In the 1980s, aspiring barristers were warned to lower their voices and take elocution lessons to sound more masculine. One recalls, not only being expected to make the tea, but also having to do it backwards “to avoid being groped in the process”.
Women were banned from wearing trousers in court until as recently as 1995 and before 1994, female judges were still formally addressed as ‘Lord’.
A new book, First:100 Years of Women in the Law, marks the centenary of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Funded by all of the legal profession’s professional bodies, the book explores the often untold stories of the pioneers, reformers and influencers who paved the way.
Eleanor Sharpston, Advocate General at the European Court of Justice, trained in the 1980s and had a naturally low voice of which she said, “consciously or unconsciously, I’ve always pitched there because it gives me more authority and gravitas.”
When undertaking a mock plea, the trainer, who had been downright vicious to two other women in the group, growled at her, ‘I suppose if we have got to have you bloody women at the Bar it’s at least easier to listen to one who sounds like a bloke’.
Dame Butler Sloss tells of protesting vigorously to have her title changed from ‘Lord’ to ‘Lady’. It took a practice direction in 1994 to allow her to be referred to ‘informally’ as ‘Lady Justice Butler-Sloss.’ Even 80 years after the 1919 Act, legal terminology refused to acknowledge women as lawyers in their own right and it was not until the Courts Act 2003, that ‘Lady’ was officially acknowledged as a separate title for women judges.
The idea of women wearing trousers in court was still considered taboo even in the 80s and 90s and it required a further practice direction in 1995 to permit them to do so.
The First 100 Years, the ground-breaking project charting the journey of women in the legal profession, is behind the book which is funded by the Law Societies of England & Wales and Scotland, the SRA, the Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx). It covers early campaigners through to the first women solicitors, barristers, magistrates and judges. It reveals the barriers they faced, their challenges and triumphs. It offers a unique insight into how women have made their way in a profession still dominated by men and looks ahead to the prospects for women in law in the next 100 years.
The book, which carries a foreword by Baroness Hale, is authored by barrister and historian, Katie Broomfield from the University of London and Lucinda Acland, host of the First 100 Years podcast series. It is illustrated throughout with photographs, archive material, anecdotes and quotations from a wide variety of sources, drawing on material produced and collected by First 100 Years.
The First 100 Years is encouraging legal professionals to pledge to gift a copy to a female colleague to celebrate this centenary year ahead of its Autumn publication under#herlegalhistory.
Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The First 100 Years says: “Since we began the First 100 Years project five years ago, we have collected a wealth of original material, including archive photographs, first-hand accounts, films and interviews that tell the stories of the first pioneers. This book, funded with support from across the profession, brings together the archive in one place.
“We are encouraging those working in the law to pledge to gift a copy to a female colleague to help them place themselves in history and find inspiration from the stories of those who came before them.”
The book, published by Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers in November, is available to pre-order at a pre-publication price of £15.
The First 100 Years project is managed by Spark21, a charity founded to celebrate, inform and inspire future generations of women in the professions.