Gwyneth Bebb was the plaintiff in the famous Bebb v Law Society case of 1913, which was an attempt by Bebb and others to open the legal profession to women in Britain, claiming the Law Society should be compelled to admit them to its examinations, as women were ‘persons’ within the Solicitors Act 1843. However, the action was unsuccessful, and women were barred from the profession until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.
Bebb’s contribution to the fight for equal access to the legal professions was monumental; despite the failure of the case, the publicity around it in the press helped to propel the campaign to its eventual success. However, while Bebb’s name has become synonymous with the struggle for equality, her personal story is often neglected, in part due to her tragic premature death.
Born on the 27th October 1889 in Oxford, Gwyneth’s father was a Reverend and Fellow at Brasenose College and her mother was the daughter of a surgeon. Gwyneth attended St Mary’s College school in Paddington, before reading Jurisprudence at Oxford in 1908, only the seventh woman at Oxford to study for a law degree. She attended St Hugh’s Hall Oxford, which had been established in 1886 as a foundation for ‘girls from modest homes’, and became an Oxford college in 1911. For most of her degree, Gwyneth was the only woman in the law school, studying alongside nearly 400 male students. Twenty years after Cornelia Sorabji had studied at Oxford, female law students remained rare, due to the fact careers in law were still closed to them.
In 1911, Gwyneth achieved first-class honours in her final examinations (the first woman at Oxford to do so), but was not entitled to a degree in accordance with university regulations. Unable to pursue a career in the law, Gwyneth took up a post as investigating officer for the Board of Trade, which inspected industrial workplaces to ensure they met minimum conditions and wages, a job which included prosecuting employers who failed to comply.
At the same time, there were increasing efforts to open the law professions to women. Lord Wolmer introduced a private member’s bill to Parliament to admit women into the solicitors’ profession, backed by Lord Robert Cecil and Jack Hills MP, but it failed. A test case was organised, with four women including Gwyneth sending off applications to sit for the Law Society’s preliminary examinations in December 1912. When their applications were rejected, Gwyneth and the three others (Karin Costelloe, Maud Ingram and Lucy Nettleford) brought actions against the Law Society declaring that they were ‘persons’ within the meaning of the Solicitors’ Act 1843.
At a dinner for women law graduates in 1913, Bebb was reported to have said “prejudice and a fear of competition underlay a good deal of the opposition shown to women wishing to enter the legal profession”. Despite the failure of the case, the newspapers were generally sympathetic. On the 25th January 1913, The Express wrote, “If a woman can take a first class in law at Oxford, what right has the Law Society to prevent her from earning her living as a solicitor?”
During the war, attempts to open the professions to women were disrupted, and Gwyneth took up a position in the National Service for Women as Commissioner for the West Midland division and later worked as Assistant Commissioner for Enforcement for the Ministry of Food, Midlands Division. The Ministry of Food regulated rationing, and Gwyneth conducted prosecutions against black marketeers. In recognition of her work, Gwyneth was awarded the OBE.
Gwyneth married Thomas Weldon Thomson, a solicitor on 26th April 1917. Their first child was born in December 1919, just a few days after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 passed, finally opening the legal professions to women. After recovering from childbirth, Gwyneth applied to Lincoln’s Inn and was admitted as a student in January 1920. The Bar’s hand had been forced by the new legislature; its 1918 annual general meeting had still voted 178 to 22 against admitting women.
In 1921, Gwyneth fell pregnant again whilst studying for her Bar exams. The baby Maria died two days after being born, and Gwyneth suffered from placenta praevia. She died two months after giving birth, on 9th October 1921, aged 31. Her dreams of a legal career were left unrealised, having never been called to the Bar, but her pioneering efforts allowed countless other women to fulfil the same ambitions.