A fantastic review Women’s Legal Landmarks – Celebrating the History of Women and Law in the UK and Ireland (Edited by Erika Rackley and Rosemary Auchmuty) by Committee Member, Elaine O’Connor.
It was difficult as a lawyer, and certainly a female lawyer, in 2019 to be oblivious to the fact that it was a somewhat landmark year for women in law. 2019 marked 100 years since the passing of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919 and thus was the centenary celebration of females being legally permitted to become jurors, magistrates, solicitors and barristers. The ‘big day’ was 23 December 2019 and the fact that this was common knowledge is largely due to the First 100 years Project, the national campaign to mark the anniversary which is managed by inspirational charity, Spark21, and led by Dana Denis-Smith. The initial campaign was launched by Dana’s company, Obelisk Legal Support Solutions in 2015 and runs until 2020. Obelisk uses a pioneering outsourcing working model where lawyers work remotely for clients. This allows flexible working solutions for men and women who may previously have had to take time out of their careers for family reasons.
2019 was a great year for AWS London, and we were lucky enough to have Dana attend our event in Parliament on 13 May 2019 where, with 50:50 Parliament, we celebrated women in law and politics with a somewhat esteemed panel. Along with Dana, we were lucky enough to have in attendance on the panel, the Hon. Mrs Justice Amanda Yip DBE, the Hon. Mrs Justice Clare Moulder DBE, Frances Scott of 50:50, Clare Kelly, a former equity partner at Anthony Gold Solicitors and now Chambers Director at 5 Pump Court, Sarah Jones MP, Antoinette Sandbach MP, Wera Hobhouse MP, Mims Davies MP and Baroness Glenys Thornton. It was a privilege to see these high-profile ladies openly discussing their personal trials and tribulations in playing an integral part in our modern democracy.
We have, in 2018, already celebrated 100 years of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave women the (limited) right to vote. I was lucky enough to attend an event late in 2018, organised by the Fawcett Society, where Lady Hale gave an awe-inspiring speech about the courage of women in fighting for equality in the vote, education, professional life and equal pay.
I have therefore been fortunate to be privy to several “Women’s Legal Landmarks” recently which segues neatly into the narrative of this piece.
To follow the special centenary edition of the AWS London newsletter, I was tasked with reviewing the tome at the beginning of this page which I will simple refer to as WLL in the interests of reducing repetition and word count. On that point I must admit that, when I received the book, I was a little perturbed about the task ahead given its hefty weight and abundance of pages. However, on reading the acknowledgment by the editors, I am actually amazed that this account is not the size of the human genome library at the Wellcome Collection. WLL took five years to coordinate, engaged more than 100 participants and therefore was a mammoth operation to put together. This included a series of workshops to develop the book’s structure and thematic grouping as well as training events to equip and examine academic research.
This is therefore not a quick or unchallenging read, but for the reasons explained below, is an essential one.
The foreword by Helena Kennedy begins by explaining that this is the story of the law and the legal profession from the perspective of women and how, “unless a heroine, villain or victim”, women traditionally went unmentioned in historical scholarship of the law. Helena is a QC practising from Doughty Chambers, Chair of the Human Genetics Commission, a member of the World Bank Institute’s External Advisory Council, on the board of the British Museum and is also a broadcaster and Labour member of the House of Lords. She holds nothing back in retelling how, when called to the Bar in 1972, only seven percent of barristers were women and many chambers were unashamed to declare that they only accepted males. Female applicants for pupillage would be asked if they were planning to get married and, notwithstanding the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, when challenged, Heads of Chambers would say: “Women? We’ve got one.”
We have used the word “celebration” many times in 2019 (and this piece already) and progress is acknowledged by Helena. However, her frank description of the accounts to follow set the tone for the book excellently. What we are “celebrating” is the removal of injustice, incredible discrimination, indignities and outright misogyny. Helena states that WLL is “a model of feminist legal history. It should make us both proud and angry.”
Although we often hang our exultant jackets on the coat hooks of legislative reform and innovative case decisions, WLL considers the important role performed by feminists in achieving legal change. Lest we forget, the actual changes were often resisted and opposed and when finally enacted, were done so in a grudging fashion by “generous men in long wigs”.
The themes of the book are further developed by the editors in the introduction. When calling for expressions of interest, the only criteria were that the landmark – be it a case, statute, event or monument – be from the UK or Ireland and “be significant for feminists”. As the project developed, an additional category of ‘first women’ was introduced to include pivotal moments where roles and achievements were first attained by women. This has resulted in a collection that is varied, holistic and extremely eclectic. No apology is given for the predominance of landmarks associated with property, money and body. The intention was not to produce an historic encyclopaedia as the editors explain, “as feminist scholars we work and write on issues that matter most to women, the most basic denials”.
The landmarks themselves each begin with summary of landmark and then continue with context and detail before illustrating what happened next and the significance for women.
Our journey begins with a Welsh prince, Hywel ap Cadwell (known as Hywel Dda or “Hywel the Good”) who on or around the year 940, codified existing laws in Wales and recognised the rights of women in doing so. Although women and men were certainly not treated equally, Hywel’s laws recognised women not as chattels but as individuals with their own freedoms and responsibilities. We then travel between books (A vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Woolstonecraft, 1792), plays (A Pageant of Great Women, Cicely Hamilton, 1909-12), actions (Match Women’s Strike, 1888), firsts (Carrie Morrison, First Women Solicitor, 1922), cases (Unmarried woman granted equitable share of property, Grant v Edwards, 1986), Acts of Parliament (Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 – yes you read that right, 1985) and academic landmarks such as the publishing of the first Feminist Legal Studies Journal in 1993.
Although the structure of the landmarks themselves is clearly laid out in WLL, there are a number of pervasive themes throughout the book from equality, justice, representation in the legal profession and gradual elevation to the higher judiciary. Access not only to legal and political representation but to money, property and health services are explored as well, as is the use and abuse of the law to control and discipline women. On a more positive note, the importance of feminist organisations, networks and campaigns is lamented and championed, and the Association of Women Solicitors is given a place in the landmark list at number 22, for which we are extremely honoured.
Aside from being an exceptional educational history book, WLL does a lot more. In producing WLL, the editors discovered that in the UK and Ireland, there is little in the way of feminist legal history as opposed to the well-established feminist treatment of history per se. WLL has political as well as academic aspirations to identify women’s voices, show how feminist activity has caused seismic shift (rather than being the result of social and institutional change), and challenge the inference that just because progress has been made, there is sufficient parity with regards to gender. There is clearly a long way still to go.
I anticipate that anyone reading WLL will come away incredibly proud, certainly angry, definitely grateful and I hope, inspired.