Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the First 100 Years (www.first100years.org.uk) and founder and CEO of Obelisk Support.
If you have not read the case of Bebb v Law Society (1914), I strongly urge you to do so. To an extent, the case should be made compulsory reading for all those entering the legal profession so they can start to consider early into their careers the status of women in the profession. Sadly for Miss Gwyneth Bebb, who brought the case against the Law Society, as well as for all those women hopeful that the last of the professions will grant them entry, the Court of Appeal upheld – unanimously – a first instance decision that a woman could not be allowed to sit the entrance examinations to become a solicitor.
It would be another 5 years before the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 finally admitted women to the legal profession. For Bebb, however, life as a lawyer never really took off. She went through the stages expected of a woman in those days – she married, she became a mother but still applied to join the Bar as soon as the Act was passed. She died soon after her second child was born in 1921, never to see her dream of practicing as a barrister come true. It is a tragic turn that the woman that should have been celebrated as the country’s first woman barrister died at 31, never to practice. But it would be more tragic if we did not learn from the past and so we should all remember the role she played in paving the way for women to enter the legal profession.
At 3.30pm on 12 March 2015, I was delighted that nearly 100 people, some eminent members of the legal profession, both men and women, stepped from a bright and modern London day into the calm tradition of the House of Lords to celebrate the official launch of The First 100 Years: a pioneering project that is about to take a vitally important look at the history of women in the Law. The official launch took place after the project has secured the support of all corners of the profession, including the professional bodies, the Bar Council and the Law Society. I founded the The First 100 Years project to chart and celebrate the journey of women in the legal profession from 1919 to present day. To remember and celebrate the legal pioneers such as Bebb, Helena Normanton or Rose Heilbron and for the first time to draw a cohesive narrative that links the past to the present and the future of women in law. This project has been timed to mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 2019 and celebrate the impact of that Act on women participating in the legal sector.
For me, it was important that the aim of the First 100 Years project should be ambitious and clearly defined from the outset: a 5 year project (2014-2019) to create the world’s first digital museum (www.first100years.org.uk) dedicated to the journey of women in law. It would include 100 original videos of personal stories of women in law as well as hundreds of digitised artefacts and exclusive content. We are aiming to create an interactive story of professional women that can inspire the generations that are coming through, as well as to record the progress of women in the profession in video interviews that will be a valuable resource in the future.
There’s something empowering about understanding one’s history and celebrating. Although the family tree for women in law goes back less than 100 years, it is for us all to bring each piece of the puzzle we possess to make the picture complete. If not for our sake, for the sake of the next generation of women in law who need to build on the confidence of the past to secure an equal future. How can you help? Here are 5 ideas: 1) Tell us a story: We’re looking to hear from all members of the profession about women that inspired their career. You can nominate yourself or someone you know – whether in practice or retired. The project is also searching for biographies, photographs and stories of inspirational women across the last 95 years. Email your stories and comments to [email protected] 2) Follow us on Twitter (@first100years), LinkedIn and Facebook, or visit the website (www.first100Years.org.uk) for more information. 3) Write for us: We regularly update our blog page and we’re always looking for views on women in the profession or why you think this project is important, please email us at [email protected] 4) Become a champion. We’d love to hear from you if you can devote a few hours a month to the project. A First 100 Years champion will be a true advocate of the project. For more information on this role, please contact [email protected] 5) Shout about it: Tell people about the project, encourage them to follow us on social media, visit the website or contact us for further information. The full article can be read here. **This article has been edited on 7 September 2016 to update the First 100 Year’s new email address.