Gwyneth Bebb

Published 7th July 2014
Gwyneth Bebb gave her name to the famous ‘Bebb v Law Society’ case of 1913, which ruled that women were not ‘persons’ under the meaning of the Solicitors Act of 1843 and continued to prohibit them from practising law. However, whilst her name has become synonymous with the female struggle for equality, her personal story is often neglected, and elements of it remain shrouded in mystery. Her contribution was monumental; despite the failure of the case, the cause continued to gather momentum in the press, and this publicity helped propel the campaign to its eventual success. That her personal journey is far less well known than that of some of her peers is down to her tragic premature death.

Bebb’s desire to pursue a legal career was most intensely piqued by her time spent studying jurisprudence at Oxford, where she achieved a first class in her examinations, but, in accordance with university regulations, was not awarded with her degree. So, instead of pursuing her desired career in the law, Gwyneth put her exceptional education and talent to good use, prosecuting black marketeers for the Ministry of Food during the war. Given her excellent examination results and years of experience, when parliament finally passed the 1919 Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act – which finally admitted women to the legal profession – Bebb ought to have become the first female barrister. This would have been the case, were it not for the birth of her first baby the day after the act was passed. As soon as she had recovered, she applied to join the Bar but, in 1921, Gwyneth had her second child. In a tragic turn of events, the baby died two days after birth, with Bebb herself left in a precarious condition. She struggled for her life, but passed away only two months later at the age of 31, her dream left unrealised, but her legacy allowing other women to pursue the same dream.