This year marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. This ground breaking Act of Parliament, which became law on 23 December 1919, allowed women to become Solicitors, Barristers, Magistrates and Jurors for the first time. The Act begins with the defining words “a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function”. A sentiment which we take for granted nowadays but the first female jurors in England were sworn in on 29th July 1920. In the last 100 years, the legal profession has made progress in the pursuit of equality: the UK’s first female Prime Minister began her career studying for the Bar and our beloved first female President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale has made her mark and taken every opportunity to develop equality within our legal system.
But how did we get here? The history of women in law is full of fierce and formidable women who broke down barriers.
Women like Dr Ivy Williams: the first woman called to the Bar on 10 May 1922 by Inner Temple. Her call to the bar was described by the Law Journal as “one of the most memorable days in the long annals of the legal profession” and by Ivy herself as “the dream of my life”. Dr Williams paved the way for thousands of women to break down barrier and smash glass ceilings. Although she chose not to practice, in 1923 she became the first woman to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Civil Law by Oxford University for her published work “The Sources of Law in the Swiss Civil Code”. The same day that Dr Williams was called to be Bar by Inner Temple, Helena Normanton was called to the Bar by Middle Temple. Helena went on to become the first practising female Barrister and also became the first British married woman to have a passport in her maiden name.
A year later in 1923, Mithan Tata became the first woman called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn and the first practising Indian woman barrister. A decade later, Stella Thomas was called to the Bar by Middle Temple on 19 May 1933. She became the first West African woman to be called to the Bar and went on to become the first female magistrate in Nigeria.
Another formidable woman who has an impressive array of firsts is Rose Helibron. She was the first woman to achieve a First Class Honours degree in Law at the University of Liverpool, the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray’s Inn in 1936, one of the first two women to be appointed King’s Counsel in England in 1949, the first woman to lead in a murder case in 1950, the first woman Recorder in 1956, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey in 1972, and the first woman Treasurer of Gray’s Inn in 1984 and finally, it was reported that she was the first woman in Liverpool to wear a calf-length evening dress.
Dame Rose Heilbron DBE QC, to give her full title, was a member of Pump Court Chambers (3 Pump Court, as we were known as then) in the mid-1950s. She is remembered fondly by Nemone Lethbridge who undertook her second sixth at Pump Court with her Pupil Master Norman Broderick, under Head of Chambers, Ewen Montagu. Nemone is another female trail blazer. Nemone became the only female tenant at her Chambers following her second sixth pupillage at Pump Court and her considerable reputation was made when she became counsel of choice to the Kray Twins. Nemone had her tenancy revoked following her marriage to a convicted murderer and it took her 18 years to make her way back to the Bar, re-joining practice in 1981 until retiring in 2007. She continues to dedicate her life to law and works every Saturday in the Stoke Newington Law Centre she founded 20 years ago.
We also celebrate formidable women from Pump Court Chambers: members and former members such as our former Joint Head of Chambers Ms Jane Miller QC who is now a Circuit Judge; former member HHJ Susan Evans QC, now a Circuit Judge; pupil, tenant and now silk Penny Howe QC and our formidable Sarah Jones QC; both of whom are recognised as leaders within their fields by the Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners directories. Julie MacKenzie a highly experienced and skilled family and equine law practitioner and mediator. Alison Russell, former Head of our Employment Team and now an Employment Tribunal Judge; Anne Brown former tenant and now Circuit Judge; Rachel Spearing former tenant who pioneered Wellbeing at the Bar; Helen Trotter, former pupil, tenant and now a Recorder. Not forgetting Lynda Knight who was one of the first female clerks on the Western Circuit and was involved in clerking for over 40 years.
There is still a long road ahead to achieve equality: retention of female barristers is a problem and only 15% of QCs are women and just 8% of female barristers reached QC status within 15 years of practice.