The founder of the Feminist Lawyers’ Society sets out its goals.
Although I am 43, I can still be surprised by things.
I find it surprising, for example, that until last week there was no Feminist Lawyers’ Society in existence in the UK. I find it more surprising that we need one. And it is astonishing, not to say depressing, that people with as much power and influence as Lord Sumption make such ill-thought out statements as he did last month.
My reaction was not to head to the laptop to write, but to call for action – excellent responses having been penned by others. I would simply add that, since Lady Hale was appointed to the House of Lords in 2005, there have been 14 appointments to our highest court. Every single one of them has been a white male.
Without questioning their qualification for the role, were there really no suitable women or BME candidates? As Dr Steven Vaughan has pointed out, the legal profession does not reflect the society it serves. Furthermore, the number of women applying for silk remains, in the words of the ‘chairman’ of the QC Selection Panel, Helen Pitcher, ‘stubbornly low’. Perhaps there is more than a lifestyle choice behind this low rate of application.
Sumption is not in the minority. It is disheartening how many colleagues and friends share at least some of his views. It is not terribly surprising that they tend to be white, middle-class and (mainly but not exclusively) male. Earlier this year, I attended an event aimed at women lawyers encouraging them to stay at the bar throughout their career. One very senior woman speaker advised: ‘Get a nanny. Get a pretty one. They go out more.’ Further jaw-dropping assertions were made from some of the panel (all female) that ‘there is no glass ceiling at the bar’, while the LCJ opined that there was no glass ceiling in the judiciary.
I looked around the venue, which was packed full of young women of all races and backgrounds. I wondered what the BME women would be thinking. Were those speakers suggesting that it is the fault of BME women that they are not properly represented in the higher ranks of the profession, or the judiciary? Were they suggesting that of all women? If so, it is a shoddy, illogical argument.
So, what is next? There are many points of view within feminist scholarship. But the vital point about feminism which many people fail to grasp is that it applies to all: male, female, other or no gender. Feminism offers a critique of the status quo, exemplifying as it does privilege for the few and disempowering and ostracising the many.
It is essential that we all recognise and transform the multiple discriminations that exist in our society – nowhere more so than in the law. We will seek to eradicate the very real discrimination that still exists on the basis of socio-economic background, and fight discrimination in the legal profession against women from ethnic minorities and disabled women, as well as discrimination against LGBTQIA people. This analysis, known as intersectionality, will be at the heart of the Feminist Lawyers’ Society.
We plan to hold events, to provide a platform for academic scholarship (there has been some very interesting work in this field already, for example the Feminist Legal Judgments project), run campaigns and reach out to all within the profession – including students, academics and legal executives.
I am struck that one of my co-founders has just completed her LLM. Sumption’s prediction of 50 years to reach equality means she will spend her entire career and beyond in an unrepresentative profession appearing before an unrepresentative judiciary.
Her male contemporaries will, of course, benefit from entrenched privilege. Why should she and countless thousands like her have to experience inequality? We have been patient and have little to show for it. Now please either support us or, at least, get out of the way of our careers and experience what a representative profession and judiciary can contribute to the rule of law.
Jo Shaw is founder of the Feminist Lawyers’ Society (@FeministLawyers) and a door tenant at the Chambers of the Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry