100 years ago, some women in the UK gained the vote for the first time. A year later, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed and women could become qualified lawyers for the first time. In celebration of the progress made on women’s rights, we’ve looked at five inspirational women in the legal industry over the last century.

Gwyneth Bebb

1889 – 1921

In 1913, there were still two professions denying women entry in the UK; one was the church and the other was the law. By the time that Bebb started legal action in the case that would become known as ‘Bebb v. The Law Society’, women had been trying to become lawyers for 40 years.

Bebb was seeking a declaration that women were able to sit The Law Society’s exams and qualify as solicitors. The case failed as the judge ruled that women were not “persons” as described by the Solicitors Act of 1843 and therefore not entitled to practice law. However, the press was largely in Bebb’s favour and the case continued to gain momentum until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in 1919 which allowed women to become lawyers.

Bebb was the sixth woman to study law at Oxford where she received first class results. However, she was not awarded a degree on the grounds of her gender. When the case v. The Law Society failed, she continued with feminist activism and prosecuted black-marketeers for the Ministry of Food during the First World War.

Her application to join Lincoln’s Inn as a student barrister was refused in 1918. She gave birth to her first child the following year, two days before the Sex Disqualification Act 1919 was passed. She was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn as a student barrister in January 1920 and gave up her work at the Ministry of Food so that she could study for the Bar examinations.

Bebb ought to have become the first female barrister, however, a tragic turn of events prevented this from happening. Her second child was born prematurely and died after only two days. Bebb herself was left in a dangerous state and died two months later at the age of 31.

The valuable work she did during her lifetime has led to nearly a century of women working in the law, bringing greater equality, diversity, and balance to the profession.  

Helena Normanton

1882-1957

The first woman to practice at the Bar was Helena Normanton – although it is worth mentioning Dr. Ivy Williams as the first woman to be called to the Bar.

Like Bebb, Normanton had been refused entry to an Inn of Court on the grounds of being a woman. She decided to take her case to the House of Lords, however, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed before the case was heard. Normanton reapplied to the Middle Temple and was immediately admitted. On becoming a barrister, Normanton continued to campaign for women’s rights in all aspects of their lives and careers.

Normanton was also the first married woman in Britain to receive a passport in her maiden name. She did this to maintain her own professional identity which was becoming widely recognised.

She pursued a successful career as a barrister and gained a certain amount of notoriety due to her formidable character. She was the first woman to prosecute a murder case and also became the first female King’s Council, alongside Rose Heilbron, in 1949.

Carrie Morrison

1888 – 1950

Carrie Morrison was the first woman admitted as a solicitor in England and Wales. She qualified in December 1922 at the age of 34.

She was determined to practice law for the good of those less fortunate than herself and did much work as a poor man’s lawyer in London’s East End. She represented prostitutes in court and worked for the Women and Children’s Protection Society as their solicitor. She also defended the Becontree Estate protesters in 1932.

She married another solicitor, Ambrose Appelbe, in 1929 and they lived together in Whitechapel. They shared many values as solicitors, working for the wellbeing of people rather than the money. They lived in a tenement building with communal bathrooms, rather different from the comfortable life provided by her father, who was a wealthy metal broker.

She advocated strongly for Divorce Law Reform and, in fact, divorced her own husband. However, they continued to work together closely on the issue. While working hard to improve the standing of women in divorce, Morrison always strove to maintain equality on both sides.

Baroness Hale of Richmond

1945 – present

The current President of the Supreme Court has a long string of ‘firsts’ to her name. Baroness Hale spent much time in academia, teaching law at Manchester University for 18 years after graduating from Cambridge. She also qualified as a barrister and practised at the Manchester Bar.

She was the first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission and she began sitting as an assistant recorder.

She became a High Court judge in 1994 and was promoted to the Court of Appeal five years later. She then became the first woman Law Lord and became the first woman Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 2004.

She transferred to the Supreme Court in 2009 with the other Law Lords, becoming the first woman Justice of the Supreme Court. She was appointed as Deputy President of the Supreme Court in 2013 and President in 2017.

Baroness Hale has been dedicated to improving diversity on the bench throughout her career and has been described as “one of the most forthright and liberalising influences on the court” by the Guardian. Her speeches often reveal her egalitarian and feminist perspective.

Dame Linda Dobbs

1951 – present

Dame Linda Dobbs was the first black High Court judge in England and Wales and the first non-white person to be appointed to the senior judiciary.

She was called to the Bar in 1981 and came to specialise in fraud and professional disciplinary tribunals. Despite facing discrimination in her work, she took silk in 1998.

Dobbs then held several notable positions, including chairmanship of the Professional Standards Committee, the Race Relations Committee and the Criminal Bar Association. She was appointed as a High Court judge in 2004, assigned to the Queen’s Bench.

Dobbs stepped down from the High Court Bench early in 2013 and has pursued various projects including the training of lawyers in the Caribbean and Africa. She supports several charities and is a patron of the African Prisons Project and Masicorp, which promotes education in Masiphumelele, South Africa.

This highly successful career has earned her places on the Power 100 List of Influential Black Britons and as one of the 100 Great Black Britons.

She speaks frankly about her career and the challenges she has faced in this video.

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