13 Mar 2020
The Journey of the First Female Solicitors
On Sunday the world celebrated International Women’s Day, highlighting the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Today, we’re exploring the journeys of the first female solicitors who paved the way for females working in law.
The first battle for equality in the legal profession
In the 19th century female solicitors simply did not exist. Although women could study for degrees, they couldn’t actually take exams or graduate. They could work in law but were unable to climb the career ladder to the position of solicitor. In 1913, four women took legal action against the Law Society after the organisation denied them the right to take the exams they needed to qualify as solicitors. Bebb v. The Law Society was a landmark case with the judge ruling that women were not allowed to become solicitors “unless and until” women became solicitors, creating an impossible paradox.
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act
Real change began in 1919 when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act made it possible for women to work in law. Nearly 10 years after the Bebb v. The Law Society case, four women passed the Law Society exams and the first female solicitors qualified in 1922. These four women were Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes. Although these women were qualified solicitors, they still faced an incredible amount of struggle.
Despite the change in the law, the reality of female solicitors was not as simple as passing exams. Attitudes towards female solicitors remained the same - even parents did not see their own daughters as career-driven individuals. It was nearly impossible to qualify without financial support and due to the stigma, families preferred to finance their sons over their daughters.
The Sex Discrimination Act 1975
Through all of this adversity, women would continue to fight for their right to be legal professionals, as well as their right to be treated equally to men in the industry. Women fought for this for many decades, throughout World War II and the liberal revolution of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This culminated in the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, marking a real positive step towards establishing employment legislation and protecting female workers.
By 1981 Dame Catherine Fiona Woolf had made partner at CMS Cameron Mckenna and in 1999 Diana Parker took up the position of Chairman at Withers, becoming the first woman to hold such a position at a top law firm.
Women in law today
In 2002 we saw the Law Society welcome its first female president, Carolyn Kirby, which happened almost 100 years after they first denied women the right to sit law exams. Today, there are more female solicitors practising in England and Wales than there are men.
To learn more about the inspirational women who paved the way for females in the workplace, read our blog on the first female doctors.