Portia’s Progress


Western Daily Press adopts the title “Portia’s Progress” with reference to the triumph of the first woman to pass the bar examinations.

Aspiring women lawyers were often linked in the popular press to Portia, Shakespeare’s character in The Merchant of Venice.  The quick-witted, wealthy, beautiful heroine proves an excellent model of advocacy, vigorously applying the law in the courtroom and flouting convention.  Rose Heilbron was among those with one headline reading, “Housewife Who is Britain’s Portia”.[1]

While it is generally thought a positive reference that reflects inspiring female advocates like Portia, literary scholars have argued that Portia understood that she could never have exercised her intellectual gifts as a woman in the Venetian court.[2]  Therefore, it was only because Portia was dressed as a young male legal scholar that she was accepted in the Venetian court as a voice of authority.

In this way, Mary Jane Mossman argues in her comprehensive, comparative study of The First Woman Lawyers, that references to the first women lawyers as ‘Portias’ appeared to acknowledge women’s potential for effective advocacy, but they simultaneously confirmed a male model of legal professionalism.[3]

In one sense this could not be helped, the profession would not change for women overnight.  When first admitted in the early twentieth century women were entering a male made world of established, masculine protocol including legal attire.  Over time, women like Rose Heilbron began to break down these barriers.  Early in her career, she did not wear a hat or wig before Mr Justice Birkett, a time when women were not permitted into court without one.  When the usher sought to evict her Mr Justice Birkett exclaimed in open court that ‘this rule did not apply’ to Miss Heilbron.[4]

Whether the references to Portia carry positive and/or negative connotations, the fact that women lawyers were reported on and recognised in the press as effective advocates is a positive step for women’s progress in the law and wider society.  Portias may not have achieved a significant change of attitude but they certainly tried.

[1] “Housewife Who is Britain’s Portia!”, Durban Sunday Tribute, June 1955.

[2] Susan Oldrieve, “Marginalized Voices in The Merchant of Venice”, Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, 1993, 5, 87.

[3] Mary Jane Mossman, The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, Law and the Legal Profession.  Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2006.

[4] Hilary Heilbron, Rose Heilbron Legal Pioneer of the 20th Century (Oxford; Hart Publishing, 2012), p.24.


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