Book review: Women’s legal landmarks: celebrating the history of women & law in the UK & Ireland


  • Editors: Erika Rackley and Rosemary Auchmuty
  • Publisher: Hart Publishing (2018)
  • ISBN: 9781782259794


If there is one message to take away from Women’s Legal Landmarks it is perhaps this from Anne Morris in Chapter 52: ‘Despite the misgivings of some… the law can prove a powerful mechanism for change in the hands of determined women.’

It will come as no surprise to anyone who trawls the annals of Twitter that 2019, as the centenary of women’s admission into the legal profession, has seen an impassioned campaign in the form of the ‘First 100 Years’ movement. This book serves to carry through that core theme; that it is through celebrating the achievements of women that we will understand the fundamental role of female lawyers and academics and, more specifically, their involvement in the production of law, law reform and justice.

My real fear when I first picked up this work was that it might set a condescending tone. The general feel of First 100 Years has very much been one of celebration rather than to simply criticise the lack of the female inclusion and perspective within the study and practice of law. It would have been extremely easy, and near instinctual perhaps, to be consumed by negativity when a project like this naturally sheds light on the extreme difficulties women have faced and continue face as both subjects and practitioners of the law.

However, this anthological culmination of a four-year collaboration, led by Erika Rackley and Rosemary Auchmuty, does not take the obviously populist path. The collection charts legal landmarks of women across 11 centuries and, true to the scholarly nature of its contributors, each chapter, written by a different author, strikes an admirable balance between scholarship and commentary. I ought to have realised, having had the fortune of being taught by Dr Rackley when a law student at the University of Durham, that any project she was involved in would reflect her commitment, and that of all the contributors, to establishing an academic discipline of feminist legal history. To pontificate or lecture would simply not fit the style of the incredibly accomplished women who have collaborated on this project and I found myself reprimanding myself for even briefly considering it a possibility. The focus on the lived experience of women and their struggle within the law strikes a powerful rhetoric.

"Empirical, scholarly evidence that however far we might have left to travel, women in the law have the strength, determination and history to get us there."

That is not to say that the book shies away from the widespread marginalisation of women within the discipline – it forms a significant strand of the narrative – yet each landmark selected is one that was positive for women and advanced the cause. For example, the chapter on s 14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which creates a strict liability offence to pay for the sexual services of a person who has been coerced or forced into prostitution, focuses on the fact that the consultation for this provision was the first time that feminists were actively involved in the law reform process from the outset. Moreover, the effect of s 14 serves to shift ‘legislative attention away from women and onto the choices of men’, rendering it a remarkable landmark in terms of both process and statutory effect. The projected tone is very much that the struggles faced and overcome are a positive lesson in effecting future change.

This is a scholarly work that seeks to consolidate historical and legal academia in a comprehensive tome. Whilst it is successful in that endeavour, this approach could also render it a difficult set of writings to engage with and true immersion never quite attainable. On the contrary, the many unique voices strike a sense of cohesion and commonality that permeates every page. Had this been authored by a single individual it might have been indigestible, but the many authors, and their own observations within each chapter, allow the reader a respite from the often weighty matters contained therein.

Personally, the book provided me with answers as to our heritage as women in the law. It gave me a lineage, a shared perspective, accomplishments of my ancestors from which I have reaped benefit and extract pride; it showed me how far down the road we have come as a gender. It made me truly grapple with the question, ‘how much further do we have to go to achieve equality?’ But more than all of that, this work gave me empirical, scholarly evidence that however far we might have left to travel, women in the law have the strength, determination and history to get us there.

Reviewer: Aadhithya Anbahan has a housing and regulatory practice at St Ives Chambers appearing in the High Court, circuit courts, district courts and magistrates’ courts.

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Aadhithya Anbahan

Aadhithya has a criminal practice at St Ives Chambers including defence work in the Crown, magistrates’ and youth courts.