We’ve come a long way, baby
Just over 100 years ago, in December 1912, a woman named Gwyneth Bebb applied to the Law Society to become a solicitor. There was no doubt that she was more than able to be one. She had studied law at Oxford and had achieved first-class marks in her exams. Despite those marks, however, she was still prohibited by Oxford University rules from receiving a degree. She was intellectually more capable than most of the male applicants who submitted their forms at the same time as she did. But they became solicitors in 1912 and she did not; and the reason she did not was quite simply because she was a woman, and the Law Society said that women could not be solicitors.
Fast-forward to April of this year, when the Law Society of England and Wales confirmed that just under half of the solicitors’ profession (those holding practising certificates) are now female. The current numbers are 65,000 women solicitors to 68,000 men. In fact, the number of women solicitors is growing at a rate of 4 per cent per year, but the number of male solicitors is growing much more slowly, because more women than men are currently entering training for the legal profession. It looks likely, therefore, that when in 2019 we reach the 100th anniversary of the first admission of women into the solicitors’ profession, there will be at least as many women solicitors as men solicitors, and possibly even more.
What would Gwyneth Bebb have made of it? I am sure she would have considered it an outstanding achievement: to have moved from a situation in which women could not be solicitors at all, to a position where they are nearly half of the profession in less than a hundred years is no mean feat.
It’s worth remembering that to get us this far, women like Gwyneth Bebb showed grit and determination in the face of both aggressive opposition and ridicule. They often had to face personal attacks on their abilities and appearance, as well as daft generalisations (for example, that women did not have the mental or physical strength that would enable them to be lawyers), and to persist in spite of them. Gwyneth took the Law Society to court in 1913 to attempt to force it to admit her. She lost, but that took real courage and perseverance on her part.
Although the tactics are usually more subtle today, women working in the legal field (including secretaries) can still face aggression, ridicule and daft generalisations in the workplace, particularly about how they should appear and behave. To take just one example, we’ve seen reports in the past week or so of candidates for receptionist jobs in fields akin to law (consultancy and investment banking) being told that it was a job requirement to wear high heels, and then being denied work when they refused to do so. We may have come a long way from Gwyneth Bebb, but we clearly still have a long way to go.
It was not until women had proved themselves more than capable of working in demanding jobs during the First World War that the legal obstacles to them becoming solicitors or barristers were removed, and even then the removal was at times pretty grudgingly: ‘The fact that women nurse and sew and wait at canteens is no indication of their capacity for the legal profession,’ the Bar Council opined, pretty uncharitably you might think, towards the end of the war. One wonders how many of these gentlemen had gotten as far as helping in any practical way with war work themselves.
The battle to show that women can take on the same intellectual challenges as men was well and truly won many years ago; what we probably don’t celebrate often enough is that they have done this while for the most part continuing to be the primary carers of the family too. It was Ginger Rogers who pointed out that she not only danced the same steps as Fred Astaire, but she danced them backwards and, yes, in high heels. It’s a metaphor for us all. Women still carry most of the burden of family responsibility, and their path to security in their profession is therefore often a steeper one, with many pitfalls along the way. More women than men still drop out of the profession in middle age, largely because a legal office is still a highly pressurised workplace with limited tolerance for family responsibilities.
One other thing that’s worth remembering is that the women of Gwyneth Bebb’s generation also forged a link between legal secretarial work and practising as lawyers. Some women, finding that they could not become solicitors, learned the job first of all by working as legal secretaries and then becoming solicitors after 1919 when they were able to do so. From almost the very beginnings of the legal secretarial job, therefore, they demonstrated that there was a lot more to secretaries than typing and making the tea, and that male solicitors ignored their potential at their peril. That certainly remains true today.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Even today, men take up most of the senior partnerships and senior management posts in the law, and the speed of change up on the higher levels is certainly still very slow. But overall, the position of near-parity of the sexes in the legal profession is something we can all celebrate.
There is a sad footnote to this story. Gwyneth Bebb never did become a professional lawyer. She died in 1921 as a result of complications following childbirth. She had applied in 1919 to practise as a barrister, but was prevented from qualifying due to pregnancy and then illness. Nevertheless, her legacy lives on in the opportunities she helped create for today’s women solicitors and barristers, and for all women who work in the law.