Elizabeth Buchan Cruickshank was born in 1944 in very different circumstances to those she enjoyed in later life. Her grandfather had made his living in the Baltic herring trade, and she was born in a small terraced house in the fishing village of Broadsea, Fraserburgh, in which her father had been born. He had taken correspondence courses to become a toolmaker, eventually rising to the position of factory foreman. Knowing at first hand the value of education, he encouraged his daughter and her younger brother to make the most of their opportunities. Elizabeth’s first book, Women in the Law (2003), is dedicated to the memory of ‘my father, Alexander Watt Taylor, who felt that girls deserved as much education as boys’.
Because his wife was an invalid, Alexander Taylor sometimes relied on his daughter to run the household, even expecting her to come home from school at lunchtime to make his lunch. It was an early lesson in the obstacles facing women who wanted to make an independent life for themselves. Yet Elizabeth was also surrounded by strong female role models in the village, women who were often left to run the family and take leading roles in the community when men were lost at sea.
At the local Fraserburgh Academy, she received the typically excellent Scottish education of the period, which enabled her to proceed (‘escape’ was the word she used) to Aberdeen University, the first in her family to do so. Aberdeen, one of the five ancient Scottish universities, provided her with a wider general education than is usual these days. Though registered for English language and literature, Elizabeth also studied political economy, philosophy and psychology, giving her the rounded understanding that led her to embark, on completion of her honours degree, on an M Litt on the theory of relativity in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.
But much had changed in her life by then. Soon after she arrived in Aberdeen she met Don Cruickshank, who came from a farming community; his father (a headmaster) had been able to complete his education thanks to the support of his own headmaster. Soon Elizabeth and Don were living together, and by the time she graduated they were married with a 15-month-old son. They went on to have 59 happy years together.
How did they manage the childcare, I asked Sir Donald? Elizabeth took the morning shift and Don the afternoon, he explained. When Elizabeth wished to study a subject that was taught in the morning, she did so using Don’s notes – and achieved a distinction, a better grade than he got. As Don recounted, and I recalled from my own student days, universities were much more relaxed about students with families in the 1960s. It was not uncommon to see them around the campus, and practice around attendance and deadlines was more flexible than today.
With the thesis still unfinished, Elizabeth and Don left Scotland in search of work and better opportunities – in Manchester, Wales (where their daughter was born in 1969), and then Surrey. Don pursued his highly successful career in industry and Elizabeth trained as a teacher, teaching English and philosophy at Godalming Sixth Form College.
In 1980 she won a fellowship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, to finish that M Litt. Her four months there, drinking in the intellectual life (Don caring for the children back home), proved a transformative experience. She abandoned teaching in search of a new challenge. In the period before she arrived at her decision, she managed to become the English Golf Silver Division champion of 1986.
In 1987 she chose law. After completing the CPE and Solicitors’ Finals in Guildford, however, she found that her age (45) and sex were powerful barriers to obtaining articles. It was only after many rejections that she was taken on by Stephenson Harwood in their London office. She went on to work in three large solicitors’ firms, encountering success but also many of the problems faced by women in the law, including bullying and pay discrimination.
From this point on, Elizabeth’s energies were devoted to the position of women in the legal profession. In 1998 she became chair of the London branch of the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS) and in 2000 took on the editorship of the society’s journal, Link, building it up into a financially viable journal with a circulation of 20,000. In 2003 she published Women in Law, a set of interviews from Link with women in all fields of legal life, intended to inspire but also to warn young women of the obstacles they would face in pursuing a still male-dominated career. Sisters in Law followed, co-authored with Boma Ozobia, focusing on women lawyers in Nigeria.
In 2004 she became chair of the AWS, and in 2005 received the Eva Crawley Award for services to women solicitors. Her All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor (2008), co-authored with Penny Cooper, did not shy away (as did most books for aspiring lawyers) from discussing the experiences of sexism and discrimination still to be found in the profession: see chapters 7 (‘Pour the coffee, darling’) and 17 (‘Protection and survival’).
Elizabeth’s interest in the now fashionable – but, until she came along, largely ignored – history of women in law was piqued by researching the life of England’s first woman solicitor, Carrie Morrison, which, she felt, bore similarities to her own. She compiled a file of the first 300 women in law. Thus, with the looming centenary of women’s admission into the legal profession in the UK and Ireland in 2019, she was called upon to contribute her deep knowledge to the projects set up to commemorate the event. These included Judith Bourne’s First Women Lawyers, Dana Denis-Smith‘s First 100 Years, and Erika Rackley’s and my Women’s Legal Landmarks. To all she was an invaluable resource, the most generous of guides.
Elizabeth suffered a stroke in 2017. She made a brief recovery and continued her work on Carrie Morrison and the influence of fathers on early women solicitors. Sadly, this work was left unfinished on her death last month but will (we trust) be taken up by others.
Tributes in the Gazette testify to Elizabeth’s influence on other women solicitors. She is described as a ‘role model’ and ‘mentor’, notable for her friendliness, integrity and finely judged communication skills. For the academic community, and for all feminists anxious to bring women’s history out of the darkness, she will be remembered for her pioneering and inspiring scholarship, as well as her kindness in sharing it.
Rosemary Auchmuty is professor of law at the University of Reading