When Dana Denis-Smith first spotted this photograph from 1982 she was instantly intrigued. Who is that lone woman in the blue dress, surrounded by so many men in black tie?
Trying to find the answer to this question has inspired Dana to create a fascinating video history project – called The First 100 Years – that Obelisk is running in partnership with The Law Society and The Bar Council.
The First 100 Years charts and celebrates the journey of women in the legal profession from 1919 to present day. The journey will be set out in 100 stories and videos that will combine to create a unique resource and online museum. This four year project has been timed to mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 2019.
The official launch took place in March – the month dedicated to Women around the world – at a reception at the House of Lords. Around one hundred guests gathered in the Clement Atlee Room to hear about the First 100 Years project and to pledge their support. In keeping with the spirit of the First 100 Years, which holds diversity at its heart, the room was full of women and men, both young and old.
The launch also attracted top names from across the legal profession, academia and the FTSE 100. Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Herbert Smith, Thomson Reuters, BT, M&S, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, KPMG, Oxford University, The Law Society, The Bar Council, the Inner Temple and 39 Essex Street were all on the guest list, and clearly excited to be at the Palace of Westminster to see The First 100 Years make its first official public appearance.
Our host Baroness Janet Cohen welcomed everyone to Parliament and the project. Lady Elizabeth Cruikshank, author of ‘Women in the Law’ ran through the timeline from 1919, and Madeleine Heggs, who has been a qualified solicitor for 60 years, gave her unique position on how far women have come in the profession and how far there is to go. It was clear from Madeleine’s stories that women in law have always faced enormous challenges when bringing up a family and working in a male-dominated sector. Although Madeleine pointed out one key difference; at least we have dishwashers today.
Dana Denis-Smith – founder and CEO at Obelisk – is herself a legal trailblazer, with a business that is pioneering the use of ex-City lawyers to provide high quality, flexible and affordable legal support to law firms and in-house teams. With over 850 lawyers, Obelisk is now the largest provider of its kind. Looking ahead to how The First 100 Years will help drive social and corporate change, Dana says:
“Many women practising law in the 1970s and 1980s would have found themselves lonely in professional circles. That is not a long forgotten past but the current journey of women in the legal profession today. We need stories – both past and present – to understand what the future holds for women lawyers. We are constantly preoccupied by the negligible change in the percentage numbers of women who are in the boardroom. By setting the debate in a historical context, it is easier to see the rapid rise of women in the profession in the last 30 years and understand how we can use that information to shape the future.”
To mark the official launch, Dana Denis-Smith announced that the First 100 Years project will culminate in 2019 with plans to erect the first monument dedicated to the skilled working woman in the City of London. After finding out that there are more monuments and statues across the capital dedicated to dogs, cats and sheep than women, Obelisk is determined that a monument should be put in place to celebrate the generations of skilled working women who have paved the way for their successors in the professions.
The launch was followed by a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament; from the famous green benches of the House of Commons (although we were not allowed to sit down on them, thanks to David Cameron’s recent ruling) through to the beautifully ornate House of Lords (where we could sit down). And in St Steven’s Hall – which dates back to Medieval times – we found out that Henry VIII used this vast high-ceilinged space for jousting and tennis – evidenced by a recent discovery of a 400 year old tennis ball up in the rafters. The ball is now on display in the British Museum.
Obelisk’s film crew were at Westminster to interview Dana and some of the guests ahead of our crowdfunding launch in October. Watch this space for more details. The filming took place at the Emmeline Pankhurst statue in nearby Victoria Park Gardens. So we were thrilled to be joined by Laura Pankhurst – the great-great granddaughter of Emmeline, who is currently reading law at Cambridge. And there was one other special guest at the launch; Dorothy Livingston, the woman in the blue dress from the photograph that inspired it all.
If you have a story to tell, please get in touch with The First 100 Years team at Obelisk.