Oliver & Partners is an all-women law firm, and we are proud to be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the year that female lawyers were first entitled to practise in the United Kingdom, in all levels and positions of the legal system.
In Italy, however, this year is only a part-celebration as it is the centenary since women can practice as lawyers (avvocati) but were not yet able to take up the role of a judge.
Women and the legal profession in the UK
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act became law in the United Kingdom on 23rd December 1919. The Act removed all legal barriers for women including married women who wished to work as lawyers. Chapter 71 of the Act states:
‘A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or hiding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or from admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise), and a person shall not be exempted by sex or marriage from the liability to serve as a juror’.
The Act gave women the opportunity to apply to the Law Society if they wished to become solicitors and to one of the following four Inns of Court to become barristers: Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple or Gray’s Inn knowing that their applications would not be rejected solely on the basis of their sex.
Gwyneth Bebb was a student at Hugh’s College Oxford who received first-class marks in her jurisprudence courses but as women were not awarded degrees, she was not able to formally graduate. When Bebb’s application to the SRA to undertake the solicitor’s exam was refused, she appealed to the Law Society and the matter ended up in the Court Of Appeal (Bebb v The Law Society  1 Ch 286). The Court of Appeal held that ‘in point of intelligence and education and competency the Appellant was probably, far better than many male candidates’ but as women were not ‘persons’ under the Solicitors Act 1843, her appeal was dismissed. The Court of Appeal had determined that this was a matter for the Parliament and not for the courts to decide.
Women were finally admitted into the profession in 1919 when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act had received Royal Assent. In 1920 Madge Easton Anderson became the first female solicitor in the United Kingdom upon being admitted to practice law in Scotland. In 1922 Carrie Morrison became the female solicitor in England. In 1922, Helena Normanton who was raised by a single mother was the first woman to practice as a barrister in England and campaigned for equal pay and divorce reform. Agnes Twiston Hughes became the female solicitor in Wales in 1923.
100 years on, the current President of the Law Society is a woman, Christine Blacklaws. Christina is the 174th President of the Law Society of England and Wales and the fifth woman to hold this office. Christina Blacklaws gave me my admissions certificate at my Admissions Ceremony at the Law Society in London in 2017 when she was Vice-President of the Law Society. Our paths crossed yet again with Christina when she led a ‘Women in Law’ event at the British Embassy in Rome in October 2018. Without early pioneers such as Gwyneth Bebb, a female President of the Law Society would not have handed an admissions certificate to a female solicitor. In her inaugural speech as President of the Law Society, Christina stated:
‘ … women now represent the majority of practising solicitors and have been over 60 per cent of new entrants each year since 1990, but still 78 per cent of partners in private practice are men. We have a real problem that despite a predominantly female pipeline, women are not being promoted into leadership positions. It is clear that much more needs to be done’ (Law Society website)
As of 2017, the majority of practicing solicitors are women at 50.1% (Women in leadership in Law: TOOLKIT handbook, Law Society). Immense progress has taken place starting from the opportunity itself for women to practice law yet there is room for progress.
2019 also marks the 40 year anniversary of the UN Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, which is an additional reason for celebration of female lawyers.
How does Italy compare?
Lidia Poët was the first female Italian avvocato. She passed her law exams at the University of Turin in 1881. She then acted as a trainee in a studio legale for 2 years. Subsequently, Poët sat the theoretical and practical exams in order to enter the Ordine degli Avvocati di Turino and she registered in the Albo degli Avvocati on 9th August 1883.
However, Poët’s inscription on the Albo degli Avvocati angered the Procuratore Generale who complained to the Court of Appeal of Turin. The Court of Appeal held that Poët’s instruction was indeed illegal. She appealed to the La Corte Suprema di Cassazione in Turin but the determination of the Court of Appeal was maintained.
Her disbarring led to a movement to allow women to practice law and hold public office in Italy. Article 7 of Law No. 1176 of 17 July 1919 (later repealed by Article 2 of Law No 66/1963) allowed women to practice in professions in public office but women were still expressly excluded from the judicial profession. Public offices, included lawyers (avvocati) but not judges (giudici). A year later, at the age of 65, Poët was finally registered in Ordine degli Avvocati in Turin, 36 years after her initial registration. However, it was Teresa Labriola who was the first Italian avvocato who was actually able to practice law.
In 1947, the Constituent Assembly had to decide whether or not to recognize women’s right to pursue the activity of a giudice. It took 15 years from the Constitution’s entry into force for Parliament to pass a specific law, Law No 66 of 9 February 1963, allowing women access to all public offices, professions and positions, including the judiciary. In 1965, Maria Gabriella Luccioli became the first female judge in Italy.
Currently, 4006 out of 8678 judges are women, a figure of 46%, and they will soon be in the majority if the trend of far more women than men passing the competition continues (statistics from the Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura).
As our firm represents clients all over the world, you may find it interesting to have a look at our timeline below of the first women lawyers by year.
Timeline of First Women Lawyers around the World:
1869 – Arabella (Babb) Mansfield (USA)
1897 – Clara Brett Martin (Canada)
1897 – Ethel Benjamin (New Zealand)
1900 – Olga Petit and Jeanne Chauvin (France)
1905 – Flos Greig (Australia)
1909 – Henny Magnussen (Denmark)
1909 – Katarina Abramovna Fleyshyts ( Russian Empire)
1913 – Regina Quintelitza (Portugal)
1913 – Ilonka Hajnal (Hungary)
1918 – Eva Andén and Mathilda Staël von Holstein (Sweden)
1921 – María Ascensión Olivella Marín (Spain)
1922 – Marianne Beth (Austria)
1922 – Maria Otto (Germany)
1923 – Mary Dorothea Heron and Helena Early (Ireland)
1923 – Cornelia Sorabji (India)
1923 – Irene Antoinette Geffen (South Africa)
1925 – Helena Wiewiórska (Poland)
1925 – Efharis Petridou (Greece)
1926 – Tcheng Yu-hsiu (China)
1927 – Süreyya Ağaoğlu (Turkey)
1929 – Hélène Cazès-Benatar (Morocco)
1933 – Naima Ilyas al-Ayyubi (Egypt)
1935 – Stella Thomas (Nigeria)
1940 – Bilqeyis Haşımzadə (Azerbaijan)
1940 – Masako Nakata, Yoshiko Mibuchi and Ai Kume (Japan)
1945 – Vera Zlatareva (Bulgaria)
1948 – Daisy Lucille Chambers (Jamaica)
1959 – Salma Sobhan (Pakistan)
1960 – Effie Owuor (Kenya)
1991 – Samira Gargash (UAE)
2018 – Jesmin Ara (Bangladesh)