Today the legal profession marks the 100th anniversary of the legislation that opened the legal profession to women. Within 48 hours of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 receiving royal assent on 23 December, Helena Normanton entered the Middle Temple and the first women magistrates were appointed within days.
Three years later, in December 1922, Carrie Morrison was the first woman to be admitted as a solicitor.
Law Society president Simon Davis said today: ‘The profession has made great strides over the past 100 years, with women now making up 50.8% of practising solicitors and 62.1% of new entrants.’
However he noted that full equality has not yet been achieved. ‘Women are still not reaching senior positions in sufficient numbers and only make up 30.1% of partners in private practice,’ he said. ‘Our research identified many obstacles to women’s career progression including unconscious bias, a difficult work-life balance and networking opportunities being male focused… for real change to take root, firms across the country must put the right policies in place and work together to build a more diverse workplace for the next generation.’
BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour dedicated today’s programme to the centenary. Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the First 100 Years project who began her legal career at magic circle firm Linklaters, told Woman’s Hour: ‘Having women ahead of you makes a difference… where women are there it accelerates change.’
Others recalled their own experience of achievement and sexism in their own careers. Cherie Booth QC, who finished top of her year in her bar finals, said Lord Denning told her: ‘You’ve done very well, but the bar isn’t really a place for women… though my niece would disagree.’ His niece, Booth noted, also became a QC.
Dr Mari Takayanagi, senior archivist at the parliamentary archives, noted that the 1919 act was the culmination of a 30-year campaign by women who began to read law at several universities, and who unsuccessfully challenged the ban on women in the legal profession in court. Male lawyers who opposed women in the law, she said, did so out of ‘misogyny’ or a ‘fear of competition’.