Trailblazing solicitors: the women who broke the barrier

It’s been 100 years since the first women qualified as solicitors in England and Wales. To celebrate this milestone, Dana Denis-Smith looks back at where it all began – with the first women admitted to the roll. Dana explores who they were, their journey into the law and their achievements throughout their historic careers.
Black and white photograph of Carrie Morrison, a white woman with dark hair pinned up, wearing a dark buttoned dress with lace collar (1920s)

On 18 December 1922, decades of wait came to an end when the first woman, Carrie Morrison, was admitted to the roll of solicitors by the Law Society of England and Wales.

Morrison was promptly followed by three others – Maud Isabel Crofts, Mary Elizabeth Pickup and Mary Elaine Sykes – who were all admitted to the roll in early 1923.

Just nine years before, the Bebb v Law Society case had reconfirmed that women were not allowed to join the profession as they were not classified as ‘persons’ under the Solicitors Act 1843.

In 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act at last opened the profession to women – 97 years after the Law Society was established.

Delve into the full timeline

Lawyers leading the way

The legal profession was ahead of other areas, including architecture, veterinary surgery, chartered accountancy, the Institute of Naval Architects, and scientific engineering societies.

On 6 October 1922, the Vote reported: “There are between 60 and 70 women articled clerks now studying to become solicitors. Many of these are the daughters of country solicitors who have no sons, or else have lost them in the war, and who have articled their girls instead, to keep the practice in the family.”

The mood was optimistic as the first generation of women qualified as solicitors and barristers:

“There is plenty of work for the women solicitors; we have received several inquiries from women asking for the names of women solicitors in whose hands they can place their business. We have had to return the letters, but now I shall recommend London enquirers to get in touch with Mrs. Crofts for family business and with Miss Morrison for litigation cases.”  – Law Society statement, Daily News, 2 December 1922.

By the end of 1922, as well as four women solicitors, hundreds of women were sitting as magistrates and 11 women had been called to the bar.

At the time, these four women were hailed as legal trailblazers for women solicitors in England and Wales.

They shared the limelight in this unique moment in the history of the profession, only to be entirely forgotten for most of their careers – and beyond.

Meet the first four

Carrie Morrison: world traveller, paving the way for women

“I am making arrangements to practise immediately."

Morrison was 34 when she completed her articles and became the first woman admitted to the Law Society roll on 18 December 1922.

She came to law following an extraordinarily varied career:

  • by the age of 12, she had been taken on a tour around the world, before enrolling at the Manchester High School for Girls
  • she was a first-class medieval and modern languages student at Cambridge University
  • during World War I she took roles both in the UK and abroad, including supporting the International Labour Office in Istanbul

“I am not so sure that the view held by some people that a woman solicitor will attract women clients is a sound one. Most women like to consult men about their affairs. Still. I can conceive cases in which they would first consult one of their sisters.”

By 21 December 1922, Morrison had received her first clients: two women.

Despite Morrison’s extraordinary achievements, throughout her career she was described as a “poor man’s lawyer”.

“I like common law work best, but one cannot pick and choose when it’s a question of bread and butter”, said Morrison.

Learn more about Carrie

Maud Crofts: author and public broadcaster

“We women want not privileges but equality.”

The daughter of a barrister, Maud Crofts was one of the original plaintiffs in the famous test case at Bebb v The Law Society in 1913.

Crofts was a contemporary of Carrie Morrison at Girton College, Cambridge, where she read history and law.

She, too, was in her 30s by the time she qualified and decided to go into practice with her husband shortly after marrying.

In 1925, Croft published Women under English Law, a succinct description of women’s legal status at that time.

It was the first book to be written by a British woman lawyer on women’s position in society.

This led to her becoming a BBC presenter in 1928, focusing on “the law and the home” in a series of talks in which she discussed “the laws relating to husband and wife, parent and child, and domestic concerns”.

There was no obituary to catalogue her many achievements at the end of her life – just a simple newspaper notice placed by her two surviving children, on 18 January 1965.

Learn more about Maud

Mary Pickup: from working-class roots to solicitor

“I am convinced that there is a field open to women solicitors to do certain types of work.”

Born in 1881, Pickup was a true champion for equality and women’s rights and a force to be reckoned with.

Her labourer grandfather, John Snoddy, had moved his family from poverty in London’s East End to Pembroke Dock, a small but thriving town in West Wales.

Her father qualified as an engine fitter and eventually became president of the Pembrokeshire Permanent Building Society.

He could therefore afford to send Mary to the University of Wales in Aberystwyth where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree.

After her degree, Pickup went to work in the offices of Thomas William Pickup, a Birmingham solicitor, whom she married in 1910.

Pickup was not shy of campaigning for her beliefs. She would often address women’s meetings and literary societies where she would fight for equality, peace and the betterment of the lives of women and girls – in the local community and worldwide. For example, Pickup was elected as the president of the Birmingham Soroptimist Society.

Pickup achieved all she did alongside raising her family and running a home.

This is testament to her admirable energy, determination and passion.

She died young, at 57, in 1938 – 15 years after being admitted.

Learn more about Mary

Mary Sykes: small law firm owner from Huddersfield becomes Mayor

“I hope to be able to do something for the women and children of the town.”

Huddersfield’s only practising woman solicitor, Mary Sykes was articled in 1919 “on the very first day that it was known women might qualify to practise in the legal profession”, after having started to work in her father’s law firm in 1918.

In 1922, Sykes represented her first client in court.

She was admitted to the roll in February 1923.

A “general practitioner” with “an acute legal mind”, Sykes later left her father’s firm and set up her own, employing other women in the profession.

She was also involved in local politics, making history as Huddersfield’s first woman alderman in 1937 and again, in 1945, as the first woman to be elected as Lord Mayor of the town.

Sykes practised the longest of the first four – retiring in 1968. She died on 25 February 1981.

The Next 100 Years

The legacy of the first four women solicitors is remarkable – they were the trailblazers of their time and have inspired generations of women who have come after them.

While the legal profession has made significant progress (52.6% of solicitors currently on the roll are women), the work – to achieve gender equality in legal leadership and provide equal opportunities for women to progress in the legal workplace – continues.

We must all play our part in ensuring it does not take another 100 years to achieve this goal.

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