A story of three women: “one very famous, one not so famous and one not famous at all”

Published 12th February 2018
The 2018 Pankhurst Lecture, “2018 – A Year of Anniversaries”, was delivered on the evening of 8th February 2018 by Baroness Hale of Richmond DBE PC FBA, the first woman to become President of the Supreme Court.

On the night, the University of Manchester, where Lady Hale taught law from 1966 to 1984, welcomed her back with open arms and rapturous applause. Lady Hale chose to use the opportunity to highlight the lives of three great women who were all alive in 1918 – the year (some) women got the vote, on the 6th February.

Lady Hale couldn’t deliver the Pankhurst Lecture without mentioning Christabel Pankhurst herself, a suffragette and leading figure in the Women’s Social and Political Union who obtained a First Class degree in Law from the University of Manchester. Lady Hale told the story of how Christabel was unable to practise as a barrister in 1904 just by virtue of the fact that she was a woman. The somewhat lesser known story of Miss Bertha Cave had set the precedent just a few months earlier when her own request to be admitted as a student to Gray’s Inn was refused on the grounds that women were not “persons”. It would be 1920, after enactment of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, before women were admitted to the Inns of Court as student barristers.

The second great woman (and sadly not so famous) was Margaret Haig Mackworth, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda, whose mother, Sybil Haig, 1st Viscountess Rhondda, must also get a mention as a prominent feminist and suffragette. Margaret’s father obtained special permission for his daughter to inherit his title upon his death. However, when she tried to take his seat in the House of Lords, citing the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, she was refused on the grounds that the 1919 Act could not be applied retrospectively. Lady Rhondda never entered the House of Lords. She did (just) live to see the Life Peerages Act reach royal assent in 1958 which allowed women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time. Five years later the Peerages Act 1963 was passed which would have allowed women such as Margaret to take their seat.

The third of Lady Hale’s great women (and not famous at all) was her own mother. Born in 1908, she began her life in a time when women were often entirely dependent on men and lived through a time of emerging independence. Lady Hale recalled that growing up there was never any question that she and her two sisters would go to university. When her father died at a young age, her mother “picked herself up” and became the headmistress of the local primary school in order to ensure that her two younger children could remain at the Richmond School for Girls. It is clear that her mother’s determination had a huge influence on a young Lady Hale.

Whilst not the subject of her own lecture, save perhaps for the wonderful introduction from Professor Colette Fagan, the final great woman of the evening has to be Lady Hale herself. Describing herself as a woman of many “firsts”, she was the first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission; the first High Court judge to have made her career as an academic and public servant rather than a practising barrister; the United Kingdom’s first (and only) woman Law Lord; the first (but, since 2017, not the only one) female Justice of the Supreme Court and the first female President of the Supreme Court.

As the evening drew to a close, we were treated to a fascinating glimpse into some of Lady Hale’s personal views on gender inequality.

Whilst she sees the benefit of positive discrimination in some settings (for example, in encouraging female politicians) she is not convinced that it has a place in the judiciary – preferring that steps continue to be taken to ensure equality of opportunity for all and a transparent application process.

After confirming her shock at the 40% gender pay gap reported at some law firms, she imparted some of her own wisdom, suggesting that whilst there is no easy answer, two factors can play a part in how much people are paid – our ability to ask for more money and / or be mobile. In her opinion, some women lack confidence to do the first and, generally speaking, find the second more difficult than men, perhaps due to additional responsibilities they tend to bear. She suggested that, as a start at least:

Women need to be encouraged to speak up and ask to be paid appropriately.

She set the record straight on her view on male only groups – whether or not she agrees with them, she has not taken issue with men being part of male only institutions but does object to judges being part of them. In her view, their membership calls into question their views on equality and a judge must always be and appear to be equal.

On the subject of male only groups, she recalled her own experience as a young female barrister being refused permission to attend the barrister’s mess by the “dinosaurs”. But the story ended well – a postal vote ensured that the dinosaurs were outnumbered and, eventually, women were allowed to attend.

Lady Hale definitely lives up to her widely regarded reputation as a trailblazer. There is an honesty to her judgments and, it seems, her lectures, which, alas, sometimes are missing from the legal profession.

She is truly one of our great women and an inspiration to female lawyers, including this one.

Written for the First 100 Years project by Charlotte Lewis, Associate, Hill Dickinson
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