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100 Years since women became people

01 November 2017

We’re all familiar with the saying ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’, less well known is that, not so long ago, women weren’t actually considered people at all! 

That’s right, in a ruling which prevented women from qualifying as solicitors, the 1914 Court of Appeal case Bebb v Law Society found that the entire sex of  women failed to fall within the definition of ‘persons’.

1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act

In 1888 Eliza Orme was the first woman to gain a law degree. It was only in 1919 when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force that four women with first class degrees from Cambridge were allowed to pass their law exams and become lawyers.

Once the 1919 Act was passed, determined, intelligent, and inspirational women seized the opportunity which they had so long been denied, to qualify and practice as solicitors. The First 100 Years project is focused on this issue and celebrates, promulgates and, most importantly, remembers the pioneering women of the legal profession from 1919 to the present day.

Access to justice for women

Dana Denis-Smith, journalist, City lawyer, woman in law and entrepreneur, is the founder of the First 100 Years project

“I felt the need to bring a new perspective to the whole diversity debate by creating a coherent history of women in law…. The project is about access to justice.”

The project informs, educates and provides a platform for intelligent debate on the subject. The team is producing a digital museum of 100 video stories which narrates the progress of women in law, and shines an unprecedented light on the positive female role models in the profession over the last century.

Reading the comprehensive timeline is humbling. It details the triumphs and the opposition, struggles and challenges which these women faced because of their choice to practice law.

Many of the stories are relatively unknown - hence the absolute need for this project- and all show great determination and success, not just for women but for the profession as a whole.

Despite the many difficulties women have faced, the project itself is ultimately uplifting and inspiring. Women are making their mark on the profession and we should celebrate every achievement. Baroness Hale being named as President of the Supreme Court and becoming the first woman to lead the judiciary is another great example.

In 2017 only 25% of partners are women

There is no room for complacency and much more needs to be done. Today women represent about 63% of newly qualified and nearly 50% of all solicitors yet at senior levels, women account for only 25% of partners. Equal pay also remains a problem with pay differentials exceeding the national average.

The First 100 Years is helping to challenge this by reminding us of the struggles women lawyers have faced and overcome. Knowledge and remembrance of our history is crucial. As Virginia Woolf said, ‘for most of history, Anonymous was a woman’. Happily, with a mandate to represent, promote and support all solicitors, the Law Society now takes quite a different stance to its 1914 opposition to Gwyneth Bebb. It actively supports the promotion of women in law and works alongside legal businesses to achieve parity in the profession through the Women Lawyers Division a Law Society community dedicated to meeting the needs of all women solicitors throughout their careers.

2018 is the 100th anniversary of women achieving the vote

In 2019 we will celebrate the centenary of women lawyers, and the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. These commemorations fall within my time as president of The Law Society. One of my key themes is engaging and promoting women in leadership in the law. We will be working closely with Dana and many others to deliver a programme of domestic and international work.

We achieve more together

One important thing we learn from the First 100 Years project is that we achieve more together. If you are interested in contributing then please do get in touch and join our efforts to celebrate and continue the success of women and law.

About the First 100 Years is an ambitious video history project documenting the journey of women in the legal profession, from 1919 to present day supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, charting the journey of women in law. The project is powered by Spark21, a charity founded to celebrate, inform and inspire future generation of women in the profession

In 2019 the project will mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time.

Follow Dana Denis-Smith on Twitter

Follow our Diversity & Inclusion team on Twitter

Explore our Women Lawyers Division

Tags: equality | diversity and inclusion

About the author

Christina Blacklaws is the president of the Law Society of England and Wales, a council member for the Women Lawyers Division and the director of innovation at Cripps LLP

Follow Christina on Twitter

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