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Series: Women in Positions of Power: Law

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Throughout history,  the political and legal landscape of our countries and empires have been overseen by women. As queens, empresses, regents and heads of states, women across the world have held great political and legal power. Queens could have people killed, start wars, control welfare and education, and no law could be passed without their consent. This power was relatively unquestioned. So why, with this history of women as rulers, did it take so long for women to enter the legal profession?

With roots in Ancient Rome and Greece, the legal profession has, in varying forms, existed for centuries. In Ancient Greece, taking payment after pleading someone’s case was forbidden, but people often flouted this rule.

After a decline in the Dark Ages, the profession re-emerged, regulated, in the 12 and 13th centuries. Now, it included civil as well as ecclesiastical laws. Around this time is when it really became a profession, with young men taken on as apprentices.

However, it wasn’t until the 20th century, with World War 1 behind us and attitudes surrounding the capabilities of women changing, that women were seen practising law.

Timeline (UK)

  • 1888: The first woman to obtain a law degree is Eliza Orme.
  • 1892: The first woman to study law at Oxford University is Cornelia Sorabji. She was also the first woman to practice law in India (1924) and Britain and the first woman to graduate from Bombay University.
  • 1919: Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Before this, women could not actually practice the law.
  • 1922: The first woman called to the bar is Ivy Williams (also the first woman to teach law), the first practising female barrister, Helen Normanton, and the first woman solicitor, Carrie Morrison.
  • 1931: There are around 100 female solicitors in the UK.
  • 1933: The first female only legal partnership is founded.
  • 1935: Rose Heilbron is the first woman to achieve a first class honours degree in law.
  • 1956: Heilbron is the first female judge in England as Recorder of Burnley.
  • 1972: Heilbron is the first woman to sit as a judge in the Old Bailey.
  • 2002 : The Law Society appointed its first female president, Carolyn Kirby.
  • 2017: Baroness Hale became the first female president of the Supreme Court

Women and the legal system

Highly interwoven into most human societies, the law lays basic principles of how we act. But for women, it can serve as an oppressive force, dictating the way that we live. With legislations on abortion, access to birth control, access to education and many other issues that legal systems and institutions put into place.

How the law and female oppression interact can be understood through feminist legal theory.

Feminist Legal Theory (Feminist Jurisprudence) comes from the belief that the law has been fundamental in the history of women’s subordination; aiming to explain how the legal system plays a role in women’s subordination and changing this through a reworking of the law and its approach to gender.

At the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1984, Martha Fineman founded the ‘Feminism and Legal Theory Project’, to further understand the relationship between the law and feminist theories, which has been crucial to the development of feminist legal theory.

Feminist philosophy of law

Feminist philosophy of law identifies the “pervasive influence of patriarchy and masculinist norms on legal structures and demonstrates their effects on the material conditions of women and girls and those who many not conform to cisgender norms’, it considers ‘problems at the intersection of sexuality and law and develops reforms to correct gender injustice, exploitation, or restriction”, and furthermore aims to “understand how legal institutions enforce dominant gendered and masculinist norms.” 

Drawing from human rights, critical legal studies and taking into account race, LGBTQ and ability; feminist philosophy of law branches off into many discourses and subtypes, for example: Marxist, radical, cultural, postmodern and liberal approaches.

In summary, the main argument is that the “law makes systemic bias (as opposed to personal biases of particular individuals) invisible, normal, entrenched, and thus difficult to identify and to oppose.

Consequently, this critique regards it as “patriarchal, reflecting ancient and almost universal presumptions of gender inequality.”

Within feminist philosophy, the legal issues analysed and critiqued often centre around marriage and reproductive rights, such as child marriage, abortion law, sex working and violence against women.

STATS (UK)

  • 51% of British Solicitors are women, as of 2019.
  • 68.8% law students are women.
  • 36.5% of law students are from minority ethnic groups.
  • 62.3% of trainees are women.
  • 50.8% of solicitors on the roll (2017) are women.
  • 14.2% of solicitors are from minority ethnic groups.

In the US:

  • Women make up 34% of the legal profession (2014),
  • 20% of partners in private firms.
  • 4% managing partners.
  • 3/9 Supreme Court are women (2014)
  • Conversely, at only 2.55% of partners, minority women remain the most underrepresented group at partnership level

We see higher numbers of women entering the law, through traineeships and as students, perhaps due to the large number of women aware of how it affects us around the world. With bodily autonomy and reproductive rights so intricately woven into life and law, its not a surprise that more and more women are entering a profession that can argue these rights for us.

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