In spite of law firms raising their gender diversity targets and an overall increase in the number of women pursuing law, the discourse surrounding its history has long been dominated by men. The gender divide is narrower than it used to be, with an approximate 7% increase in the number of women in law firms from 2010 to 2022. Or, rather, the gender divide is narrower in places. Find out more about the gender pay gap.
Those at the top are still men, with only 35% of law firm partners being women, and some firms reporting pay gaps of over 60% between their male and female lawyers. Sceptics might say that this is owed to the overwhelmingly male-dominated history of the legal profession – but is that true? Women have been fighting for their place in the field for over a century, in spite of the obstacles which they have had to face. Here are some of the most notable women who broke the mould!
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, passed on the 23rd of December 1919, enabled women to join professions and professional bodies, to be part of juries and receive degrees. It had been a long-awaited change in British society, with women attempting to surpass it on multiple occasions, and being relentlessly shut down.
Up until then, the entirety of the professional and academic world was exclusively made up of men – and it would take another three years for a female solicitor to be appointed. Yet, discrimination against women was embedded to such an extent that, even after the act was passed, private bodies such as universities could still refuse women entry on the basis of their sex.
The fight against this kind of prejudice had been ongoing – in 1872, US citizen Myra Bradwell made an application to the state of Illinois for a law practice license. Upon being found to possess the necessary qualifications, Bradwell was still refused. The reason? She was a married woman.
Born in Trani, Italy, Giustina Rocca was the first woman to practice law in all of history. She practiced during the Renaissance and died in 1502. The daughter of an orator at the senate of Naples, Rocca specialised in diplomatic issues between Trani and Venice.
A widely celebrated figure, the Penal Chamber of Trani has been named after Rocca; she has been referred to as “a symbol of equal opportunities and progress, a forerunner of the most modern battles for the rights to gender equality […] a beacon for all Tranese and European lawyers.”
Rocca’s most well-known case, a hereditary dispute, was settled on the 8th of April 1500. In 1533, her life was celebrated in a biography written by fellow Trani jurist Cesare Lambertini – and then she was immortalised as Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
When University College London allowed both genders to attend lectures in 1871, Orme was the first in line. Orme received a slew of scholarships and awards during her studentship but was not allowed to receive a degree; she would be awarded her degree in 1888.
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act only passed in 1919, but it would not stop Orme from establishing her own office with friend Mary Richardson in 1875 and working as a ‘devil’, preparing documents for wills, mortgages and property transactions.
Sorabji was an Indian lawyer, social reformer, and writer. A fierce believer in women’s rights to education, Sorabji was the first female graduate from Bombay University, and the first woman to study law at Oxford University, later also becoming the first woman to be admitted into Oxford’s All Souls College.
Returning to India after her studies at Oxford, Sorabji became involved in social work on behalf of the purdahnashins – women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. Sorabji was unable to defend the purdahnashins in court since, as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system.
She became the first female advocate in India but would not be recognised as a barrister until 1923, when she became the first practising female barrister in India.
Normanton was the first woman to take advantage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and join an institution of the legal profession. In fact, she joined the Inns of Court the very next day after the act received Royal Assent.
Normanton read modern history at the University of London, before moving on to lecturing in the subject at Glasgow University and London University. In her spare time, she would write on feminist issues and spoke at meetings of the Women’s Freedom League. She would later author a book called ‘Everyday Law for Woman’ in which she spoke of her career as a barrister.
In a famous quotation from the book, Norman reflected: “I still do not like to see women getting the worst end of any deal for lack of a little elementary legal knowledge which is the most common form amongst men”.
Heilbron’s career included many ‘firsts’ for women – she was the first woman to achieve a first class honours degree in law at the University of Liverpool, the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray’s Inn and one of the first two women to be appointed King’s Counsel in England (along with Helena Normanton). She was also the first woman to lead in a murder case, the first woman recorder, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey, and the first woman treasurer of Gray’s Inn.
In 1975, Heilbron’s involvement was essential in reforming rape laws. The subsequent changes included maintaining the identity of complainants anonymous, as well as limiting the defence in their cross-examination of a complainants sexual history, something which would often be turned into an attack against their character.
A biography of Heilbron, by her daughter Hilary Heilbron, was published in 2012.
If you are interested in learning more about rape laws, check out this article on the use of past sexual behaviour as evidence.
Part of what makes a lawyer good at their profession is their ability to fight for their clients’ rights and overcome adversity. For these inspiring women in law, the fight for their rights was an ongoing battle. Their success in spite of their circumstances, to this day, remains remarkable. They mark the beginning of what would become feminist thought – and set an example for generations of women to come.
By Ariana Serafinceanu
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