Where Did It All Begin? (2015 Spark21 Conference)

Published 26th September 2016
As we look forward to the Annual Spark 21 Conference on 9 November 2016 at Simmons & Simmons LLP, the First 100 Years Project will be publishing excerpts of speeches from the 2015 Spark21 Conference every Monday, leading up to this year’s conference. Please visit the website for more information on how to attend.


Panel 1: Where did it all begin? Setting the context of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and the historical journey of women in the legal profession.

*We feature excerpts from panel discussions with Hilary Heilbron, Elizabeth Cruickshank, Judith Bourne, and Mari Takayanagi.

Mari, what sort of lobbying took place to get that first change in the Law in 1919?

I think you have to put the struggle of women to enter the legal profession in sort of a wider context of women’s struggle for equality, which started way back. But certainly [it started] from the mid 19th century when the organised campaign groups [fought] for women to have a parliamentary vote. Along with that was the entrance of women’s higher education with the formation of Women’s Colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, and the admission of women to places like UCL and University of Manchester which meant that women started to do Law degrees.

In the cases of Oxford and Cambridge [however, women] were allowed to sit all the exams and get a result but not actually be awarded the degree, because they didn’t allow it. In other places, [women were] awarded a degree but [were not] able to practice. Christabel Pankhurst, for example, the well-known suffragette, took a law degree but couldn’t practice. Gwyneth Bebb took [her case to court, giving] her name to the court case, “Bebb versus Law Society”.

And that I think is the most visible representation of a broader struggle by women who were small in number, but well educated and determined, and with the support, we shouldn’t forget, of some men MP’s and some barristers of the time. [These are] people like Lord Buckmaster and Lord Robert Cecil, who were well known men at the time [who] pushed the cause of these women. So that was all happening in conjunction, at the same time [with] women struggling to get into many other professions and to get the parliamentary vote. The reason for this being that women wanted to equalise the law. It’s a phrase we’ve heard recently: women didn’t want to be law-breakers, they wanted to be law-makers.

Part of that was becoming lawyers or getting the right to sit in parliament as MP’s, to try and make the law and change it in order to equalise unequal laws at the time, in areas like property, marriage, divorce, pensions, age of consent, the double morality standard and so on. And I think the reason why it became possible in 1919 and not before, was at least in part because women by this point had, some women at least, had a parliamentary vote. So in 1918, at the end of the First World War, women who had reached certain property qualifications and were over the age of thirty, were able to vote for the first time in parliamentary elections and a separate act passed at the same time allowed women to stand as MP’s for the first time.

As a result of this, it can’t be coincidental that the election manifesto’s that year in December 1918, from both the Conservative and Liberal Coalition, and from the Labour party in the opposition, supported at least in theory in their manifesto’s that they saw it as their duty to remove gender inequalities and as a result of that, for the first time you get legislation introduced into parliament the following year in 1919.

Judith, who are the really important women historically who have made a difference for other women by becoming lawyers?

So my research has been on Helena Normanton, so she for me stands as that icon. She was the person who pushed back boundaries and really sacrificed her own life, that sounds really dramatic, but I think that’s absolutely true. She suffered lots of criticism, but she just carried on. She was completely focused on her role in life, [which] was to open the bar to women.

She’s from very humble beginnings. Her father and mother separated which makes her quite unusual probably, because she came from separated parents. And then her father very mysteriously died near Paddington Station, committed suicide I imagine. And then her mother, in order to support her children, moved from place to place and eventually moved back to Brighton where her mother and her sisters were, and she works as a boarding house keeper. So she has very, very humble beginnings, but her mother’s philosophy is ‘you mustn’t ever rely on a man, and you have to be educated in order to support yourself’, and that’s really what she instills in her daughters. So one daughter becomes a nurse, and Normanton herself becomes obviously, eventually, a barrister. But before that she’s trained as a teacher. And she doesn’t get married in fact, until she’s in her forties when she’s qualified at the bar, but she had really struggled with being a history teacher because she was so anti-imperialist, that she was a teacher of history and she couldn’t get over the hypocrisy that England had in terms of teaching history and teaching about the Empire and how it was supposed to be a good thing. She completely disapproved of that.

So she was very unusual, very, very unusual. But her whole mission in life, it began at twelve when she sat in the solicitors office with her mother for mortgage advice, and the solicitor was very patronising to her mother, perhaps that’s debatable because perhaps he was just explaining and Normanton took it in the wrong way. But she said that when the solicitor gave advice to her mother, her mother couldn’t understand and he said ‘well I think your daughter understands’, and he made Helena Normanton recite what the solicitor was saying and she did it perfectly as she completely understood. And he said ‘well, you’re quite the little lawyer, and perhaps you’ll be a lawyer when you grow up’, and she said to herself ‘right, I will be. That’s what I will do’. So it’s at twelve that that dream of being a barrister is born.

You can say ‘well she wasn’t successful in terms of her career. Her practice wasn’t enormous and she did very low level, poor persons criminal work’. But she was successful in as much as she kept on practicing. She practiced right up until she retired in 1951. Her absolute objective was just to keep working, to keep on breaking down the stereotype that women can’t be lawyers, that they can and she was living proof that you could.

Elizabeth, who are your real heroes?

This is really quite interesting. I was nodding a lot while Judith was speaking, for several reasons. One is that there were women practising law for many years before we had the Bebb case or the Sex Disqualification Removal Act, but they were not qualified in the sense of somebody saying ‘you are an admitted solicitor or you’re called to the bar’. They were working in legal offices. One famous lady Eliza Orme, who more or less did everything that she possibly could working as what’s called a ‘devil’, writing papers [and] doing research for qualified solicitors and barristers. And she was operating at the end of the 19th Century.

But what was possibly even more interesting was the number of women who were working in legal offices, as what we would call probably ‘legal executives’. Now, they worked there for many years. They specialised in particular areas of the Law, and they probably knew a lot more than a lot of the young solicitors they were supposedly working for. And it’s quite interesting that several of those who qualified, when the Act was passed, had been doing this for many years. In fact the background of some of them is interesting. There is one young woman whose father was a Russian emigre and a hotel waiter. She somehow got herself a job in a legal office, and when the Act came through, she got articles with her principal, and she came first in the 1924 finals examinations in the Law Society. And she must have known bucket loads of Law by that time.

Also, Carrie Morrison. Now that’s an interesting person, and there are definitely some parallels with Helena’s background. They’re not totally the same. Her mother was the daughter of a shepherd from Lincolnshire, who was illiterate. Sadly unlike Helena, she had nobody in her family who was keeping records of her life. She did marry, but she had no children. Her father by this time had become a wealthy metal broker in the city of London, which is a whole other interesting story in itself. Her mother had been a cook, to a Minister of the Church of England, so I would imagine that she had very strong moral principles. As a result of the relationship between her parents, Carrie ended up travelling the world, because of her father’s business, so she was educated variously in this country, in Italy, in France, in Spain and in Germany. She was able to go to Manchester High School for Girls in 1904, where she astonished everybody with her facility with languages, and her ability to write. She won two scholarships, one to Girton, and one from her school. She went to Girton College, then tried teaching and she was honest enough to say later that she hated it and it wasn’t good for the children so she’d do something else.

She wanted to train as a secretary so she could become a Parliamentary secretary, but then the War intervened. So she worked for various organisations including MI5. In any event, the reason that she became the first woman solicitor is actually far more interesting than having a race down Chancery Lane although that has acquired apocryphal status. The reason is that at the end of the War, she was working for the Army of the Black Sea in Constantinople. Now, a lot of solicitors and article clerks were killed during the First World War, so there were simply, believe it or not, not enough solicitors. So the Law Society relaxed the rules for qualification. And they said that those people, it started off as being those men of course, who had done important military work during the war, were excused a year of their articles. So she was in fact required to do only two years’ articles instead of three. So although four women did in fact sit the finals examination, at the end of 1922, she was the first woman who could possibly be admitted as a solicitor. And that is why, because her articles finished sooner. In fact, I think she was an extraordinarily appropriate person.

Hilary, what was your mother[Dame Rose Heilbron QC]’s early experience?

Well, I think she really just got on with the job, because there was nobody really to follow. She was very much a pioneer; she started in the war period, in practice at the bar, when a lot of the men of course were away at the war. And she developed a substantial practice which she kept after they came back. I think it was probably later on when she was establishing herself that the first signs of prejudice really emerged, and when I was researching for her biography I couldn’t find anything in the earlier years. I think it was just so novel, everything she did was reported in the press as being something unusual. A woman appears in Birkenhead Magistrates Court, Woman Barrister, every little thing was new in those days. And I think particularly when she got married and had me; to have a working mother was again something which was very unusual.

I think the prejudice set in, or became obvious when she tried to progress through the profession, because she had to wait much longer for most things than she would have done had she been a man. And obviously there was unspoken prejudice which you can’t actually see, but undoubtedly it existed, amongst the men at the bar. And I assume probably from amongst some of the judges. But as I said, I think it was there, obviously, and perhaps more blatant in the later years, trying to get up the ladder.

And what did your mother [Dame Rose Heilbron QC] do to help other women?

My mother, simply by her achievements, at the time it was very rare, had a lot of publicity. She was the first woman Queen’s Counsel, along with Helena Normanton who was the first woman judge, first woman bencher, first woman treasurer, first woman to sit at the Old Bailey and a whole string of things. Each of these got a lot of publicity as did her cases. And it encouraged, undoubtedly I’ve been told, it encouraged a lot of other women to come to the profession. For example, of the first few High Court judges, five of them came from the Northern Circuit around Liverpool and Manchester, where she practiced. She was really in that area, a household name. So I think that in itself, if you have somebody who has achieved something, it gives other people encouragement that it can be done. She used to talk a lot, because she was asked to speak on equal pay and a lot of [other] things that in those days people would blink their eyes. She was very much ahead of her time – equal opportunity for women – and again that was all reported in the press. And then at a personal level she helped younger members of the bar if they were looking for pupillage, and things like that. Or, in other ways she would help them. So I think at those three levels she assisted women.