Know your history: First Hundred Years

A project documenting the heritage of women in law has blossomed into a wider movement. Its founder Dana Denis-Smith picks some inspirational examples, past and present, public and personal

If someone had asked me to name a woman lawyer that inspired me when I was in practice at Linklaters, just 10 years ago, I would have struggled. I cannot recall any of the books during my legal education highlighting judgments by women to mark their contribution to the profession. They just didn’t seem to be included in the mainstream.

While training, there was an associate just a few years ahead of me – Jessica Gladstone (she is now a partner at Clifford Chance) – whom I found to have a very balanced view of the world of law and how women could navigate it. To some degree, my interaction with junior lawyers in the firm made me realise that I should leave and look at the profession with fresh eyes and maybe do something else connected to the law. The Bar was one of the options I considered, as I liked the independence it provided practitioners.

Since founding the First 100 Years, I have had the privilege of meeting and discovering a long heritage of women in law, such as those profiled below. There is no archive like this to help us place ourselves in history and everyone we have interviewed for the project has left me truly in awe of how much has been achieved. To mention just a few: Dame Linda Dobbs, whose name was tipex-ed out of cases because she was a woman and told to cover up with ‘chalk’ to represent a National Front defender, went on to become a High Court judge; Baroness Butler-Sloss who, without a degree, went on to become a Court of Appeal judge; Baroness Hale, an academic non-practising barrister now the first woman president of the Supreme Court. Diversity isn’t just about gender or race but also about the different recipes in which we can achieve success and I believe it is an inspiring message to the future generations, men and women.

On a personal level, I have learnt a lot from my grandmother: as World War II finished, she found herself a single mother of three again as her husband was arrested by the communist regime. She took her challenge to the Politburo to secure his release – no small feat given she was an autodidact as her schooling was disrupted by World War I. I found that it is worth challenging status quo and life, not death, can be the highest reward for courage. 

Helena Normanton
‘I believe that the sex-exclusiveness of the legal profession is doomed. Women won’t stand it, and men, who have been learning a great deal lately about women’s capabilities, will not tolerate it either.’ (In her application to join the Bar in 1918)

This was Helena Normanton’s prediction as she made her first application to be admitted to Middle Temple in 1918. It was declined but she refused to give up and lodged a petition at the House of Lords. However, before the hearing, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed, allowing women to enter the legal profession.

Within 48 hours of the Act becoming law, Normanton made a second application and was successful this time. She was Called to the Bar in November 1922, a few months after Dr Ivy Williams, and became the first practising woman barrister.

Normanton went on to forge an outstanding legal career that featured notable firsts. She was the first female counsel in cases in the High Court of Justice, the first woman to obtain a divorce for a client, and (along with Rose Heilbron) the first female King’s Counsel in England and Wales.

Throughout her life, Normanton campaigned for women’s rights and women’s suffrage. She believed that men and women should keep their money and property separately. In 1924, as a qualified barrister, she marked another first: she became the first married woman to hold a passport in her maiden name. It is noted by scholar Joanne Workman that Normanton felt strongly about the decision to keep her maiden name when she married Gavin Bowman Clark:

‘Helena deplored the loss of a woman’s identity on marriage and its disadvantageous legal results. While she believed in the respectability of retaining the title Mrs, she also wished to maintain continuity of identity in her professional career.’ 

Dame Rose Heilbron
‘The legal world does not discriminate by sex or race and this is possibly an example of it working rather well.’(on her appointment as a treasurer of Gray’s Inn in 1985)

Rose Heilbron was the first female barrister to take centre stage and lead the defence in a British murder trial. Aged 34, Heilbron became a King’s Counsel (KC). She was a working mother, with a new-born baby at home and personal ambitions to reach the top of the legal profession. Having graduated with a First in 1935, Heilbron was awarded a scholarship to Gray’s Inn, and, after completing her master of laws degree, was Called to the Bar in 1937.

She had a remarkable catalogue of achievements, which reads like a record book: her career was unprecedented. She was the first woman to receive a first class law degree from Liverpool University, the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray’s Inn, one of the first two women to be appointed KC (the other, Helen Normanton, was nearly twice Heilbron’s age at the time), the first woman to lead in a murder case, the first woman Recorder, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey, and the first woman Treasurer of Gray’s Inn.

Such a list of achievements only tells half the story, and does justice neither to the imperturbable manner in which Heilbron navigated her way to an isolated position of female seniority in a stoically masculine field, nor to the difficulty of the cases that she took on as a defence barrister. While defending some of England’s most infamous criminals, her celebrated and revered status – it is not an exaggeration to claim that she was almost deified in her hometown of Liverpool – was starkly juxtaposed against their notoriety. Heilbron became a High Court judge in 1974. 

Baroness Butler-Sloss
‘I brought about an acceptance that women were in the Court of Appeal, and perhaps the most interesting for me was sitting with the then Master of the Rolls, Lord Donaldson, who… was obviously very dubious about me. I was the first woman. What was I going to be like? What was I going to do? Was I going to create waves?’ Interview with First 100 Years

The highest ranking woman judge in the UK in her day, when she was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 1988, Baroness Butler-Sloss was never embraced as a legal pioneer as, until relatively recently, she did not speak out about how she forged a career as a woman in law. In fact, like many of her generation, she made a point of ‘not making a fuss’ about being a woman in seeking to advance her career.

Hers was an unconventional path into the legal profession. She did not go to university and instead was sent to finishing school in Switzerland for one year. When she returned, she was Called to the Bar in 1955, at the age of 21, and became one of about 60 women barristers in the UK at the time. She got tenancy in a criminal chambers and gradually moved into family law. She gave up practising at the Bar in 1970, aged 36, to take up an employed position as a divorce registrar at Somerset House.

Baroness Butler-Sloss is a champion of women entering the judiciary after taking career breaks: ‘I see myself as a small cog in the wheel, I think. A very important wheel that’s turned round to bring people like Brenda Hale as the Deputy President of the Supreme Court, a considerable number of women in the Court of Appeal and I think it’s important that women recognise that there’s no point appointing a woman to the highest position unless she can cope with it, intellectually, academically and emotionally.

‘Therefore it makes it even more important to bring women back that have left for say 10, 15 years to take the lower ranks of the judiciary, because from there it can be noted if they are appropriate and we are going to need them. It’s quite wrong to have only one woman in the Supreme Court but I can see why and it is time that we had more. We need far more women at every level but they’re coming.’ 

Dame Linda Dobbs
‘I think diversity fatigue is the greatest challenge at the moment. People think we have done diversity, but actually we are not yet in the mainstream when it comes to diversity, especially in the senior judiciary.’ Interview with First 100 Years

Dame Linda Dobbs was the first ethnic minority lawyer to be appointed to the High Court in 2004. She had been Called to the Bar in 1981 and practised criminal law out of 5 King’s Bench Walk Chambers all of her career. When she joined chambers, there were only two other women tenants.

Urged by her family to follow her father’s footsteps and go into the law, she decided to read music instead at the University of Edinburgh. She then pursued an academic path, reading for an LLM and a PhD at the London School of Economics believing that ‘academia was where I thought I would stay, but my feeling was that academics were too stuck in their own ivory towers and that the teaching of law ought to be out in the streets’.

‘People feel that being a High Court judge wasn’t for them because you had to go out on Circuit, which nobody wants to do if they’ve got family and kids. There is also a lack of role models, because if you don’t see people like yourself there then you don’t want to be there.

‘When I had my first judge’s meeting I just looked around at the sea of male faces. People don’t realise that it can be lonely. Lady Justice Hallett was somebody who I always turned to if I had concerns or I wanted help, and in chambers there was a senior female Silk who I turned to but, being the first, who do you look to?’ 

Baroness Hale
‘The law is supposed to be about justice, fairness and equality and it doesn’t look very fair and very equal when the judiciary don’t look very equal.Interview with First 100 Years

Inspired to read law at Cambridge by a conversation with her history teacher, Baroness Brenda Hale went on to lecture at Manchester University whilst also practising part-time as a barrister. In 1989 she was appointed Queen’s Counsel. Baroness Hale was the first female to join the House of Lords as Lord Appeal in Ordinary, appointed in 2004. And in 2017 she set another landmark by becoming the first woman to be appointed President of the Supreme Court.

She said to the First 100 Years project: ‘I shall forever be grateful to the first [woman], because she welcomed me with open arms, she didn’t put the others off me, whereas it has been known sometimes for the first woman not to want to be joined by any more.’

Baroness Hale has always been known for her vivacious attitude towards women’s rights and diversity in the legal profession. At grammar school, she noted there were only half the number of places available for girls as for boys. Whilst reading law at Girton College, Cambridge, she found that she was one of only six women amongst over 100 law students, and the ratio at the time of women at the Bar was similar. Now, the first woman to sit on Britain’s Supreme Court and its first woman President, Baroness Hale has shown a life-long interest in promoting social equality.

In 1969 she was Called to the Bar and began to work flexibly: part-time in a family law practice and part-time in academia. Hale specialised in the teaching of family and social welfare law at Manchester University between 1966 and 1984. She has also campaigned to increase diversity of the judiciary; when criticising the old tradition of wearing wigs in court, she claimed they ‘deny women their femininity’ and ‘humanise all of us into men’.

‘This matters because democracy matters. We are the instrument by which the will of Parliament and government is enforced upon the people. It does matter that judges should be no less representative of the people than the politicians and civil servants who govern us.’ 

WHAT’S THE FIRST 100 YEARS PROJECT?

  • An ambitious video history project documenting the journey of women in the legal profession, from 1919 to present day. 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. The digital museum will be donated to the British Library in 2019.
  • The project, supported by the Bar Council and Law Society, has developed into a full celebration of women’s role in the profession, with an extensive programme of activities and events planned in the run-up to the centenary of the women in law in 2019. Its flagship event, the SPARK21 conference, was held on 8 November 2017 with Lord Neuberger as keynote speaker.

Literary inspiration: why I joined the Bar
They say, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ and it was a five-and-a-half-year-old girl’s use of chalk that taught me the true meaning of that sentiment. For it was Matilda, the Reader of Books, who restored order and justice to the terrified children and staff at Crunchem Hall Primary School, through the magic of words on a blackboard.

I still remember the first time I read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, spellbound by its protaganist. I fondly recall the images conjured up of her revenge on neglectful parents: platinum hairdye squeezed into Harry Wormwood’s hair tonic, a squawking parrot hid in the chimney to convince her parents that the house was haunted. Of course, her real strength of character was tested once under the unfortunate gaze of The Trunchball, the tyrannical head-teacher whose dislike of children and love of shot-put collided in ways that would make even the most foolhardy of parents’ eyes wince.

It was the headmistress’ treatment of the mild and meek Miss Honey which ultimately became her undoing. Having taught herself to read by the age of four, Matilda deployed her literary skills to teach the murderous teacher a lesson she’ll never forget – a few words on a chalkboard made her relinquish the house that didn’t belong to her, justice was brought to her long-suffering niece, and peace descended on the school.

Following Matilda’s adventures provided me with a magical lesson in restorative justice, which went on to form the basis for my career path. The sense of using my skills to speak up on another’s behalf to help restore fairness was forged. Sadly I haven’t yet found an excuse to bring parrots into the courtroom, or to hide newts in the water jug, but in true Matilda style – I’m working on it.

Lisa Wilson, barrister and Chair of the Association of Women Barristers: www.womenbarristers.com

From Rumpole to reality: why I stay at the Bar
There are several people who inspired me to enter the law. An early influence was watching John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey on TV and reading the books. I was totally absorbed by the thrilling cases.

Once in practice I looked up to senior juniors and Silks, such as Mrs Justice Laura Cox who, until she retired, was a patron of the Association of Women Barristers and vocal outside her ‘day job’. When I came to the Bar, you didn’t see a lot of women or those from BAME backgrounds. Apart from my fantastic pupil master, I found Anesta Weekes QC and Baroness Scotland QC truly inspiring. Others include Dame Linda Dobbs; Lady Justice Anne Rafferty, with whom I marshalled at the Old Bailey; HHJ Sarah Singleton QC, Presiding Judge for Lancashire; in addition to the wonderful ‘usual suspect’ speakers at Women in the Law UK events in Manchester.

The people who encourage me most to stay at the Bar are my husband and my young children. I still feel very privileged to be at the Bar and I am fortunate to have an inspiring and supporting family. In turn, I hope to influence other women and the next generation coming into the profession.

Sally Penni, barrister, Joint Vice Chair of Association of Women Barristers and founder of Women in the Law UK: www.womeninthelawuk.co.uk

 

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Dana Denis-Smith

Dana Denis-Smith is CEO of Obelisk Support and founder of the First 100 Years: www.first100years.org.uk