On questions of equality for men and women times had changed, and the Law Society went with the times

On 28 March 1919 a special meeting of the Law Society council was called to consider the society’s position on admitting women to the profession. Legislation was progressing through parliament which, following a limited extension of the franchise to some women the year before, would eventually put equality of entry on the statute book.

How did the society respond?

The vote was for the admission of women while reflecting some scepticism – it was 50 for admission and 33 against. But a look at the speeches – seven for admission and just two against, reflected a national atmosphere where equality was becoming harder to argue against, following the contribution made by women – fulfilling non-traditional roles – in the Great War.

Women’s supporters, in the most detailed reports (The Law Times and Solicitors Journal carry the best accounts of the speeches), sounded a confident note. Law Society president Richard Pinsent used his opening remarks to highlight the change of heart expressed by a one-time opponent of equality, Sir Homewood Crawford (absent through illness) in a letter: ‘Speaking for myself and in the light of materially altered circumstances, I say unhesitatingly that, provided the Bar will by statutory enactment be as free to women as it is sought to make our branch, we ought not to place any further obstacle in the way of women attaining the object of their ambition.’

The resolution that policy be changed was proposed by council member Samuel Garrett, a former Law Society president, who had had the satisfaction of seeing the argument shift his way. ‘Minorities,’ the report recorded him as saying, reflecting on his own long-term support for equality, ‘had a way of becoming majorities in these progressive times.’ Garrett, as the brother of both the pioneering physician and mayor of Aldeburgh, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and suffrigist campaigner Millicent Garrett Fawcett, was in the position of being personally close to women who acted to secure that progress.

The argument that the contribution of women in the Great War victory justified greater equality was pervasive in parliamentary debates, and it was also used in the Law Society council’s deliberations. London Council member Lieutenant Wood spoke in uniform: “Liet WOOD (London), who wore khaki, said he hoped the resolution would have been passed unanimously…’

Pinsent, Garrett and six other speakers also deployed the war-contribution argument, alongside the argument that entry requirements were the only filter needed to guard the level of professional excellence needed in the law.

The two council members who spoke against decided to address arguments that related to the Great War. Member GB Cook noted that men had made a greater sacrifice, dying in such great numbers in the trenches. ‘Was it not [the women’s] hearths and homes that men went out to defend?’ he said.

RW Dibdin thought the notion of rights in return for women’s contribution was a nonsense idea. He derided the logic whereby, ‘the opportunity would be accorded to them by way of giving them a sort of prize for their admirable conduct in the war’. ‘Could anything be more preposterous?’ he asked.

It was, though, men like council member H Westbury who carried the day. He, ‘thought it was not because women had done well in the war that they would become solicitors. They would have to pass examinations which men had to pass’. Many men had failed these exams, he observed, and if female candidates, ‘failed to satisfy them, they would have failed, and no harm would have been done’.

Parliament gave an even easier passage to the relevant legislation, but reading both Hansard and The Law Times Account the impression that the argument for the admission of women was an unarguable case is clear. Times had changed, and the Law Society went with the times.

Eduardo Reyes is the Gazette’s commissioning and features editor.

We are grateful to Law Society library staff for their assistance in locating archival material.