First 100 Years Summer Talk: Katharine McMahon

24th July 2015

Wednesday we were pleased to host the author and magistrate Katharine McMahon for a special edition of Wednesday Live in collaboration with the First 100 Years project. Katharine McMahon spoke about her latest fictional tale, Evelyn Gifford, whose journey into law in 1920 is recorded in McMahon’s books The Crimson Rooms and The Woman in the Picture. The Attic was full with an audience of lawyers, archivists, pioneers of law and professors.

Katharine began her talk by describing her process of writing a novel, where she found herself drawn to female relationships. Always writing about contrasting females, she juxtaposes conventional and unorthodox women in her stories. When writing historical fiction, Katharine creates a fictional world that is authentic: she never changes history or the truth but wraps fictional historic characters around real ones. Florence Nightingale’s illegitimate cousin Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon gave inspiration to Katharine when creating Evelyn Gifford.

Bodichon assisted in setting up schools for girls and helped the first woman to become a doctor. Due to her illegitimacy, she was outside of society’s conventions allowing her to do what was unheard of. This lead to Katharine’s interests in female lawyers – how did these women become lawyers? When researching, Katharine struggled to find writing about these lawyers. The women weren’t writing about themselves like how the men did, so she used the information on the men to understand what was happening in law in Evelyn Gifford’s time.

When writing a novel, Katharine informed us that you must put the character in jeopardy, but for Evelyn this was simple as female lawyers at this time were always in jeopardy. To be able to become a lawyer, a woman must have had lost their husband or father so she could be independent: she needed a reason to be allowed into law, and once she was there she still faced a level of chauvinism that we cannot underestimate. Only the most desperate of clients would have been represented by her.

Katharine concluded by doing a reading from her book from when Evelyn is at university studying. In a lecture, she is told “the future must be female… seize the opportunity to change the world”. These words were written by Katharine, but connected to many in the room sparking a discussion comparing the beginnings of women in law to how it is now. With so many inspiring women in the audience itself, the talk turned into an open discussion about diversity in law, where Katharine rounded up by emphasising how many minds were wasted by not allowing women into law.