Inspiration, Challenges and Legacy: analysis and conclusion

Women in the Law: Inspired and Inspirations is a public history project that aims to enrich our understanding of the motivations, experiences and long-term legacy of women in the legal profession then and now.  Through primary and secondary source research, including interviews with women in the law, I have sought to find out what or who inspired the first women barristers[1] to enter the legal profession and the challenges they faced, and what or who inspires women to enter the law today and what challenges they face in the twenty-first century.

In total, ten women in the law were interviewed: two interviewees are academics, a professor of law and historian, the remaining eight had either practised or were practising lawyers.  Of these eight three have left the profession to form careers in legal academia or research and five are practising lawyers.  Six interviews are published on the Women in the Law ‘Now’ page[2] and two have been used for educational purposes only and will therefore not be available to the public.  Three interviewees wished to remain anonymous and have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities.

In choosing my interviewees, I attempted to provide a diverse cross-section of women in the law with regards to their viewpoints, status, work, race and background.  I acknowledge that these women are not representative of all women in the law, not all women are inspired to enter the law and nor do all women face challenges because of their gender.  Furthermore, I am aware that society today is very different to the one in which the first women barristers lived.[3]  I aim to incorporate these differences within my analysis but also draw attention to a number of similarities between individuals.  These similarities illustrate that women in the law today are not so different to their pioneering predecessors with regards to their motivations and challenges.

This project will focus on four main challenges women in the law experienced then and now: misogyny, affording the law, progression, marriage and motherhood.  Other challenges have been brought to light and are important issues in the law but they are not a focus of this project.[4]  By considering these themes in more detail we can better understand the lasting legacy of the first legal pioneers and learn why women still persist with an inherently discriminatory profession.

Then:  The First Women Barristers[5]

Ivy Williams was inspired by her father, an Oxford solicitor.  From him, I would argue, she had an innate sense of justice and equality, she wanted to make a difference and help other people; she gave free advice to the poor and made a significant difference to her Oxford students.  Her goal was also personal, as a keen academic the law offered Williams an intellectual challenge and opportunity to become an expert in something.  Helena Normanton was inspired to enter the law when she was 12 by a chance meeting with a lawyer.  Normanton’s ambition was also personal, she had a strong notion of equality for all running through feminism and Magna Carta.  She wanted to help and make a difference to people in and outside the law.  Sybil Campbell was most likely inspired in some way by her grandfather either first hand or second hand through her mother.  Her characteristics were similar to that of a typical lawyer and her experience of enforcing the law as a Civil Servant could have fuelled her legal career.  Like Williams and Heilbron, Campbell had an innate sense of justice but hers was to ensure the law was followed and enforced, not challenged.

Rose Heilbron was inspired by her mother, the mainstay of her life.  The law was also a personal goal, offering Rose an intellectual challenge and opportunity to fuse her trained voice, dramatic flair and sharp mind.  It is not clear if Rose pursued the law with equality and justice in mind but she pursued the issue of women’s rights later on in her practice.  It is worth mentioning that the law offered Rose financial security when her mother died and her family’s financial circumstances declined as a result of the Great Depression; however, economic gain was not a motivation as such but a means to an end.  Unlike the other pioneers, Elizabeth Lane did not set out to enter the law from a young age.  To the contrary, she believed she would be done with academia upon leaving school.  It was not until she met her husband, who encouraged her to read law that she chose to become a barrister.  With this in mind, it is difficult to claim that Lane had an innate sense of justice and equality and indeed that she was ‘inspired’ to enter the law.  Nevertheless, she excelled in her bar exams and may have been stimulated by the intellectual challenge.  There was definitely something that she liked about the law to stay in it until she retired.

Challenges: Misogyny

Misogyny was a challenge all the first pioneers faced.  From the origins of common law in the eleventh century[6] to parliamentary sovereignty in the seventeenth century[7] and even in the early to mid-twentieth century law was made by and for men.  It follows, therefore, that the rules and etiquette of the law and legal professions were not made with women in mind and even when women were admitted to the profession following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 no attempts were made to accommodate them, leading to a ‘voluntarist ideology’ where women had to accommodate themselves.[8]

Ivy Williams’ circumstances were different in that she did not practise at the bar but she acknowledged the challenges women would face in the profession.  Helena Normanton was subject to criticism for keeping her maiden name and for her feminist activities of ‘advertising’ in the public sphere.  Sybil Campbell was aware that her actions may halt the progress of women, acknowledging the structural disadvantages women faced.  Almost twenty years on when Rose Heilbron and Elizabeth Lane were admitted, not much had changed.  Rose found it difficult to obtain pupillage and Lane believed her application for a judicial role hopeless.  

Affording the law

The first women barristers who chose to practise at the bar experienced financial challenges of varying degrees.  Women then were generally assigned to “appropriate” areas of the law, typically civil or criminal.  Legal aid was not introduced until the 1950s following the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 and even then was available for criminal cases only.  Prosecutions were paid for by the state and thus an attractive prospect, providing some surety of income but overall, earning a decent living in this area of law was extremely tough.  Privately funded work was available for barristers but actually receiving payment could take a long time and part of the money would have to go on chambers’ overheads and expenses.[9]

With this in mind, it is not surprising that Helena Normanton experienced challenges in earning enough money from the law and had to supplement her income through writing, public speaking and renting rooms in her house.  By 1949 Helena had built up a good enough practice to ‘take silk’, along with Rose Heilbron but it had taken her almost thirty years.  Heilbron’s appointment to ‘silk’ it quite remarkable given her age and years of practice.  Rose was not immune to financial struggle.  Her family’s financial circumstances dramatically declined following the Great Depression and it is unlikely Rose would have got to the bar without the Lord Justice Holker scholarship and even then she had to find ways of obtaining more money including lecturing and bank loans.

The financial circumstances of Williams, Campbell and Lane are not known in great depth, however, Ivy’s father, a solicitor, could clearly afford an education for his son and daughter.  Sybil Campbell made little profit at the bar[10] but is unlikely to have faced financial challenges that required her to supplement her income as she was the daughter of a tea merchant with substantial property.  She also forged a successful career in the Civil Service and was given a judicial salary when appointed a stipendiary magistrate.  Lane earnt a respectable sum at the bar and given that she studied with her husband, a university lecturer and son of a merchant, it is likely they were financially secure especially if her father, a mill owner, contributed to her training.  By 1950 Lane had built up a secure enough practice to be appointed King’s Counsel and no doubt earnt a respectable wage when appointed a High Court judge.


 Progression is another challenge the first pioneers faced at the bar.  Once qualified barristers start as junior counsel, after 10 years they can progress to King/Queen’s Counsel and then to judicial office.  The principal qualification for silk and judicial office was experience of advocacy, including financial earnings; however ‘practise’ can be widely defined, as in Sybil Campbell’s case.  The Lord Chancellor invited, approved and appointed all applicants wishing to ‘take silk’, quite a remarkable amount of power for one man to have!  As well as having a successful practice barristers would also have to have an excellent reputation among senior legal figures under the system of ‘secret soundings’.[11]  Appointment of the judiciary was also based on the system of ‘secret soundings’ and the Lord Chancellor was also responsible for appointing or recommending to the Crown judicial appointments.[12]  Not surprisingly candidates of a similar standing to existing office-holders notably white males were elected.

Sybil Campbell, Rose Heilbron and Elizabeth Lane overcame substantial barriers in the law when they were appointed to judicial roles.  Campbell it seems was the right woman at the right time, whereas Heilbron and Lane were appointed on their own merit.  In the capacity of magistrate Campbell would hear summary offences and petty crimes such as theft.  High Court judges hear indictable offences that were much more complex including murder and rape.  In theory Heilbron and Lane should have been appointed to the criminal division given their experience; however, they were appointed to the family division because this was considered an “appropriate” area for the characteristics (and stereotypes) women.[13]

Marriage and Motherhood

As the bar had not foreseen that women would want to become barristers, it did not have a marriage bar and women, in theory at least, could continue practising after marriage, unlike in some other professions.  Normanton, Heilbron and Lane all married prior to or during their career and as far as is known maintained happy marriages.  There were certain benefits of being a self-employed barrister including taking work home and generous vacations when court was out of session implying that a work-life balance could be achieved.  In practice, however, barristers, especially women barristers, would have to work extremely hard and long hours if they were to succeed in a highly pressured, competitive and male-dominated environment.

Heilbron was the only woman who accommodated motherhood into her career.[14]  Her progress was not halted because of the birth of her daughter in 1949 partly because she loved her job and had a supportive husband, but also because the family could afford a cook, nanny and housekeeper.  Being able to afford such help highlights a key difference between women in the law then and now.  Most families would not have the financial surplus to afford this today.  Alternatively, families now may want to take a more active role in parent and therefore not want a nanny.  In any case, Heilbron demonstrated that women in the law can and do have children and a work-life balance was achievable.

Now: Interviews with women in the Law[15]


Cris McCurley was inspired to become a lawyer by her father; he was a miner, socialist and advocate of human rights and instilled in her a sense of justice, equality and desire to help others.  Bonne, pseudonym given to the Intellectual Property Partner, was predominantly inspired to enter the law for the intellectual challenge and mastery; however, her father, a solicitor, also played a part.  Feminism inspired Elizabeth Woodcraft to enter the law but coming from a working-class background she had a strong sense of equality and justice, especially for women.  Funke Abimbola’s parents were both doctors and her father was shocked when she chose to enter the law; she was inspired to become a lawyer by her uncle who read law and was successful in business but notes that her parents are also inspirations to her, as is her son.  It is not known why Alison Diduck entered the law but she is a ‘feminist barrister’ and has an innate sense of justice and equality, especially for women.  Hilary Heilbron, unsurprisingly, was initially inspired by her mother Rose and undoubtedly loves her job and the intellectual challenge the law offers.

Jones, pseudonym given to anonymous interviewee who re-trained as a solicitor after ten years as a teacher, was inspired to enter the law because she was interested in the subject; in some respects her father is to thank for her career choice as he insisted that she should go to university when she was five.  Smith, pseudonym given to anonymous interviewee who trained as a solicitor and is now a law lecturer, was inspired initially by TV programmes and fiction and had a keen interest in the law as a subject.  However, when her parents were going through a divorce she witnessed her mother’s helplessness and dissatisfaction with regards to the legal advice she received and knew she wanted to help other people in that position and ensure she was not in that position herself.  Unlike the other interviewees, Smith was not sure she would go all the way to practice and followed a pre-mapped out path, illustrating that initial inspiration can change over time.

Challenges: Misogyny

It is now broadly understood that the law is a masculine institution because it is overwhelmingly male in terms of its personnel; as well, legal cultures are premised on notions which are themselves excluding rather than including.[16]  What this means is that women are at a structural disadvantage in the law and while individual women may progress, attitudes about women are not improving.  This notion of structural inequality but individual progression can be seen in the experiences of the first women lawyers and women in the law today.  The idea that women are responsible for their progression, they ‘choose’ to ‘commit’ to their career or have children takes the legal profession for granted.  Hilary Sommerlad argues that this notion of choice denies any structural responsibility.  Instead of changing the culture of law firms to enable all people, women have to adapt to the law and accommodate themselves, like their pioneering predecessors, adopt a ‘voluntarist ideology’.[17]

My research concurs with contemporary thought, indicating that women suffer inequality due to the inherently discriminatory cultures, attitudes and structures of the law and profession.  Although individual interviewees have not necessarily experienced personal challenges, they are alive to the fact that there is still a long way for women to go.  Bonne acknowledges the law is male dominated and good people are lost because of a lack of support regarding childcare.  Elizabeth Woodcraft believes the legal system knows it has got to change but does not how.  Funke notes the inherently male culture of private law firms and is inspired by women who make it to senior positions because women face a unique set of challenges and are lost because of these.  Conversely, Jones argues that people, not the profession, need to change.

Affording the law

Affording the law was not a challenge for my interviewees in the same way it was for their predecessors.  Yet for those who are working in publically funded law, civil and criminal law, or what was then considered “appropriate” areas of work, financial challenges and moral or job dissatisfaction are issues because of legal aid cuts.  Cris, Elizabeth and Smith drew attention to the impact of legal aid cuts on legal fees.  For Cris legal aid cuts have had a double impact: firstly her really strongly held beliefs about equality and human rights are being severely tested because those who need financial assistance are not getting it; secondly, she notes that future solicitors should find an area of law they are really passionate about because in legal aid you are not doing it for the money.   Elizabeth also indicated that barristers’ fees have decreased as a result of legal aid but they are still relatively high in comparison to other professions.  Most of the work Smith did was funded by legal aid and she experienced job dissatisfaction in the face of legal aid cuts.

Other interviewees worked in commercial areas including intellectual property, pharmaceutical and tax law.   They did not mention financial challenges, most likely because these fields are privately funded.  This contrast emphasises that all areas of law are now open to women, not just those that are “appropriate”.


It is recognised that gender is not always a factor that determines progression, the legal world is and has always been competitive and this can be a deterrent in itself.  Conversely, some women, as Jones illustrates, may not be interested in partnership and therefore choose not to apply because they enjoy other aspects of the job or because they wish to have a family.  Overall the general consensus is that women, and men, can progress to senior levels if they work hard and are committed to their job.  Bonne agrees it is hard work and notes that partnership is an issue for anyone, regardless of gender, but she is only one of two female partners who have children.  Funke also experienced challenges with regards to progression due to an inherently male culture and being a working mother but was able to succeed to a senior position.  Smith also noted promotion was an issue for her and women in the law more generally.  Elizabeth felt the next step to Queen’s Counsel was extremely competitive so avoided the process.

As can be seen, there is a very fine line between individual choice and structural constraints.  If people believe they are responsible for their decisions and are therefore not successful because of their own actions the question of discrimination within structures is ignored.  The fact that women have to ‘choose’ one of the other, career or children, but men can have both problematizes the notion of free choice.  Furthermore, the fact that women numerically dominate law schools and professions at entry level but hold under a quarter of senior positions signals that something more than choice is at work.[18]  

Marriage and Motherhood

Unlike the first pioneers, marriage is not an issue women in the law face, there is no marriage bar and it is generally accepted in society that both men and women can and do forge successful careers.  That said, it is worth noting that women barristers are less likely than their male peers to be married or have children, and more likely to be divorced.[19]  This does not conclusively indicate that women are disadvantaged but perhaps suggests that women are ‘choosing’ their career over other aspects of life.  If women do have children, they are far more likely to take the main responsibility for providing and organising childcare.[20]  This point was also raised by Jones who believed that both parents should be equally responsible for childcare costs and both entitled to some career prospect.  Bonne also recognises this and calls for a more holistic approach drawing attention to the fact that men, as well as women are disadvantaged by existing structures.

Smith and Elizabeth are alive to the fact that the notion of commitment is an issue when having children.  Smith noted that attitudes changed as soon as she had a child and Woodcraft felt that if you are not one hundred percent committed as a barrister, male or female, that is a mark against you.  McGlynn argues that commitment is a term with a specifically gendered meaning.  In order to be a successful and respected solicitor/partner, what is required is not just the requisite knowledge and skill but also ‘commitment’ to the profession, firm and the career; the way commitment is interpreted is often to women’s disadvantage as ‘choosing’ to have children demonstrates a lack of commitment to the career.[21]  As Bonne points out, there is an implication that you can only have one or the other, partnership or children.


The legacy of the first women barristers is somewhat difficult to determine.  Prima facie it appears that not much has changed.  Women in the law still face the same challenges as their pioneering predecessors and the profession remains inherently male.  While admission to the profession is no longer a challenge for women in the same way as it was a hundred years ago, misogyny, progression and motherhood most certainly are.  We may have a better theoretical understanding of the structural disadvantages women face with regards to choice and commitment and can begin to understand why the position has not improved that much over a century, but theory does not amount to substantial change or equality within the law.  Given that sexism, stereotype and status quo are still dominant elements of the profession, the legacy of the first women barristers seems tenuous.  Things may have improved but not because of the actions of the legal pioneers.

Conversely, the first women barristers did not promise substantive equality, nor did they experience it.  Ivy Williams, Helena Normanton and Rose Heilbron encouraged women and inspired some women in the law today but they were also subject to institutional discrimination.  They were the first to achieve a number of things but they were also the first to accommodate themselves in a masculine world.  Is it really realistic that as well as trying to earn a living, succeed against the odds and do justice for their clients, the first pioneers could change the nature of a traditional and long-established profession?  An alternative argument, as Helena Kennedy suggests is that women of her generation have to take some of the blame for current conditions, in striving for equality important arguments about difference were crowded out.  With hindsight, it is easy to place blame and make judgements, yet at the same time, we must remember that individual act within the social conditions and are therefore limited in this sense.  The legal pioneers may not have changed the nature of the law but neither did they give up on it because of its nature.  They were resilient and persistent with the challenges a misogynistic profession would offer and in the process inspired a generation of women lawyers including Brenda Hale, Heather Hallett, Cherie Blair, Vera Baird and number of other High Court justices from the northern circuit.

My interviewees were not directly inspired by the first pioneers but when I asked them what advice they would give to women entering the law they said never give up, find an area of law you are passionate about and be true to yourself.  For me, the first women barristers encompass these qualities and this is their legacy. They did not give up in the face of legal bars, they remained passionate about the law, justice and equality, and were true to their beliefs, even Campbell with her harsh sentencing.  With this in mind, these pioneers have left a legacy that has touched individual lives and remind us that we must not be deterred by artificial ceilings but be persistent, never give up and follow our passion.

For me, passion is something that binds all women in the law and society more generally.  It is what motivates us to stay in a job, change career or travel the world and determines us as people.[22]  It is what has motivated women in the law to overcome the biggest challenge they face, staying in the law.  Women in the law then and now joined and endured an inherently discriminatory profession because they were inspired by something or someone and they were passionate.  That is not to say that everything should stay the same and we all work on the principle that inspiration and passion are enough.  To the contrary, it is widely acknowledged that institutions, structures, cultures and attitudes need to change to accommodate women and recognise the diverse and multi-cultural society we live in.[23]  What I am suggesting is that women and men in the law should remember why they are there and what impact they can have at an individual level.  People, after all, are the ones making and implementing policies and they are the ones who can make changes that accommodate difference.  These changes cannot necessarily be classed as the legacy of the first women barristers but they will be the legacy of people who want to make a positive difference to women in the law and society more generally.


Inspiration in the early twentieth century is likely to have stemmed more from familial influences, as opposed to personal, as fathers would support and fund their daughter’s education and training.  By contrast, inspiration today is more likely to be a personal motive or choice given our current climate of modernity that sees a break away from tradition and move towards individualism.[24]  That said, there are significant overlaps between the two and it is difficult to say that one trumps the other, even with the obvious differences between the past and present societies.  Yes, women in the early nineteenth century did not have the financial options open to women now and there is an element of practicality involved but at the same time there were other, more reachable careers, why choose the law?  It is almost the opposite for women today, they have so many career options, why enter such a competitive, oversubscribed, masculine profession?  I would argue it is because these women are inspired and passionate about the law, dedicated to the cause of justice and equality and determined to succeed.

The legacy of the first women barristers may not be an obvious one.  They did not throw themselves in front of a horse or chain themselves to railings.  Much to the dismay of suffragettes, they tolerated discrimination and accommodated themselves in a masculine world.  Yet they did make their mark, they did make a stand and they did not take no for an answer.  It is in their resilience, tolerance, patience and passion that we see their lasting legacy and this is what makes them an inspiration to women in the law today, and society more generally.

There is no doubt that things need to change, the law and legal establishment needs to evolve with society and women need to recognise that ‘choice’ and ‘commitment’ are gendered terms used to deny structural responsibility.  It is not just the legal profession that needs to change.  Sexism and misogyny are commonplace in many professions and society more generally.[25]  Laura Bates argues that society needs to address this together and I agree.  Women need to look to each other and men need to listen.  If we start to put the agency back into the structure the legal profession and society could become a more tolerant and humanistic place.  Call me an optimist (or naïve) but we have to start somewhere and why not start with the people.

[1] Dr Ivy Williams, Helena Normanton, Sybil Campbell, Rose Heilbron and Elizabeth Lane are the ‘first women barristers’, see

[2] Now: Interviews with women in the law, see

[3] Women: A brief consideration of the social and political conditions in the early twentieth century, see

[4] University of Westminster, “Diversity in the Legal Professions in England and Wales: a qualitative study of barristers and individual choices”, available:, accessed: 2/9/15.

[5] Then: The Legal Pioneers, see

[6] The origins of the common law date back to King William I who wanted to assert and enforce the King’s supremacy.  Circuit Judges travelled around the country to established and enforce the ‘King’s Peace’ and select the best local customs and making them the basis of the law of England, although the reality of judicial circuit was that the judges were asserting central State authority and its legal forms over the fragmented State and legal forms of the earlier feudal period, see Gary Slapper, The English Legal System 2009-2010 (Oxon: Routledge-Cavendish, 10th ed, 2009).

[7] Parliamentary sovereignty was established in the seventeenth century following the Glorious Revolution 1688.

[8] Hilary Sommerlad and Peter Sanderson, Gender, Choice and Commitment (Aldershot: Ashgate/Dartmouth, 1998).

[9] Hilary Heilbron, Rose Heilbron, Legal Pioneer of the 20th Century, (Oxford: Hart Publishing Ltd, 2012).

[10] Patrick Polden, ‘The lady of tower bridge: Sybil Campbell, England’s first woman judge’, Women’s History Review, 1999, 8:3, 505-526.

[11] This procedure was widely criticised on the grounds that recommendation does not favour equality as it was based on the ‘old boys’ network’ with an in-built advantage for men, Claire McGlynn, The Woman Lawyer: Making the Difference (London: Butterworths, 1998), p.157. A new independent selection procedure has replaced this widely criticised system today and candidates are now recommended to the Lord Chancellor by the Law Society or Bar Counsel, Slapper, 2009.

[12] The Court and Legal Services Act 1990 introduced major changes to this system including advertising judicial opportunities and opening up judicial office to legal practitioners other than barristers and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 established the Judicial Appointments Commission which limited the authority of the Lord Chancellor, Slapper 2005, p.215/220.

[13] Patrick Polden, “Portia’s progress: women at the Bar in England”, 1919-1939, International Journal of the Legal Profession, 2007, 12:3, 293-338.

[14] Lane’s son sadly died as her career was taking off.

[15] Now: Interviews with women in the law, see

[16] Rosemary Hunter, Feminist Perspectives in the Law, 2015, available: …..; Alison Diduck interview, 2015, available…..; McGlynn, 1998; Sommerlad and Sanderson, 1998; Helena Kennedy, Women and British Justice: Eve was Framed (London: Vintage Press, revised ed 2005), p.3/4.

[17] Sommerlad and Sanderson, 1998.

[18] Women numerically dominate law schools and entry level positions in legal professions but make up less than a quarter of senior legal and judicial roles: around 25% of women are partners in UK law firms, see The Chambers Student Guide, ‘2014 Gender in the Law Survey’, 2014, available:, accessed: 8/8/15; 13% of self-employed Queen’s Counsel are women, see Bar Standards Board, ‘Queen’s Counsel Statistics’, 2014, available:’s%ADcounsel%ADs., accessed: 8/8/15; 18 % of the bench at the High Court and Court of Appeal are women and there is only one woman sitting at the Supreme Court, Courts Diversity Stat, 2013/14, available:, accessed: 2/9/15.

[19] Bar Standards Board, Barristers’ Working Lives: A Biennial Survey of the Bar 2011, 2011, available: , accessed: 2/9/15.

[20] Bar Standards Board, Barristers’ Working Lives: A Biennial Survey of the Bar 2011, 2011, available: , accessed: 2/9/15.

[21] McGlynn, 1998.

[22] Ken Robison, a leading scholar in the development of creativity, innovation and human potential, argues that finding your ‘Element’ or passion changes everything see Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica, The Element (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2009); Daniel Pink, author, economist and lecturer, agrees, noting that in their occupations human beings are motived by and indeed stay in their job because they are passionate about it, they have autonomy, purpose and mastery, Daniel Pink, The Surprising Truth about What Motivate Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).

[23] Hunter, 2015; Kennedy, 2005; McGlynn, 1998; Sommerlad and Sanderson, 1998.

[24] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).

[25] Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism Project, available:, accessed: 28/8/15.


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