FIRST 100 Years of Women in law - book review
Women in Law

On Monday 23rd December 2019, we celebrate the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become professionals in the UK. The First 100 Years project is the national campaign celebrating this centenary, focusing primarily on the progression of women in the legal profession since 1919. First 100 Years has been celebrating this centenary throughout this year in many ways, one of its latest being the newly released FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law, which is the first book of its kind telling the story of women in law throughout the last 100 years in an accessible and informative way.

About First 100 Years

Set up in 2015 by Obelisk Support CEO Dana Denis-Smith, the First 100 Years project has been building an archive to tell the previously untold stories of the pioneering women who made history in the legal profession. From the first female solicitor, Madge Easton Anderson, in 1920, to Elizabeth Lane, who was the first woman appointed a County Court judge and then the first woman appointed to the High Court, right up to the present day with the first female President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, and future firsts, like future president of the Law Society I. Stephanie Boyce, who will become the first President from a BAME background in 2021.

First 100 Years is a multimedia project, telling the history of women in law in many ways to ensure as many people as possible can learn about the stories in a way that suits them; from the filmed biographical interviews, a podcast series, a unique music commission to an artwork commission for the Supreme Court, and now a book, there is something for everyone to learn about the inspiring female pioneers that shaped the profession today. The purpose of the project is not just to understand the history of women in law, but to use this to provide the context for promoting further gender equality in the profession, by assessing progress so far and how far we still have to go.

FIRST

FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law seeks to capture the lives of female pioneers in law, past and present, to ensure we do not lose the stories of these incredible women. It does so following the format of the First 100 Years timeline, podcast series and exhibition, decade-by-decade, delving into the broader themes of each decade, including the wider historical context that impacted women’s place in the profession. It also goes further into the many stories of the individual women including biographical information and both archival and modern day pictures of the pioneers, making it a highly informative and entertaining read.

Lucinda Acland, a long-term volunteer on the project and the host of the First 100 Years Podcast series, and Katie Broomfield, an academic in the field and a champion of the project, have brought together archival material, material produced by the project through the video and podcast interviews and their own research to create this book. FIRST is the product of over five years’ worth of efforts in building the archive, which was not an easy task.

The project’s founder, Dana Denis-Smith, often refers to the fact that what she thought would be a history project, turned into an “archaeological dig” to unearth the stories because women’s achievements often go unacknowledged and their stories rarely told, so finding out many of the stories took a lot of work. The writing of the book itself, however, was done in a very short amount of time. It was originally not intended to be released until 2020 but due to an incredible amount of interest, the task was brought forward and the authors got it done in a matter of months in time for the centenary celebrations, and we are so pleased they did as it has been a huge success!

There was a hotly contested debate around the title, from the authors, publishers, editors, proof readers and the First 100 Years team. Being the first of its kind, it was important to ensure the title hit the correct tone. It had to transcend the purely feminist literature section of a library and be a credible history book in its own right, irrespective of the fact it featured women. In the end, it was actually The Attic editor Laure Latham who came up with the simple yet effective title: FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law. It captured the essence of the project, with the name of the project in the title, but also the simple word “FIRST” alluded to the women featured as “firsts” in various ways, and is also signifying that there are many achievements for women in law to come – this is just the beginning.

Why is FIRST so important?

Ultimately, women need to understand their history to be able to place themselves within it. It has become apparent to the First 100 Years team over the past few years that, understandably, people could not accurately estimate how long women have been in the profession, or have known the many anecdotes that have since been shared, such as not being allowed to wear trousers in the courtroom, having no female lavatory facilities or women frequently being asked to make the tea in meetings. It is only by understanding the background can we both recognise how far we have come and make sure we fight to ensure history does not repeat itself. As Baroness Kennedy says in her testimonial of the book, “this is a vital and stunning piece of our history…the absence of women in the system of law was a gross impediment to justice” and we must ensure women’s place in the profession is cemented.

The Next 100 Years

As The Secret Barrister says in their testimonial of the book, “[FIRST] offers not only a unique celebration of the progress achieved by women in the law, but a vital reminder of how much work there still is to do”. Despite the progress of the last 100 years, there are still barriers to be broken and progress to be made, and there are plenty of plans in the works for The Next Hundred Years! You can get involved by following us on social media @First100Years and @Next100Years_, checking out all the many resources we have on our website www.first100years.org.uk and contacting us at [email protected].

Make sure to get your copy of the book by going to www.first100years.org.uk/our-new-book/

Here’s to the Next 100 Years!

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Women in Law

Times have changed since 1959 when Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to endure a particularly cringy professional interview. After admitting she’d been rejected by 12 law firms, she lists some of the rejection reasons to her interviewer. “Last week I was told women are too emotional to be lawyers. One interviewer told me I have a sterling resume, but they hired a woman last year, and what in the world would they want with two of us?”

Stunned at first, the whole audience burst out laughing at the preview of On the Basis of Sex in Soho, London last week. Yes, people really discriminated a female lawyer because she’d be ‘too busy at bake sales to be effective’ and that’s only one of the obstacles that The Notorious R.B.G. had to surmount to eventually become Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

WARNING: Spoilers.

Sexism in the Legal Profession

Not a major spoiler here: things did not change quickly for women in law in the 20th century. They did not change at all for an excruciatingly long time, and On the Basis of Sex is a perfect illustration of that slow progress on screen. It’s almost painful to watch such a bright mind as RBG be put down, rejected, humiliated, and undervalued time and time again – when she’s clearly a legal rock star.

Fortunately for all of us, she isn’t known as The Notorious R.B.G. for nothing. This biopic recounts her early days at Harvard up to an early case in her career. This case changed not only her whole life but the lives of all women in the United States. Throughout the movie, we see Bader Ginsburg subjected to blatant – and at the time, legal – sexism in the legal profession.

Though we would like to think that we’re past such discrimination, Things Women in Law are Sick of Hearing makes for a fascinating read and a quick modern reality check. Discrimination on the basis of gender, whether conscious or not, is still alive and kicking in the legal profession but some heroes like RBG are tackling it every day.

There’s more good news.

Mad Men gone Legal

If Mad Men were about brilliant lawyers, the resulting movie might be On the Basis of Sex. Aside from the plot, the 1960s and 1970s fashion, the global civil rights movement in the United States, the turmoil of society all make perfect backdrops for a groundbreaking case that slowly finds the right circumstances to unfold.

Like Mad Men character Peggy Olson fighting the double standard in the treatment and expectations of men and women, Bader Ginsburg slowly but surely carves a place for women in society with the use of her professional expertise. Unfazed, she keeps forging her path and slowly, manages to gain not just respect but admiration from her peers.

She does not take no for an answer and where others see challenges, she looks at the bright side of life and builds upon her successes to find solutions.

Ethics and the Law to the Rescue

Bader Ginsburg also uses the ethics of the law to her advantage. A sentence picked up early in the movie during her Harvard days gives us a clue that something is up: “A court ought not be affected by the weather of the day. But will be by the climate of the era.”

Also in RBG’s husband, Martin’s words, “how a government taxes its citizens is a declaration of a country’s values.” In essence, the law reflects society, the law guides citizens to conform with societal values but nothing is set in stone. Throughout history, the mark of a civilised society has been society’s ability to refine its laws to reflect the will of the people.

According to economists Matthew O. Jackson of Stanford and Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are two possible ways to successfully change norms: dramatic and highly visible efforts to change behaviours spearheaded by leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., or gradual changes in laws over long periods of time, such as smoking regulations in America.

In the case of On the Basis of Sex, tax laws are the catalyst of change. Though tax statutes don’t make for electrifying bedtime reading, they make for a perfect climax in this movie. You don’t even have to be a tax specialist or a lawyer to understand the arguments of the case, as a 13-year-old in the audience later attested.

Felicity Jones as RBG perfectly articulates her defence of gender equality in plain English and using everyday examples we can all relate to. It’s not the virtuoso high-flying law you see in the TV series Suits – it’s John Adams legal perfection because it’s factual, irrefutable and just. As it should be.

Our Verdict

At Obelisk Support, we are huge advocates of change in the legal profession and supporters of gender equality. We are known as the leaders of diversity in legal services and our CEO is a woman. It’s no surprise that we all loved On the Basis of Sex, though we had initial reservations (as lawyers should). This could have been a boring Hollywood feel-good courtroom drama full of cliches and yes there a few, but instead On the Basis of Sex manages to pull an Erin Brockovich and is an inspirational movie with a kickass female protagonist. What else could we ask for?

We can ask nothing more of the Notorious RBG, obviously. She’s already done so much and despite her health, she is still hard at work as we write. What we can do, however, is make her proud and amplify her actions by channeling our own Notorious R.B.G.s and fighting for gender equality and against all types of discrimination in society.

That would be the perfect ending to a seriously great movie.

Thanks to The Entrepreneurs Network and the Female Founders Forum for organising this preview and celebrating role models and mentors in society.