Two-year countdown to women in law’s centenary begins

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By Katie King on

Time for the First 100 Years project to press the accelerator

Image via Twitter (@First100Years) Caption: This is the photo that started #WomenInLaw project, how did it feel to be the solitary woman?

Tomorrow, it will be two years exactly until we reach 100 years since women could become lawyers, the seminal event which the First 100 Years project has been working tirelessly to commemorate.

Since its inception in 2014, the women in law project has moved towards its 23 December 2019 crescendo, this date marking the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which allowed women to practice law. The act also allowed women to sit as magistrates, sit on juries, and receive degrees from university on completion of study.

Since then, history has enjoyed pivotal firsts including: Ivy Williams’ accession to the bar in 1922, Rose Heilbron and Helena Normanton taking silk in 1949 and Elizabeth Lane’s appointment to the High Court in 1965. The First 100 Years is digitising these events on its website timeline, as well as archiving video interviews with inspirational women in law. The clips are shared on YouTube.

Screenshots from the First 100 Years’ timeline

In an increasingly diverse profession characterised by its female Supreme Court head and growing female partner percentages, immortalising the struggles of women in a digital museum may be, to some, simple nostalgia. Quick to defend the 1919 act’s lasting significance is Dana Denis-Smith, the First 100 Years project founder. She tells us:

“Improvements have been made in the profession’s strive for parity but looking at the profession narrowly as it is in the present doesn’t give women a feeling of a place in history. The project invests in the story of the women that have come before us, their pasts and their histories.”

As the First 100 Years’ apex approaches Denis-Smith and her team are ready to “press the accelerator”. A busy 2018 calendar includes a very exciting event with female Supreme Court justices from around the world, currently in its planning stages. An event at Mishcon de Reya and more will ensure the project won’t be swallowed up by the centenary celebrations of (some) women getting the right to vote.

The big year for the project will, of course, be 2019. The 100-year anniversary will be commemorated in November at the time of the project’s annual conference; the current plan is to spread it over several days in a festival-style format.

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And who better to host the conference than the most recognisable female lawyer in the country? Hale’s accession to the House of Lords and then to the Supreme Court presidency has made her the figurehead of the women in law movement’s recent history. Denis-Smith’s six-year-old daughter recently met her and loves her too: “It’s so special to be able to show my daughter she can go all the way to the top of a profession.”

But Hale might not still be on top by the time we reach the 1919 act’s anniversary: though Hale’s 75th birthday and her statutory retirement date are not until the end of January 2020 she may well have stepped down before then, and before 23 December 1919, due to the sitting timetables.

The feminist icon won’t be leaving behind an all-male bench. Lady Black was sworn in in October and pundits are hopeful that at least one of the three current Supreme Court vacancies will be filled by a woman. This move towards an equal Supreme Court gender split is something most lawyers, former Linklaters solicitor Denis-Smith included, applaud. But, taking a more sceptical approach, she says:

“Hoping for parity is in some ways wishful thinking. Hale will step down in 2020 and it’s all just too short-term. What I’m after is a lasting legacy, changes that aren’t temporary.”

The biggest driver behind the project, Denis-Smith continues, was to instil in female lawyers a sense of belonging to the profession and, with that, a desire to stick around in it. She continues:

“You can only rise to the top if you are involved in the profession and you continue to make a contribution to it. You need to put time in in order to be visible and known; no one’s going to be the next Supreme Court judge if they’re hiding. Don’t disconnect and assume the profession is for men: change starts with the feeling one can achieve it.”

The digital museum which the First 100 Years is building will be donated to the British Library in 2019; but this does not mark the end of the project. The charity which underpins the project, called Spark21, has far wider objectives — including art, research and scholarships — than just the 1919 act.

The centenary project has been a great way to launch the First 100 Years, Denis-Smith says, because it is “a simple way of focusing the mind, as it’s easier to measure success when you have a deadline”. With a whole host of centenaries on the horizon, such as the first female solicitors and barristers, First 100 Years has plenty more it wants to celebrate.

The First 100 Years’ project greatly appreciates all the donations it receives. If you’d like to support the charity, you can do so via its website.

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