Exhibitions mark a century of women in law

The Centenary of Women in Law at the Royal Courts of Justice and Celebrating a Century of Women in Law at the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple


I must admit that when I was asked to review these two exhibitions for Counsel magazine, I was both apprehensive and a little sceptical of what they might involve. I have thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the variety of projects, particularly online, that have celebrated this important anniversary in the role of women in law, but found it difficult to imagine how an exhibition on such a topic could work. My greatest fear was that it would either be too brash and forced or a little too dull to invoke any real feeling or public engagement.

I am glad to say I was sorely mistaken on both fronts, when I took the opportunity to visit the sister exhibits at the Middle Temple and the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ).

The RCJ exhibition largely consists of freestanding banners presented throughout its stunning and opulent foyer. Each of these displays contains information regarding the progress of notable trailblazers who were instrumental in breaking the glass ceiling in pursuit of access for women into the legal profession. The banners are striking; a notable mix of black and white imagery of a variety of important female legal minds, etched on to a striking red border summarising key dates and developments. They stand proudly in the centre of the courts’ grand entrance such that every advocate and ardent tourist must pass through them.

The display certainly stands out and made its point admirably, yet there was a part of me that wondered whether it felt a little too transient. The banners themselves are rather similar to corporate banners used by law firms and the readily moveable nature of the display, whilst entirely understandable on a practical level, made the exhibition feel a bit too ‘pop-up’ for me, rather than a key celebration of a pivotal anniversary.

In contrast, the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple has taken, what feels like, a more permanent approach to its display. Mounted in clear, modern frames on the walls of its iconic 16th century hall, under the dazzling double vaulted ceilings, are large portraits of female Middle Templars, recognised for their contribution to the advancement of women in the profession. The portraits are of a size significant enough to stand out amongst the copious Middle Temple artwork, but curated with absolute ease into the historic decor and crests that adorn the walls of the Great Hall. I have to admit that something about the manner in which this exhibition was curated and how the images of these pioneering women seamlessly integrate with the tradition that permeates Middle Temple Hall, was particularly inspiring. There could have been a real risk that the images simply faded in the face of the priceless and decadent artefacts contained within the Hall, but somehow the exhibition has been fashioned in a manner where that does not happen.

In contrast to the RCJ, however, the exhibition itself is largely confined to the walls of Middle Temple Hall. An interactive panel just outside the entrance doors provides extra information on each trailblazer featured in the portraits and other noteworthy women. Whereas the RCJ exhibition was set in the grand foyer, ensuring prime attention and focus, the Middle Temple exhibition is perhaps reserved for those interested enough to traverse the edges of the Hall with that particular purpose in mind.

All that being said, both of these exhibitions really do serve to display, in a very real-world manner, the achievements and importance of this centenary anniversary. Whilst the online attention has been vast for this project, there is something quite grounding and unmistakably real in seeing these individuals commemorated and celebrated in the exact hallowed halls and courts to which they fought for the right for all women to have access. The victory is almost tangible when one gazes upon their portraits and likenesses emblazoned across exhibitions of this kind. I, for one, would not object at all to the exhibition within the RCJ, which seems ideal for transferring, to make its away across the larger court centres of England and Wales. It seems only fitting for these ground-breaking women and their deeds to be displayed not only in London but throughout the jurisdiction of their achievements. ●

  • Banners detailing key milestones from each decade of women in law in the 20th century were displayed in the foyer of the RCJ (pictured right) to mark the progress that was made by many female trailblazers who helped to pave the way for other women to enter the legal profession since the 1910s. It ran until 27 September and returns for an Open House event before Christmas.
  • Middle Temple’s exhibition (pictured on p 43) celebrating the century of women in law was curated by Master Rosalind Wright CB QC, former Director of the Serious Fraud Office. It begins with Helena Normanton, who was the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court (Middle Temple, 17 November 1922) and among the first to practise as a barrister in England and Wales. The exhibition is on show in Middle Temple Hall until 31 January 2020.

Whilst the online attention has been vast for this project, there is something quite grounding and unmistakably real in seeing these individuals commemorated and celebrated in the exact hallowed halls which they fought for the right for all women to have access to.

  • A new book, First:100 Years of Women in the Law, marks the centenary of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Funded by all of the legal profession’s professional bodies, the book by Lucinda Acland and Katie Broomfield for the ground-breaking First 100 Years Project explores the stories of the pioneers, reformers and influencers who paved the way. It is illustrated throughout with photographs, archive material, anecdotes and quotations from a wide variety of sources, drawing on material produced and collected by First 100 Years (Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers, November 2019).

 

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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.