“A woman is not a person”, a symposium celebrating the life of Gwyneth Bebb

24th September 2018
Photograph from the Tomlins family archive.

On Saturday 15 September, the St Hugh’s College Alumni Association hosted a fascinating afternoon of speakers, panel discussion and exhibits to celebrate the life of St Hugh’s alumna and law pioneer, Gwyneth Bebb. The event was particularly poignant as members of the Bebb/Thomson family, Martin and Angela Tomlins and Tom and Anne Tickell, were in attendance and had loaned many of their family photographs and personal letters for the exhibition.

The Principal of St Hugh’s College, The Rt Hon Elish Angiolini, DBE QC opened the event, a pioneer herself, having been appointed the first woman Solicitor General and Lord Advocate of Scotland. She reminded the audience of the struggle and opposition faced by the earlier women lawyers with the prevailing sentiment that having a legal mind was a ‘masculine asset’.

Veronica Lowe, Symposium Chairman and President of the St Hugh’s Alumni Association introduced the speakers: Professor Senia Paseta, Professor of Modern History, co-Director of Women in the Humanities at Oxford University and curator of the exhibition “From Sappho to Suffrage” in the Weston Library; and Jane Robinson, the author of 10 books on women pioneers including “Bluestockings – The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education”.

The Panel members were: the St Hugh’s alumna The Right Worshipful Dr Sheila Cameron QC CBE DCL, [Dean of the Arches Canterbury and Auditor of the Chancery Court of York from 2001 to 2009, being the senior ecclesiastical judge of the Church of England during that period.; Dame Janet Gaymer DBE QC (Hon), [the first female senior partner of a major City firm Simmons & Simmons, a leading employment lawyer, former Commissioner for Public Appointments and currently non-executive director of the House of Commons Commission and Chair of its Administration Audit and Risk Assurance Committee]; Carolyn Kirby OBE [appointed the first woman President of the Law Society in 2002, President of the Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales since 1999, and judge in the Provincial Court of the Church in Wales] ; and the St Hugh’s alumna The Rt Hon. Nicky Morgan [MP for Loughborough since 2010, previous Mergers & Acquisitions solicitor, former Secretary of State for Education, Minister for Women & Equalities, and respectively Financial and Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and current chair of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee].

Professor Senia Paseta, spoke about the life of Gwyneth Bebb (Law, 1908), and her part in the campaign to allow women to enter the legal profession. St Hugh’s during her 3 years as an undergraduate from 1908 to 1911 must have been a ‘hot–bed of suffrage activity’. Studying law was a risky choice for women then, as they couldn’t practice law so she must have been passionate to be part of the change against the prevailing view at the time. Gwyneth Bebb achieved a First Class in Jurisprudence, apparently the best Law degree in her year, though she was not awarded the degree due to her sex until 1920 when Oxford University changed its statutes. Further, her application to the Law Society to become a solicitor was rejected. Following a well-publicised campaign, she was one of four female plaintiffs to bring a test case in 1913: Bebb v The Law Society. This failed both at first instance and on appeal. Despite argument to interpret the word ‘person’ in legislation and in the Law Society’s Charter as including females, the judges chose to look to the common law tradition that only men could practice as lawyers. The title of the Symposium “A Woman is Not a Person” came from the judgment of Joyce J dismissing the case.

The author Jane Robinson then discussed the impact of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which enabled women to enter the professions for the first time. Gwyneth Bebb was the lead Plaintiff in Bebb v The Law Society but there were 3 other female Plaintiffs: Lucy Nettlefold, Maud Crofts and Karen Costelloe. The furore caused by the case, and the powerful support of male lawyers such as Lord Buckmaster KC, eventually resulted in the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. This allowed women to become solicitors and barristers as well as to perform jury service, to become magistrates and to join the Civil Service. Helena Normanton, in 1922 the second woman to be called to the Bar, went onto become one of the first two female KCs in 1949. However, limits to female professional progress still remained as the Act was enabling legislation not mandatory. In effect, no-one was forced to employ or to use a female lawyer.

Jane also described the prevailing tension in 1920 between how women were expected to behave in public and the rituals of the legal profession. In a speech, Gwyneth Bebb self-deprecatingly talked about how she’d arrange her hair to manage a wig and to cope with the copious ale-drinking requirements of frequent dining at the Inns by drinking ginger beer. There were some amazing excuses given by the Inns of Court at the time: ‘there won’t be enough cheese.’ It took moral courage for employers and employees at the time to employ women. The two World Wars did not actually liberate women by allowing them to work – it was expedient for them to do so. They had to fight for every gain, but thanks to Gwyneth Bebb and her peers they persevered, and we owe them a huge debt for their achievements and their example as the struggles continue.

Veronica Lowe then invited the panel to answer questions. The first was:

“Gwyneth Bebb’s story as a professional woman has surprisingly modern resonances. What is the single most important lesson for aspiring professionals to be derived from her experiences?”

• Professor Senia Paseta – The inspirational story of Gwyneth Bebb determined to pursue a professional career certainly had a modern resonance It is important not to take negative comments personally, invariably it says more about the detractors themselves. She also emphasised the importance of finding and collecting like-minded people, indeed a ‘posse of friends’ in whatever profession you find yourself in.
• Jane Robinson – What helped Gwyneth Bebb was the sense of sisterhood, shared experiences and mutual support in the knowledge that they were part of an endeavour to represent other women and ‘a greater cause’.
• Sheila Cameron – There is a need to recognise that you can’t necessarily achieve the objective of a successful career alone. You need support, including from your partner. She reflected on her experiences in the 1950s, when there was huge antagonism against women by some male barristers and particularly their clerks. The senior clerk of her Chambers, fortunately, started to give her briefs when solicitors started asking for her. She said that if some ‘brave men’ had not offered her opportunities she would not have been able to establish herself, and then move into the field of ecclesiastical law. She stated that men should be encouraged to be more supportive and more can be done by leading by example.
• Janet Gaymer – The fact that she had married a solicitor had made a difference to her. She was offered partnership before him and he had encouraged her. The sense of humour that Gwyneth Bebb had displayed (as evidenced in her correspondence and speeches) was vital. She said she could now see the funny side of an early rejection letter, which stated that the solicitors’ firm was ‘prejudiced’ against women articled clerks, because of previous ‘unfortunate experiences’.
• Carolyn Kirby –Women should be encouraged to pursue their ambitions and to be open about what they want, otherwise there is a risk of being sidelined. She recalled efforts to push her into family law when she wanted to go into the commercial sphere. ‘Do not be afraid to be the first person to do something, you can act as a role model for others to follow.’ She recounted that despite there always being female principals at her school Cheltenham Ladies College, the Chair of Governors was always male until she became the first female Chair.
• Nicky Morgan – Having previously worked as a solicitor, she echoed the encouragement to be ‘brave’ and to leave self-doubt aside. She reflected on the arduous struggle of Gwyneth Bebb and fellow campaigners. There are always going to be times when one is not certain about what to do. Ask for help, say ‘yes’ to opportunities, persevere and retain that sense of humour.
• Elish Angiolini – Recounted that she liked to take the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ presumption that everyone was full of goodwill and to ignore ‘naysayers’ although that had been tested – as there had been no robing rooms for women, she had had to resort to changing in the Court public lavatory and decided to pretend to be a superhero!

Veronica Lowe said that led nicely onto examples from the panel about amusing or ‘downright bloody awful’ incidents they had experienced.
• Carolyn Kirby – Described that at her interview by the senior partner of a modest solicitors’ firm which had never had a female articled clerk, she was grilled about subjects she hadn’t yet studied for the Law Society exams, and told to draft on the spot an agreement in conformity with the Consumer Credit Act. She left in tears. Then, after she had been accepted at that firm, she found that she had been paid substantially less than the male solicitors as they had ‘wives to support and she lived with her parents.’ It was ironic and rather sad to reflect that whereas she went onto become President of the Law Society, of the two contemporary male articled clerks, one had died and the other was struck off.
• Nicky Morgan – Described her fortunate chance in coming to St Hugh’s. As her “A” level grades were better than expected, she was found a place by Ann Smart, the inspirational Law Fellow. More recently, in her position as Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, she had asked for a brief on certain financial services products, and the male official had hesitated then replied that it was “complex”. On being pressed, he decided to comply as he confirmed that he had been told that she was ‘quite bright’. She had no problem in challenging this person for patronising her.
• Veronica Lowe – Agreed that such behaviour required challenging. She was more willing to do so as time went on as one can be polite but tough in the face of being treated unfavourably. She recounted that she had initially been unable to get a job as a solicitor in her 30s in the North-East despite good private practice experience and City-type training as she had a small child and so was considered not to be serious. She was also told that it was a case of a woman taking a job from a man who needed to support a family.

Veronica Lowe then asked, commencing with Elish Angiolini, if one visualized in 2018 a graph of the trajectory of women in the legal professions since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, at which point in the panel’s opinion did the graph reach? Did the answer differ if one considered entry to the professions or presence in positions of seniority?
• Elish Angiolini – Agreed there were fewer women at the top as compared to entrants, but there had been significant and symbolic gains in the appointment of Brenda Hale as President of the Supreme Court and of Heather Hallett to the Court of Appeal, and female senior partners at major law firms.
• Janet Gaymer – There were considerable numbers of women entrants but the numbers did tail off at partnership level and this was often linked to having children. She went onto describe that there can be an unsustainable lifestyle in law for both men and women. She emphasised that she believed many women were ‘silent sufferers’ in that they will leave a firm without telling the true reason. Further, in the area of promotions women should not wait ‘to be asked to dance’. She explained this quote by saying that she had been genuinely surprised by a male colleague encouraging her to apply to be senior partner at Simmons & Simmons. When she did nothing about it, he came into her office, wrote the email saying that she was applying and told her to press send! She did so.

In a contribution from the floor from John Hayes, former Secretary-General of the Law Society, he described how his daughter-in-law, a women solicitor from an ethnic minority background who had trained and worked in a City firm, ultimately quietly left the profession, one of the silent leavers referred to by Janet Gaymer. She had said that one of the worst aspects was the lack of good role models and someone to talk to in order to help you in pursuit of goals. Further, she had experienced women whose approach was that they had ‘done it the hard way’ and were unsympathetic towards women coming up behind them. His experience of women applicants, as an employer at the Law Society and previously as chief executive of local government authorities, was that their qualities of empathy, enthusiasm and their academics far exceeded their male peers. He believed that employers should understand and accommodate the element of guilt that he observed women displayed at work in trying to do their very best in all areas of their lives. He said he strongly believed that there was a role within organisations to adapt structurally to help women progress into senior positions.

Dorothy Livingston, the first female partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, from the audience said that those points had real resonance. The role of senior women to mentor and encourage other women by being prepared to talk and listen was desperately important. Also, being an advocate of women within organisations, helping to create balance and enabling change to happen.

Because of Sheila Cameron’s difficult early years at the Bar, her self-reliance but some male professional support based exclusively on her performance as a barrister, Veronica Lowe asked her if self- determination was the answer rather than female role models. She replied that in terms of the Bar, there were advantages in being self-employed, choosing one’s hours and not being indebted to professional partners, or billable hours or targets for promotion. However, when she looked back over her forty-year career, she had to fight very hard.

Veronica Lowe posed a question related to a comment by two very well-known female barristers who took silk in 2016 (no names supplied!). Overt sexism and unacceptable behaviour are on the wane but a number of male lawyers do not understand diversity or the need for it.
• Christina Blacklaws (current President of the Law Society) said that the professional body recognises that leadership in law is a problem. That as a result of their nationwide survey, under 15% of law firms are owned by women and the key issue of why women were not progressing is unconscious bias.
• Nicky Morgan agreed that openly discriminatory behaviour is much less likely to happen, but unconscious bias does happen all the time: assumptions are made which count women out, for example, if they have small children. If the case is complex and time-consuming, they may not be asked. The answer is through training and developing effective networks. It is also vital to challenge assumptions and indeed ourselves; this is how to effect culture change, whilst acknowledging that this is difficult.

Veronica Lowe then asked Carolyn Kirby as the first female President of the Law Society if quotas are the answer? She replied no, as they undermine achievements and smack of tokenism. She wondered if targets might be better. She was reminded of a comment attributed to Dame Mary Archer, that as women always need to prove that they were better than men, true equality would be when there were as many mediocre women at the top as men!
• Senia Paseta observed that there were similar issues for women in academia: the professorial rate was 18%, there were low rates of female Fellows and structural barriers at Oxford. A large proportion of what was being taught was written by men, and taught by men. The portraits displayed in colleges are predominately male. Having women as role models and mentors is vital, and this work should be recognised and rewarded as actual work, rather than some voluntary expectation which went unrewarded. She said that women should vote with their feet and not be expected to do all the equality and diversity work whilst trying to do their jobs well as mediocre men leapfrog them to more senior positions.

From the floor Professor Joshua Getzler, Professor of Law and Legal History, Fellow of St Hugh’s, asked what legislative change could be made to improve these issues?

• Senia Paseta said that having 50:50 representation in Parliament would improve the cultural environment and bring about cultural change. Elish Angiolini said that since the Scottish legislature had increased the number of women there had been a sea change in attitude.
• Nicky Morgan agreed and said she would extend the diversity argument to include more than gender – to people of different backgrounds economically, ethnically or in respect of sexual orientation. She said that in terms of legislation, the gender pay gap was something that was being addressed by transparency requirements and thus being challenged. If that did not work, she believed that any government would be interested in tackling this.
• Janet Gaymer said that from her perspective as an employment lawyer, relying on voluntary compliance only went so far. Legislation helps to enforce change. She thought that too many contracts of employment were old-fashioned and not enough was being done to improve the working environments at the ‘coal face’. There was a debate on how much legislation on female equality there had been since the 1919 Act. The audience was concerned to hear from Janet that there had been none until the Equal Pay Act 1970 which did not come into force until 1975 (following the EU Directive of 1975 on Equal Pay); then the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Interestingly the Race Relations Act was passed 10 years earlier in 1965, partly due to the efforts of the famous male cricketer (and barrister) Sir Learie Constantine who had been discriminated against.
• Shelia Cameron said that legislation had helped in the areas of maternity and paternity leave. She had personal experience within her family of re-organisations being done whilst maternity leave was being taken, and employers saying that there was no longer a job. This is against the law and we all need to take a stand for these rights to be upheld. In terms of women progressing through the legal profession, she cited figures of women’s appointments to the judiciary. What was striking is that if one looked at the Tribunals Service, there were many more women judges than in the more conventional branches of the judiciary. Veronica Lowe, as a Tribunal Judge for 17 years, endorsed this.

A wonderful surprise then followed for Gwyneth Bebb’s family as they were presented with a painting by Amelia Lowe depicting the stained glass window that had been created in 1921 through voluntary subscriptions in memory of Gwyneth for St Mary’s School in Paddington which she attended from 1906 to 1908. The school is now located at Gerrards Cross. The original is thought to have been lost in the Blitz. Veronica Lowe quoted the subscription letter which was a testament to Gwyneth’s “rare charm” and the lasting impression she had made whilst at the school for only 2 years.

Concluding the event, sincere thanks were given by Veronica Lowe for the superb display of photographs and artifacts curated by Amanda Ingram, St Hugh’s College Archivist and Nora Khayi, St Hugh’s College Librarian; and for the support given by St Hugh’s College Development Office headed by Sarah Carthew, and especially for the hard work of Catharine Rainsberry, the Alumni Relations Manager. Finally to take a bow was Dr. Gianetta Corley, who conducted considerable research at the Women’s Library and compiled the leaflet for the event, and to Ben Parker, barrister and immediate past President of the St Hugh’s College Alumni Association.

Elish Angiolini thanked the St Hugh’s College Alumni Association for organising the event, and said she would put forward the suggestion of having a portrait painted for the College by Amelia Lowe of the ‘brilliant Miss Bebb.’ A fitting legacy indeed.

Written by Lucinda Acland, Project Team Member at First 100 Years.