When I was thinking about which women to write about in this article, I realised that there are a huge number of women I wanted to include for their role in breaking down boundaries in the legal world. I thought about the first female barristers, the first female QC’s, the first female judges all of them remarkable individuals. However while almost wanting to write a list of women who inspired me to study law, and writing a small caption on who they were and why, I decided to focus on 3 women in particular. Dr Ivy Williams, the first woman to be admitted to the bar; Rose Heilbron, one of the first 2 female QCs; and Dame Elizabeth Lane, the first female judge and first female High Court judge in England and Wales.
A cartoon of a woman wearing a large barrister's wig, before women were allowed to practise law
The most prestigious positions in law are still dominated by men even today, a QC I once worked for said ‘there are more women in law, but the men are still at the top’ those positions may only come available once the male elite has retired. Undoubtedly this will happen eventually, however women are still being prevented in gaining their fair share of the jobs at the top of the hierarchy. In an article in the Guardian, Lady Justice Hallett expressed her own disappointment at the failure of the judiciary to reflect the society they serve:
“A number of women may have made it to the very top of the profession but, as in other sections of society, there is still a long way to go. For reasons I cannot fathom, I remain the only woman to have been elected chairman of the bar (back in 1998).”
I am not trying to blame the unemployment rate among law students on old fashioned misogyny of course, but when you look at the number of female law graduates for the last few decades and compare it to the sex of judges and high profile lawyers in England and Wales, there are huge inconsistencies. This indicates that the close knit boys club that houses the wealthy white male barrister still exists, at the top at least.
Dr Ivy Williams
One of the first true pioneers of women at the bar is Dr Ivy Williams. She had taken all her law exams by 1903, but university regulations at the time prevented her receiving her qualifications. However, when the regulations in the UK on female students were changed in 1920, she was finally able to graduate along with many other women.
Dr Ivy Williams: The first woman to be called to the bar
She was determined to join the bar now that the laws had changed and she ultimately sought to provide free legal advice to the poor. In 1921 she wrote an article for Woman’s World magazine, stating that she would petition parliament if she was prevented from joining the bar.
However, luckily she secured the support of some influential members of the Inner Temple – the Inn where she was a member and she was called to the bar in 1922. Although she never actually practised as a barrister she paved the way for women to take up the legal profession which was inaccessible and one of the last professions to accept women. She was the first woman to be awarded a Doctorate of Civil Laws and the first woman to teach law at an English university, by teaching law she also inspired other women to go to the bar.
Before writing this article I spoke to my grandma about women in law, she told me about her legal idol Rose Heilbron, who had attended the same primary school in the years preceding my grandmother. I later realised what an important figure she had been in law, especially regarding her law report on the reform of rape laws. Heilbron recommended anonymity was to be given to complainants to encourage them to come forward. In the 1975 law report she also urged for the defence to be limited in their capacity to cross examine the complainant about their sexual history to intimidate them and paint them in bad character.
First female QCs: Helena Normanton left and Rose Heilbron on the right
She was of Jewish descent, from Liverpool and was the prominent leader of the Northern circuit. She was called to the bar in 1939 and she was one of the two first female QCs (then still King’s Counsel) along with Helena Normanton. A calm and collected advocate, she charmed juries and was hugely admired in court for her thoroughness and her style.
Dame Elizabeth Kathleen Lane
Being a member of the Inner Temple myself, I was quite excited to find so many impressive women have been members of that Inn. Like Dr Ivy Williams, Dame Elizabeth Lane, the first female judge and the first woman to sit in the High Court, was also a member. In her biography she writes about finding her way to the bar ‘by accident’, while helping her husband with his legal studies. Her stories of her childhood and her dislike for schoolwork remind me of my own schooldays. Cramming late at night with a torch under the bedclothes, training her memory for the quick absorption of facts, ideal for reading a barrister’s brief that will soon be forgotten again after the case.
Dame Elizabeth Kathleen Lane: First female judge in the UK
Although she only started her pupillage later in life in 1941 at the age of 36 and she soon began a fast paced and successful career in the late 1940s. After obtaining Silk, she was appointed as the first woman commissioner of Manchester Crown Court, where she was addressed as ‘My Lord’, and referred to in the official calendar as ‘Mr Commissioner, Elizabeth Kathleen Lane QC’ in defiance of rationality and common sense. She became the first appointed female county court judge in 1962 and the first woman to be appointed to the High Court in 1965. She was an intelligent, compassionate and hardworking woman who is credited with finally introducing ‘Your Ladyship’ to the legal vocabulary.
Women who entered the legal profession were undoubtedly faced with a huge number of obstacles and hostility during a time when law was such a male dominated area. They must have been remarkable people of exceptionally strong character. Their determination paved the way for great women that followed in their footsteps to pursue a successful career in law. It’s funny to think that over half a century later, it is women who dominate law studies at university. If the judiciary is to truly reflect the society it regulates women should also gain more respect and status in the legal profession.