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Passing the baton from the first century to the next: 100 years of women in law

by Dana Denis-Smith
6 December 2019

“I shall forever be grateful to the first because she welcomed me with open arms”, said Baroness Hale in her video biography recorded by First 100 Years in 2016.

As a first herself, it was inspiring to hear the tribute Lady Hale paid to previous generations of women that fought to gain access to the legal profession before the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, as well as those who fought to stay in the profession once they qualified, from 1922 onwards.

On 23 December, we mark 100 years since the 1919 Act opened the door for women to become lawyers: to qualify as solicitors or barristers and sit as magistrates or judges and on juries.

A day to celebrate but also to remember, as Baroness Hale rightly put it, that women “have come a long way, but we haven’t come the whole day”.

The First 100 Years campaign was inspired by a photograph from 1982 – one woman in the middle of a group of black tie-clad men in front of a livery hall as they marked the firm’s 150th anniversary.

This was the image of pretty much any law firm partnership in the City of London and yet it was not taken a million years ago – but within my lifetime.

I became curious to understand how long women had been in practice and why they were absent from the picture of what the legal profession looks like.

I became motivated to spend my spare time outside of my day job as CEO at Obelisk Support on a journey of discovery to ensure that we recovered and collected those untold stories of unsung heroines that have long been forgotten – from Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts, Gwyneth Bebb, Helena Normanton, Ivy Williams, Rose Heilbron, Elizabeth Lane, to name but a few ‘firsts’.

All of them persistent women who never gave up as they were excluded from mess in Hall or had no toilets available to them in the institutions they were expected to spend their working lives.

Times have changed in the intervening years and now over half the those admitted to the Law Society are women.

A problem still exists though; women are entering the profession in their droves but in the top echelons of the profession, this percentage is no longer the case.

Only around 18% of QCs are women, and equity partnership is stuck in the same range of between 18 to 20% at most law firms.

The top courts are still not reflective of the society they serve. The Supreme Court, which enjoyed a few years with three out of 12 justices being women, will return to 17% female representation from January 2020.

The First 100 Years was our attempt to view the achievements of women lawyers in a historic context, positively, in contrast to the negative narrative of the diversity debate.

We created an interactive and engaging story of professional women to inspire the generations that are coming through, as well as to record the progress of women in the profession in video interviews, though our exhibition, podcasts and our book, First: 100 Years of Women in Law.

These contributions have become a valuable resource centre for the future, with the archive being donated to the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.

I would say for the next 100 years, we should continue to emphasise the successes and recognise the change that has happened, and the diversity of choice that women now have as they embark on their legal life.

Diversity on its own is important, of course. Equally important is to have the choice to go down different routes as a professional woman.

It was only 30 years ago when women at the top of the profession were lone voices.

As we enter the next century of women in law, in a profession that is increasingly female, it is important to move from the tactical to the strategic in the changes we ask for and seek.

Whilst the first women were isolated as the only female voice in the room, the newer generations can build on the legacy of the First 100 Years by building a stronger coalition of voices to ask for equal opportunity in leadership, equal pay and better work allocation, to name but a few sticky issues we can prioritise in the next decade.

Dana Denis-Smith
Founder of the First 100 Years project

From early campaigners through to the first women solicitors, barristers, magistrates and judges, FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law tells the often untold stories of the pioneers, reformers and influencers who paved the way, revealing the barriers they faced, their challenges and triumphs.

Find out more and order the book

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