This year’s International Women’s Day theme, Choose to Challenge, encourages us all to commit to creating an inclusive world, call out inequality and bias, question stereotypes, and celebrate women’s achievements both large and small. It may be hard to believe, but women could not practice law in the UK until 1919, so today we celebrate those who refused to accept the status quo, those trailblazers who cleared a path for the rest of us to follow – those who chose to challenge.
Cornelia Sorabji was the first woman to study law at Oxford. This was in 1890 when societal attitudes to women doing anything outside the home resulted in widespread condemnation. But Cornelia was also born in India, which doubled the controversy. In 1892, after only two years study (it usually took five), she sat the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam and was the first woman to do so. Cornelia was devastated to receive a third, although her supporters, which included Florence Nightingale amongst them, encouraged her to keep going. Eventually, Cornelia was forced to return to India, where she could not practice law. However, determined not to be defeated, she took up the cause of the purdahnashins, a group of secluded women who were forbidden from interacting with men – and since all the lawyers were men – could not access legal help. Over the next 20 years she helped over 600 women and orphans, eventually becoming recognised as a lawyer in 1924, 34 years after passing her law exam!
In 1911, Gwyneth Bebb was the first woman to achieve first class honours in her final law exam, and although at the time there was a movement to allow women into the legal profession, her application to take The Law Society’s preliminary examinations, was refused. Gwyneth, armed with her exemplary legal knowledge, brought actions against them, arguing she was indeed a “person” in accordance with the Solicitors Act 1843. She lost the case. Judge Cozens-Hardy, handily passing the buck, found that because women had never been solicitors, parliament must decide the issue. On the face of it it’s easy to think that Gwyneth’s case changed nothing, but The Express took up the mantle, stating, “If a woman can take a first class in law at Oxford, what right has the Law Society to prevent her from earning her living as a solicitor?” Gwyneth’s case highlighted the absurdity and injustice of the situation, and although it took another 6 years for parliament to pass the Sex Disqualification (Removal Act), preventing women from being excluded from professions based on gender, she was instrumental in influencing, and challenging public opinion.
Since then, thankfully, The Law Society has adapted. Its Women in Leadership in Law project aims to empower women to bring about change and become leaders, raising awareness of the challenges in tackling inequality, unconscious bias, and the gender pay gap. A great many women have contributed to bringing about change in the hundred and two years since women were allowed to practice law, and you can read more about them here.
Because when we choose to challenge, we choose to bring about change.