Celebrating the Centenary of Women in Law
In a time of ubiquitous social media activism and feminist t-shirts, one is frequently faced with platitudes about empowerment. However, events like Celebrating the Centenary of Women in Law held at the University of Glasgow on the 15th April 2019 provide real empowerment. The day was a celebration of trailblazers and reflected on the past and future of the legal profession and women’s position in it. I was lucky enough to participate as a volunteer and want to share some of my thoughts about the event.
After a warm welcome from Maria Fletcher, one of the organisers and an EU law lecturer at the university, Lady Wolffe QC provided insightful remarks about the history of women in the profession. She pointed out that, shockingly, in interpreting statutes about admission of students to the legal profession, judges refused to expand the meaning of the word ‘person’ to women.
This is a powerful example of how convention and pre-existing structures are used to justify exclusion. Lady Wolffe’s analysis of the late 19th and early 20th century judges allowed her, and indeed every guest present, to ask the key question of the day: “Where are the women?” This question framed the conference, and for me, was one of the best takeaways from the day.
“Where are the women?” is a brilliantly simple question but reflects the way in which we need to talk about progress in the legal profession when it comes to gender diversity. There is ample space for reflection of the historical instruments that instigated change, namely, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and its application in courts.
There is also room to remember and celebrate trailblazers, which is the focus of the First Hundred Years Project founded by Dana Denis Smith. The project aims to build a comprehensive timeline of women in law in the UK and is an incredibly important resource. Naturally, a Glaswegian trailblazer became the star of the conference. Madge Easton Anderson was the first woman to graduate from the University of Glasgow with a law degree in 1920, becoming the first female Scottish law agent after successfully challenging a decision to not allow her into the profession. The work done by Alison Lindsay and Pat Lucie brought her story to life for the audience. Hearing about her life and work was eye-opening and incredibly inspiring for me. Studying with so many other female students in the same university as she did, but a hundred years later, is a testament to how far we’ve come.
Exploration of the past and present are key elements of the Scottish Feminist Judgments Project. The project consists of key Scottish judgments rewritten by academics and practitioners from a feminist perspective and artwork reflecting the cases. The idea is to understand the complicated social forces that are behind forming and applying the law, and to see that far from being a totally objective machine, the law is multifaceted and, crucially, human-made. The founders of the project want to open the eyes of legal professionals and students to feminist judgments and want to teach us to see the law in all its complexity.
“Where are the women?” also gives room to reflect on the future of the legal profession. In 2015, 51% of solicitors in Scotland were women, according to the Law Society of Scotland. Despite this, there is still work to be done to make the profession more diverse and more representative of Scotland today. An intersectional approach to diversity is the only way in which the profession, and ultimately the legal system, can become one which represents women in Scotland today. This was highlighted in the panel discussing equality in the legal world, chaired by Amanda Millar, the vice president of the Law Society of Scotland from May 2019.
Lady Hale, brilliant as ever, gave the closing remarks of the conference. She highlighted that without the early pioneers, we would not be here today – primarily because these women exposed a problem and helped remove it. She talked about the ongoing process of diversification of the Supreme Court and encouraged the audience to think outside the box to make real changes. Talking about her experience in the Supreme Court, she told the audience that when she took up her position as the first female judge in the Supreme Court, she was seen as having an ‘agenda’. “But if [the ‘agenda’] was equality and fairness for women and children” she said, “well then that’s an agenda that everybody should have. And it shouldn’t just be associated as a ‘Brenda agenda’.”
The centenary celebrations of women in law are hugely significant from a societal standpoint – the more we can educate people on the history of women in the legal profession, the better. Gathering together a coherent history of women in law in the UK is a difficult task, but the First Hundred Years project has done an excellent job. Their website, with its abundance of materials, is a treasure chest and shows that progress, despite being slow and sometimes difficult to detect, is happening. The University of Glasgow has also done its part by setting up an online exhibition, which is a collection of stories from its female pioneers.
The conference illustrated that there are still areas that we need to improve upon – provide more opportunities for flexible working, encourage women to seek promotions, diversify the profession in an intersectional, meaningful, way. In other words, the equality and diversity we are striving for must be about everyone and for everyone. It is only when the legal profession reflects the people it serves that it is representative enough. And as it stands, we are not there yet.
For the legal profession to change, women need to support each other. Individuals fighting an individualistic battle is not enough. The legal profession, and more broadly the justice system, will not become more representative and diverse when women and other minority groups are seen as anomalies, as exceptions. Women in law have to become a norm.
The biggest takeaway for me, personally, was that this change can start at university. Students can make a difference by supporting each other and having conversations about how the profession should change and by actively partaking in discussions about careers and academia. I was humbled to be in the presence of so many great legal minds, and was reminded, once again, that our stories carry immense weight. It is important that we continue to share our experiences and highlight issues that still need fixing. Sustainable equality in the legal profession is not just a “women’s issue”. It is an ongoing project of huge societal impact that needs everyone behind it to create a more representative and better legal profession.