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100 Years of Women and the Law: Before and After the 1919 Act

Updated: May 14, 2019

By Ming Zee Tee


In 1914, four accomplished young women - Gwyneth Bebb, Maud Crofts, Karin Costelloe and Lucy Nettlefold - brought an action against the Law Society, challenging the rule that women could not qualify as solicitors (or hold any position in the legal professions, for that matter). They were rudely rebuffed by the Court, who found that the entire sex of women did not count within the definition of ‘persons’ in the Solicitors Act 1843, and so could not be admitted.


Things have changed since then. Women today outnumber men as practising solicitors. Baroness Hale was elected the first female President of the Supreme Court in 2017; the next year, the first Supreme Court case heard by a female majority was held. We now have Normanton Chambers, the first barristers’ chambers named after a woman, Helena Normanton, who was herself the first woman to practise as a barrister in England. She was only able to do this by the seminal Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, passing only five embattled years after the Bebb v Law Society lawsuit.


We founded the Oxford Women* in Law Society (OW*LSS) to mark the centenary of the 1919 Act. Stating that “a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage” from the exercise of public functions, the Act opened the door for women to be involved in civil and judicial vocations. But behind this formal ratification was a more complex landscape of women in law.


Before 1919 Act

Even before the 1919 Act, women were involved in the law and the legal profession. Since the opening of Bedford College in 1849, the first higher education college for women, they had been studying law at university, with stellar results. Eliza Orme was the first to earn a law degree from the University of London in 1888 - and was soon followed by dozens of others. Referred to as ‘Portias’ in the popular press, a homage to the character Portia in the Merchant of Venice who impersonates a male legal apprentice and wins a case, these women who graduated prior to the 1919 act were legally trained, but unable to practice officially.


“Officially” is the key word. Eliza Orme didn’t let the law stop her, unofficially “devilling” for counsel in her office in Chancery Lane. There, she prepared the paperwork for property transactions, patent registrations, wills, settlements, and mortgages. Orme worked for 25 years as a quasi-lawyer, as did numerous other legally-trained women, who worked in solicitors’ firms without professional qualifications. It was these women who staffed and enabled legal offices to continue functioning in the absence of men during World War I.


The 1919 Act officialised these positions, and granted university degrees to women across all institutions. (In universities such as Oxford, which lagged behind the progressive University of London, women - while attending lessons and examinations - could not be formally “matriculated” as university members, or graduate, until 1919).


The Road After 1919

This was far from a panacea. It would take another 3 years for women to inherit property on the same terms as men, and a decade for women to get the equal right to vote. Neither could they enter the foreign and diplomatic service until 1946, nor sit in the House of Lords (the highest court in England and Wales) until 1958. While the 1919 Act did allow women to sit on juries, its ‘Proviso B’ clauses gave judges wide discretions to call all-male juries based on the nature of evidence, or the issues at hand. This meant that women were widely excluded from cases on rape and sexual assault, the very cases where a woman’s point of view was invaluable. Astonishingly, this practice continued until the 1970s.


I was shocked to learn of the recency of these changes, on subjects that were what I took to be a given. Reforms in industry practices came the latest: the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, requiring employers to give equal treatment to men and women in the same employment; the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, criminalizing discrimination against either gender in employment, education, goods, facilities, services and premises. (This Act halted the practice of banks requiring women to provide a male guarantor when applying for a credit card or loan, even where she earned more than her father or husband.) Maternity leave was only statutorily introduced in 1975, and independent taxation in 1988. Many of these changes were introduced as our mothers were entering the working world, and took further years to achieve social acceptance and industry enforcement in fact.


Indeed, we are still chipping at these histories of inequality. Women account for only 33% of partners in law firms (as at 2017), a relic from less progressive days that will ease with time, as more female associates are promoted. More troubling is remuneration: the first gender pay gap reports from the Equality Act 2010 Regulations were due last April 2018, and the legal profession’s pay differentials exceed the national average.


2019 is an opportunity for us to reflect on the progress that has been made, and the continued efforts that have to be pushed. At OWLSS, we aim to create a diverse and inclusive networking community for women and people of other underrepresented gender identities to connect, share experiences and support each other in building ambitious careers in the legal world.


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For more on women in law after 1919, the First100Years project has curated a great digital museum chronicling the journey of women in the professional legal sphere: https://first100years.org.uk/digital-museum/timeline/


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Ming Zee Tee is the Media Editor for the OWLSS. She is passionate about environmental law, finance, and all matters concerning justice. She also hones her craft as Editor of Anthroposphere: the Oxford Climate Review, and with the Oxford University Undergraduate Law Journal. You can reach her at mingzt@hotmail.com.

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© Oxford Women* In Law Student Society
Created by Bethany Clarke, St Peter's College
Edited by First Step Digital info@firststepdigital.co.uk

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