Margaret Howie Strang Hall - a forgotten pioneer?
When Margaret Howie Strang Hall was born on 1 October 1882 in Neilston, her future, and that of her family, must have seemed secure. Her father, James Hall, was a master calico printer, and her mother, Janet Ann Wilson, was preoccupied with the care of baby Minnie, as she was known, and their two young daughters Cecilia and Jane.
A little over two years later, James was dead, from ‘disease of the brain’, an affliction which had lasted fifteen months. This must have been a great strain on Janet, and she decided to return to her father’s household. Her widowed father Andrew Wilson was a doctor and the household also included Janet’s younger sisters Alice and Cecilia, who could help with the children. Census entries from 1891 and 1901 show the family living at Kirn Brae House in Kirn.
The three sisters attended Dunoon Grammar School. Margaret Hall was evidently both clever and hand-working, and the local newspaper, the Dunoon Observer, reported her successes along with the rest of her schoolfellows. In 1897 Hall achieved a Lower Leaving Certificate in Arithmetic and French, and a Higher Leaving Certificate in English, as well as a second class pass in exams on electricity and magnetism. In 1898, she was the first prizewinner in Argyllshire in the girls’ section of the examination for bursaries (scholarships) provided by the Highlands and Islands Trust for Education. A year later she won a gold medal for German and a money prize to buy books on arithmetic. Gold medals for French and Mathematics followed in 1900, as well as a monetary award for drawing.
After leaving school, Hall was employed as a clerk in the offices of Daniel Anderson, a solicitor who served as Clerk to Dunoon School Board. As such, he will have attended prize-givings at the school and seen Hall collect her numerous awards, and he must have had a high regard for her abilities. He may well have encouraged Hall to consider a legal career; in her later petition Hall noted that she had the offer of an apprenticeship in his office if she were to succeed in her application.
In pursuit of her plan, Hall wrote to the Board of Examiners of the Society of Law Agents on 5 November 1900, enclosing her school leaving certificates and the fee to sit the Latin part of the first of two general knowledge exams (her current qualifications gave her an exemption in other subjects). By return, the Society declined to permit her to sit the exam, since there had hitherto been no applications from women and the Society would not consider her as a candidate without authorisation from the Court [of Session].
Hall submitted a petition to the Court of Session on 15 December 1900 (the National Records of Scotland hold the process under ref. CS240/H/14/5), asking it to authorise the Secretary of the Board of Examiners to enrol her for the Society’s examination and to acquiesce in all subsequent stages towards qualification. In her petition, she stated that she ‘is under the necessity of earning her own living.’ This was probably not strictly true; her grandfather Andrew Wilson had supported his daughter and her children for many years. There were many occupations open to women even at the turn of the twentieth century; teaching was the best-known profession but clerical opportunities were opening up to women, as was the Civil Service. All of these would have been easier to enter than the law, but Hall’s pursuit of that objective indicates that this was her specific choice.
At the initial hearing the Court directed that Donaldson and the Society should also be served with a copy of Hall’s petition. A further hearing on 30 January 1901 ordered that the case should be referred to a meeting of the whole court, a rare occurrence and an indication of the significance of what was an apparently simple request.
Submissions from both parties followed, going over largely the same ground (the history of the legal profession in Scotland, citing cases where women sought equality as ‘persons’, such as Jex Blake v. Senatus of University of Edinburgh). The interpretations put on these, though, naturally differed widely, with Hall urging as an example the successful introduction of women lawyers in America and France. The Society reported that communication with similar organisations in Ireland and England had shown that no woman lawyer had been admitted there, but nonetheless finished their submission with, “The respondents, while they have respectfully brought the foregoing considerations before the Court, do not, however, conceive it to be their interest or their duty to maintain that women ought not to be admitted to practise the profession of the law.”
While the court was considering her petition, Hall wrote an article on ‘Women as Lawyers’ for The New Liberal Review (part 1, 1901), in which she referred to her own case but without naming the petitioner. She reminded her readers that women were able to plead in their own cases, as well as men, but were currently debarred from doing the same work professionally. Interestingly, she also cites the example of Female Inspectors of Factories, who could prepare and bring cases to court using the same legal skills as their male counterparts. In referring to women overseas who were already working in the law, she quotes the rather depressing response from the wife of William Jennings Bryan, the defeated Democratic Presidential candidate; “it is true that I have the right to practise law, having been admitted to both the District and Supreme Courts. I have never appeared in court, as my only object in taking the course was to more thoroughly understand my husband’s work.” She concluded her article on an optimistic note: “…it is to be hoped that man will soon grant to woman what he has always enjoyed – the unrestricted choice of a career, and that any vague unbelief in the supposed unfitness of women to enter the legal profession may be superseded by a willingness to grant them full recognition.”
Such optimism was blasted by the Court’s verdict, given on 12 July 1901. Unanimously the judges decided that ‘the Court has no power to grant the prayer of the petitioner.’ The printed ‘Opinion of the Lord Justice-Clerk, Lords Young,Trayner and Moncrieff’ addressed the ‘person’ issue directly, adding ‘The Court is authorised to admit ‘persons’ [as law agents], a term which, no doubt, is equally applicable to male and female. But in the case of an ambiguous term, that meaning must be assigned to it which is in accordance with inveterate usage. Accordingly we interpret the word as meaning ‘male persons’, as no other has ever been admitted as a law agent. If females are now to be admitted as law agents, that must, in our view, be authorised by the Legislature.’ This was something not accomplished until 1920, when Madge Easton Anderson successfully petitioned the Court of Session to be permitted to sit the Law Agents’ examinations. She was assisted by the passing of the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act of 1919, which finally answered the Court’s objection of 1901.
Hall’s petition attracted world-wide and divided attention, with editorials applauding or deploring her action. The South London Chronicle of 5 January 1901 was sympathetic: ‘Miss Hall has [therefore] been driven to the higher court, and at some expense, to have the question ventilated. Considering the recent scandals in London, when one solicitor after another was found to be unworthy, and to have made away with his clients’ money, some remedy to the system of women leaving all their affairs in solicitors’ hands is called for’. The Donegal Independent made its bias plain in its issue of 19 July 1901: ‘The advocates of women’s rights may be counted upon again to raise an outcry against the judgement of the Edinburgh Court of Session this week, by which it was decided that there should be no lady lawyers in Scotland’. Nearer to home, the contemporary Juridical Review (no. 346) was supportive, describing the law courts in Scotland ‘an impregnable stronghold of masculine privilege’ and deploring ‘the couple of curt sentences in which the decision of the Court was pronounced’’. Some reports failed to pick up on the fact she had failed, and for years afterwards assured their readers that Scotland had a ‘lady lawyer’. Quite the funniest response was a satirical poem published in Glasgow’s Evening Times (15 July 1901) by ‘Amos Chiseler’, most probably a pseudonym:
‘Cocky Law! Is a Girl a Person?’
There were thirteen weighty Judges
Sitting on a little case,
And the cause of all the clocking
Was a winsome lady’s face;
For she asked a pressing question,
And it made them cold and hot –
“Is a little maid a ‘person’,
In your eyes, or is she not?
Like the girls who practise medicine,
Teach and write, and clerk and draw,
She aspired to make her living
From the pickings of the law.
So she mastered Bell and Rankine,
Climbing up the hills of brass
Till she thought she was a ‘person’
Duly qualified to pass.
She had seen her little sisters
Capped M.A.s with applause,
And she wished to climb life’s ladder
As a Bachelor of Laws.
So she asked to be examined,
And to pass, if pass she could
Forth into the black profession
Of the pleading brotherhood.
But the thirteen clocking Judges
Shook their feathers out, and swore
That the only kind of ‘persons’
They had ever passed before
Were young men with shaven faces,
And they could not recognise
This fair lady, in her laces,
As a ‘person’ in their eyes.
But the public are the judges
Of the Judges on the Bench,
And the public roared with laughter
At this answer to the wench.
If the lawyers won’t let women
Pick from out their well-filled bowl
Better say so straight than argue
That a hen is not a fowl!
Balked of her chosen career, Hall continued as a clerk in Daniel’s Anderson office. On his retirement, she took up a post in the Civil Service, and eventually qualified as an Inspector of Factories and Workshops (reported in The Gazette, 16 September 1913). Two years later she married David Morrison Anderson, a Company Quarter Master Sergeant in the 3/5th Battalion Scottish Rifles, but in civilian life a bank clerk and later bank manager. Nothing is known of her life after that point until her death in Edinburgh on 12 December 1955 from myocardial degeneration and coronary thrombosis. Her estate, a substantial one of around £7000, was left to her husband; there is no evidence of her having any children.
~ Alison Lindsay
Alison Lindsay has worked as an archivist in the National Records of Scotland for over 25 years, most recently as Head of the Legal and Historical Search Rooms where every day she helps people seeking access to the 80km of records which NRS holds. She recently contributed an essay on Madge Easton Anderson, the first woman in the UK to qualify as a lawyer, to ‘Women's Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland’ (2018). She is currently researching early Scottish women in the law, which developed from the Women’s Legal Landmarks project.
Suggested citation: A. Lindsay, 'Margaret Howie Strang Hall: a forgotten pioneer?' University of Glasgow School of Law Blog (25 June 2020) available at https://www.uofgschooloflaw.com/