at the Bar. I don't know what the Bar would look like today if it weren't for Helena and women like her. And I'm glad I don't have to.
Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the First 100 Years Campaign. Also former Linklaters lawyer and founder of Obelisk Support—the UK's largest pool of legal talent, helping ex-City lawyers to work flexibly around their family or other personal commitments.
I started the First 100 Years in 2014 as a five-year campaign to build the largest digital archive charting the journey of women in law since 1919, when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed to open the door to women entering the professions, including the Bar. In the past four years, we collated much archival material, commissioned original biographical films, organised events with a focus on celebrating the past to ensure a more equal future for all in the legal profession.
I was inspired to start the project by a photograph, from 1982, in which a group of partners celebrated the 150th anniversary of their city law firm—in the photo, there was just one woman in the middle. It prompted me to find out when women started to enter the profession and realised how recent it all was. I felt it was important to record and collect the voices of women that became trailblazers in the profession and turn them into role models for generations to come.
This body of material we produced over five years will be donated to a public library to be used by generations to come. I’m hoping this will ensure that history remembers the numerous women that have worked hard to break into the professions at a time they would have often been the only woman in the room. I hope also that by setting the whole diversity discussion into its historic context we are more likely to acknowledge the progress made in the first 100 years as well as to identify the key areas of change we need to focus on for the next 100 years.
At the time the 1919 Act was passed, the House of Commons had just one woman MP, so throughout history male allies—or #HelpfulMen—have been instrumental in supporting women entering the professions, so now we need them to also support women having a whole career in law, to include taking silk, progressing in the judiciary and taking more leadership positions.
My biggest hope is that in 100 years' time the whole concept of 'gender equality' won't be required and that women and men will be not just equal participants in the legal profession, as is the case now, but equally represented at all levels in the profession and equally rewarded for their work.
Interviews originally given to the Bar Council, used here with permission. For more information on The Next 100 Years Campaign, visit barcouncil.org.uk