Women in French Legal History

Published 15th June 2017
Three women changed the course of history in France at the end of the 19th century. Their names are not well-known even though they contributed to women’s access to the legal profession.

Sarmiza Bilcescu was the first woman to obtain a licence to practice law. She also obtained a PhD in Law. A Romanian citizen, she was born on April 27, 1867 in Bucharest. Her parents sent her to Paris to study at the age of 17. She chose to study law at university and was the first woman to apply. She was initially refused due to the concern that her presence among the other male students would create disorder. However, the college council eventually accepted her. She obtained her licence in Law in 1887. Her thesis was titled “On the Legal Condition of the Mother in Roman Law and French Law.” She decided against applying to the French Bar because it was difficult for women to become a lawyers in France at the time. She therefore tried and was successfully admitted with full honours to the Bar association in Ilfov County (Bucharest) in 1891, although she actually never entered into practice.

Jeanne Chauvin is celebrated as the first woman to enter the French legal profession but in reality, Sophie Petit beat her to the mark. 70% of women students were foreigners at the time. Sophie Petit (nee Scheïna Léa Balachowsky) was born in Russia (modern day Ukraine) on March 16, 1870. She arrived in Paris to further her studies and wrote a thesis titled “​Law and Ordinance within States that do not enforce the Separation of Powers​”. Sophie took the oath before the Court of Appeal of Paris on December 6, 1900, 13 days before Jeanne Chauvin.

Jeanne Marie Marguerite Chauvin was born on April 22, 1862 in Jargeau, Loiret. She obtained a law degree on July 18, 1890 and published her thesis titled “Historical Study of the Professions Open to Women, the Influence of Semitism on changes in the Economic Position of Women in Society” on July 2, 1892. She became a teacher because she thought she would never be accepted as a lawyer. Louis Frank, ​a Belgian barrister and supporter of equal rights for women, persuaded her to apply for admission to the Bar. She did so on November 27, 1897 and presented herself before the Court of Appeal to take the oath. However, the Court refused her admission because it was forbidden by the law. Consequently, she fought to change the law with her brother’s help, Émile who was a lawyer and Member of Parliament. They were helped by two well-known politicians, Raymond Poincaré and René Viviani. A law was finally promulgated on November 13, 1900. Jeanne Chauvin took the oath before the Court of Appeal of Paris on December 19, 1900 and became the second French woman lawyer. In 1907, she became the first woman lawyer to plead a case.