Lady Littlewood

Published 14th September 2015

Guest post by Alice Tyson

Lady Barbara (“Bill”) Littlewood (1909-1995) may not be a familiar name to many, but her contributions to women in the legal profession should not be overlooked. She spent her long career at a firm of “country solicitors” (as they were known). Alongside this, she held an impressive list of achievements and acted as an advocate for women in the legal profession.

Education and career

Lady Littlewood studied mathematics, physics and psychology at King’s College London. She was admitted to the roll of solicitors in March 1936 just one month after the birth of her son. In 1942 she was made partner of the firm where she served her articles, Barlow, Norris and Jenkins, in Guildford.

Lady Littlewood also served as a magistrate in Middlesex from 1950, chairwoman of the 1919 club 1949-51 (now the Women Lawyers Division), president of the West Surrey Law Society 1952-53, president of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women 1965-68, and first female chair of the Solicitors Benevolent Association in 1979. Her commitment to the profession was remarkable, but also noteworthy is her attitude towards combining an active professional life with motherhood – something which is still a struggle for many women.

Family life

Lady Littlewood’s legal career was just beginning when her son was born. The family employed a nanny for the first six years, and this undoubtedly assisted her in pursuing her legal ambitions. Working life was perhaps easier for Lady Littlewood than it was for some of her contemporaries, as her husband, Sir Sydney Littlewood, supported her career choice. Indeed, in 1958 she asserted that her husband had encouraged her to enter the profession. This is not a stance that all women in the period could rely on their husbands to take. It is lucky that Sir Sydney was the supportive type, or he may have felt his own achievements were sometimes overshadowed by his wife’s prominence in the profession. As an example, when Sir Sydney was inaugurated as president of the Law Society in 1959, the Law Society Gazette proclaimed him to be the first president who was the husband of a solicitor.

It is clear that Lady Littlewood felt that there was more to being a woman than motherhood and the home. Whilst she had successfully combined home and work life, she wanted to inspire another generation to do the same. In 1965 she said, “I try to encourage girls to do their training and be qualified before they get married so that after looking after young children they can come back for a refresher course and take up careers”. In a time when many women were forced or pressured into giving up their careers upon marriage, Lady Littlewood took a different view on the matter. She felt that the broadened horizons of the woman who has interests outside of the home would make her a “more interesting” wife and mother. And what of those women who had not trained and qualified before marriage and children? During her time as President of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, the organisation sought to educate public opinion, encouraging training facilities for “older women” to enable them to go back to work.

A radical thinker?

It was not only to make themselves more interesting to their husbands that Lady Littlewood encouraged women to develop their careers. She was a true believer in equality and the responsibilities it entailed. In 1958, her expertise in matrimonial law led to her sitting on the Home Office Departmental Committee on matrimonial proceedings in Magistrates’ Courts. The resulting act, the Matrimonial Proceedings (Magistrates Courts) Act, 1960, made it possible for the court to order a wife to make payments to her husband in the event that he was unable to provide for himself due to age, illness or disability. In 1966, she told a group of 700 Canadian women that, if they divorced, they should be responsible for paying alimony to their ex-husband if he was unable to support himself. This suggestion was not well received, eliciting groans from the audience.

Lady Littlewood propounded equality for women, not just in law, but across political and professional life. Her aspirations for women are encapsulated in the following statement; “I look forward to the time when it is not news when women get to the top, to the time when we expect it.”

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