Maud Crofts: “We women want not privileges but equality.”

Published 5th July 2016

Guest Post by Elizabeth Cruickshank

When Maud Crofts was formally admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales on 11 January 1923 she realised an ambition for which she had been working for more than a decade.

Maud Isabel Crofts, (nee Ingram) was born in 1889, one of the twelve children of Middle Temple barrister, Thomas Lewis Ingram and his wife Victoria Skinner. Maud was a robust child who went on to study at Girton College, Cambridge where she obtained honours in both the History and Law Tripos and, having captained the Cambridge Women’s Colleges Six against Oxford for two years, was awarded a Tennis Blue. In an intellectually able family, where all her brothers studied at Cambridge University and one sister became a doctor, Maud was acknowledged as being “the bright one”, believing that education was the only way that women could attain equality with men.

She had been attracted to the Law when her parents permitted her as a child to copy out the deeds of a house that they had bought and she recognised the controlling power of legal documents. Later she felt keenly that it was an “injustice” that her father’s gardener had the right to vote, while she, an educated woman, had not. This led her to use her considerable oratorical skills to campaign for the right of all women to vote on the same basis as men, regarding herself as a suffragist rather than a suffragette. Her view was that women would get nowhere “by chucking themselves in front of race horses or tying themselves to railings, it had all to be done in a legal way”.

In 1913, only months after she had completed her studies in History and Law at Cambridge she and three other young women (Lucy Nettlefold and Karin Costelloe from Cambridge and Gwyneth Bebb from Oxford) unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the courts that the Law Society should be compelled to admit them to its preliminary examinations (Bebb v Law Society [1914] 1 Ch. 286). Undeterred by this rejection, she joined the Committee for the Opening of the Legal Profession to Women whose efforts eventually resulted in the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) in December 1919. She had been motivated by her profound belief that it was surely “an intolerable hardship that a woman, at a time perhaps of great need, should have to face a male judge, supported only by a male advocate who from the very fact of his sex is often quite unable to express his client’s point of view. In cases where children are concerned, it is also obvious that the services of a woman barrister or solicitor would often be of immense value.”

She spent much of the First World War engaged in social work focused on women and children and campaigning for suffrage and women’s right to practise the law, in furtherance of which she gained experience in a solicitor’s office, although she had to wait until the passing of the 1919 Act to be able to begin formal training as a solicitor. In June 1922, six months before she sat her Finals examination, she married John Cecil Crofts, a young solicitor who worked in the same office at 5 New Square, and after her admission as a solicitor they set up in practice together with her brother, Robert Ingram.

For many middle-class women of that era, marriage and certainly the advent of children, meant the end of any personal career ambitions, but Maud Crofts was not willing to give up either her hard fought-for status as one of the first four women solicitors or the possibility of replicating the happy family life she had enjoyed as a child. She continued practising as a solicitor until ill-health forced her to retire at the age of 66, on the basis that her husband and brother would each take two fifths of the partnership profits while she received the remaining one fifth so that she could leave work every day in time to meet her two children from school. Her daughter Rosemary and her grand-daughter, Mary, both followed her into the legal profession, thus becoming England’s first three generational family of women solicitors.

In common with several of her legal friends, she wrote and spoke copiously about women’s legal rights, often outlining their changing position as citizens and in politics over the previous decades. As a family law expert, who was the solicitor for charities such as the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child and legal adviser to the Six Point Group, she was particularly qualified to advise women’s groups on marriage, divorce and the custody of children. Her 1925 book “Women under English Law”, a succinct description of women’s legal status at that time and the law which was of particular relevance to them, was the first book to be written by a British woman lawyer on women’s position in society. So well did she demonstrate the special qualities that women could bring to the practice of the Law that that many of her clients, some of whom were wealthy feminists who had entrusted her with their affairs, removed their business from the family firm because they wanted to deal only with women.

We women want not privileges but equality. We do not want to be treated as children, and we are willing to take the responsibility if we get the privileges.
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