When I was admitted as a member of Lincoln’s Inn in 2003, it didn’t occur to me that I could have been refused entry merely because I am a woman. Yet this is what happened to any woman who applied to join the Inns of Court or the Law Society before 23 December 1919, when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act received Royal Assent. This ground-breaking piece of legislation removed any legal barrier to women, including married women, working as lawyers on the grounds of their sex.
The approaching centenary of the passing of the 1919 Act is an opportune moment to look back and consider how much has been achieved by women in the legal profession over the past one hundred years. I am therefore delighted to announce a new exhibition, Celebrating the Centenary of Women Lawyers, which will be on show at The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn in collaboration with the First 100 Years project and Royal Holloway, University of London. The exhibition will place the emergence of Britain’s first female barristers and solicitors in the broader context of the women’s movement and the opening of higher education to women in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Rather fittingly, Royal Holloway was established following the merger, in 1985, of two pioneering women’s colleges: Bedford College and Royal Holloway College. When it opened in 1849, Bedford College was the first institution in Great Britain to offer higher education to women, and Royal Holloway has its own proud history of producing pioneering female practitioners across a range of professions. Come along to the exhibition and find out who among the first women lawyers had links to Royal Holloway and the University of London. Among the women who will be profiled are Bertha Cave who, when her application to Gray’s Inn was refused, sought (unsuccessfully) to appeal that decision; and Gwyneth Bebb, whose application to be admitted to the Law Society ended up in the Court of Appeal. ‘In point of intelligence and education and competency’, the Court of Appeal acknowledged that Miss Bebb was ‘probably, far better than’ many male candidates but, because she was a woman, in 1913 she could not be admitted to the Law Society.
Today, one third of all practising barristers and approximately half of all practising solicitors are women. More than half of British judges aged under 40 are female and over the course of the last five years more women than men have been admitted to the profession. This represents a remarkable female presence in the legal field, considering that 100 years ago women were barred from the profession altogether. Inequalities, of course, remain but by taking the opportunity afforded by the forthcoming centenary to consider what has been achieved in the last 100 years, we can hope to look forward to greater equality in the century to come.
The exhibition will be launched on Wednesday, 19 July 2017 and all are welcome to join us for a drinks reception in the Old Hall Crypt at Lincoln’s Inn anytime from 6.00-8.00 pm. There will be informal talks at 6:30 and 7:30 pm.
Tickets are free but to join us for what promises to be an interesting and engaging evening celebrating the history of women in law please register at:
From 20 July 2017, this free exhibition will be on display on the east side of the hoardings around the Great Hall, Lincoln’s Inn and you are invited to view the exhibition and explore this hidden heart of legal London.
Katie Broomfield is a postgraduate student on the MA in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London. This exhibition will form the final project for her MA. You can contact Katie for further information via @KRBroomfield on Twitter.
First 100 Years is a ground-breaking history project, supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, charting the journey of women in law since 1919. Work is currently underway to produce a digital museum made up of 100 video stories that tell the story of women in law. To find out more and to donate to the project please click here.