‘Women in the Law: Inspired and Inspirations’ project: aims, methods and research:

Dr Ivy Williams, Helena Normanton and Rose Heilbron were among the first women called to the bar following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.  In some respects their biographies and legacies are well documented and well known to women in the legal profession[1]; however, they are not as well remembered as they should be both inside and outside the law.  I did not come across these legal pioneers despite studying law for over five years and my experience is not unique.  Law students do not typically cover legal history of this nature or significant legal figures, nor do history students encounter women in the law as a subject.  Some positive steps have been taken to encourage and engage interdisciplinary research of law and culture, as evidenced by the new Centre of Law and Culture at St Mary’s University, Twickenham[2], which could reflect a shift within academia; however, ultimately women in the law as either a legal or historical topic, is largely the result of personal interest and independent research.  Indeed, it is my personal experience, interests and research that have directed this interdisciplinary project.

I came across Helena Normanton when conducting research for, The Many Lives of Magna Carta, a radio broadcast exploring the contemporary meaning of this document.[3]  It was not until I spoke to Dr Judith Bourne, law lecturer and biographer to Helena Normanton, that I became aware of how important Helena and her fellow women barristers were and are.  In the early twentieth century, they made history and today they have inspired a generation of women in the law.  As a public historian who believes that history is a critical resource for active citizens[4], I aim to disseminate the story of these legal pioneers and other women in the law, in the hope that women will not be deterred by artificial ceilings and be inspired by to achieve their aims and ambitions.

In the 1920s Williams, Normanton and Heilbron did not give up; they patiently persevered with inequality and went on to defy existing professional, political and social barriers.  In 1919 they were admitted to the bar and in doing so set the standard for women in the legal profession and society more generally.  I aim to find out what inspired these first women barristers to enter a profession that was closed to them and what challenges they faced as women in a male-dominated profession?  I also want to know if they have inspired other women to enter the legal profession and indeed, what inspires women to enter the legal profession today?

A hundred years on the position of women in the law is, in one sense, dramatically different; yet it is also startlingly similar.  Women do not face the same challenges of admittance: the majority of law graduates are women; three-fifths of women were admitted to the Roll in 2014; and almost as many women as men were called to the bar in 2013/2014.[5]  Yet, while more and more women are entering the legal profession, only a few are getting promoted to the highest levels.  A recent Gender in the Law Survey reveals that only 24% of women occupy partner positions[6]; around 18% of judges in the High Court and Court of Appeal are women[7]; and only one women, Baroness Hale, sits at the Supreme Court.[8]  Diversity is a serious issue and cause for concern in the legal profession.   I aim to find out why women are still inspired to enter and persevere with an inherently discriminatory profession and what challenges they face as women in the law in the twenty-first century?

Methods and research:

These questions will be answered through primary and secondary source research.  Primary sources include archival research and interviews with solicitors, barristers, authors and academics, all of whom provide first-hand insight into the legal profession and the true legacy of these pioneers.  Secondary source literature includes publications on the role, impact and significance of women in the law; historical literature on the legal, political and social contexts of the early twentieth century; and a consideration of publications on feminism and the concept of ‘inspiration’.

My findings will be disseminated via this blog, interviews and a paper given at the ‘First Women Lawyers’ symposium, St Mary’s University, Twickenham.  I hope to enrich our understanding of the motivations, experiences and long-term legacy of women in the legal profession then and now.

[1] All three are on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies; Dr Ivy Williams and Rose Heilbron were published as ‘Legal Heroes’ in The Guardian’s, 2010/2011 see The Guardian ‘Legal Heroes’, http://www.theguardian.com/law/series/legal-heroes, accessed; 10/7/15; Rose Heilbron’s biography is published: Hilary Heilbron, Rose Heilbron, Legal Pioneer of the 20th Century (Oxford, Hart Publishing Ltd, 2012); Helena Normanton’s biography has been written by Dr Judith Bourne but is not yet published; Dr Judith Bourne has featured on Woman’s Hour talking about Helena Normanton see http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/2002_06_tue_03.shtml, accessed: 10/7/15.

[2] St Mary’s University, Baroness Hale to deliver St Mary’s Centre for Law and Culture inaugural lecture, http://www.stmarys.ac.uk/news/news/school-of-management-and-social-sciences/2014/03/baroness-hale-to-deliver-st-marys-centre-for-law-and-culture-inaugural-lecture/, accessed: 10/7/15.

[3] Available at: https://soundcloud.com/charlottejane12/the-many-lives-of-magna-carta);

[4] John Tosh, Why History Matters (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[5] Law Society, Annual Statistical Report, 2014, http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/policy-campaigns/research-trends/annual-statistical-reports/, accessed; 10/7/15; Bar Standards Board, Called to the Bar Statistics, Gender, https://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/media-centre/research-and-statistics/statistics/called-to-the-bar-statistics/, accessed: 10/7/15.

[6] Chambers Student, 2014 Gender in the Law Survey, http://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/where-to-start/newsletter/2014-gender-in-the-law-survey, accessed: 10/7/15.

[7] Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, Judicial Diversity, what do the latest figures show?,  https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/about-the-judiciary/who-are-the-judiciary/diversity/judicial-diversity-what-do-the-latest-figures-show/, accessed: 13/7/15.

[8] The Supreme Court, Biographies of the Justices, https://www.supremecourt.uk/about/biographies-of-the-justices.html, accessed: 13/5/15.


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