International Women’s Day

Lawyers in general, and barristers in particular, have a reputation for being pretty conservative (with both a small and a large ‘c’) in general. In fairness, this is probably because, in general, we are. The way that both professions have rolled over at the legal aid cuts and the encroachment into civil liberties are two examples of that. Maybe it’s something to do with a life lived working within a system. Certainly trying to bend or push the rules, but always staying within them rather than questioning the rules themselves.

In September I finished up an MA in Contemporary History and Politics. One of the four courses that I did was ‘Gender in Modern History’. For my coursework essay I bucked gender stereotypes and wrote an essay on the role of men in the suffragette movement…

What surprised me when I was researching it was the sheer number of lawyers (specifically barristers) that were involved with the suffrage movement. The men’s movement was dominated by them, starting with Dr Pankhurst (father of Christabel and Sylvia) was a barrister who took a Judicial Review to try and establish women’s right to vote in 1868. After 1900 when the campaigns for women’s suffrage increased,  the main men’s organisation, the ‘Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage’ was founded by Herbert Jacobs, a barrister who specialised in Maritime law and wrote the leading textbook on it – ‘Elements of Mercantile Law’. There was Cecil Chapman, another barrister and Stipendiary Magistrate. J Arthur Price, a specialist in Ecclesiastical Law. And many others.

It surprised me. Chaps who write about shipping or church law don’t normally go about espousing radical causes. I spent a good few days in the Women’s Library in Aldgate looking through the records of the men who had done the right thing and they were dominated by lawyers. There was also the original brief to counsel for the trial of Victor Duval who was up before the Crown Court for setting fire to a train in the cause of womens right to vote which was very different to the briefs that I’m used to dealing with!

But my favourite feminist barrister of all is Frederick Pethwick-Lawrence (nee Lawrence – he hyphenated his name when he married Emmeline Pethick, which didn’t go down very well with Inner Temple). He started off by defending suffragist and suffragettes, but found himself on the other side of the dock and ended up being banged up at the Old Bailey for nine months for conspiracy to join Emmeline Pankhurt’s ‘window smashing and setting fire to letterboxes’ campaign in favour of women’s rights.

It’s not often that I can say that I’m proud of being a lawyer, but looking back a hundred years or so, it’s nice to think that I’m part of a profession that has actually fought for equality and social justice. There are many problems for women at the bar (and more in the world in general), but it’s good to know that there are people fighting against sexism and that some of them at least are lawyers! Whilst it’s fashionable to be sceptical about feminism and the need for International Women’s Day in some quarters, I’ll raise a quiet cup of tea in Chambers to the above lawyers (all male, as women at that time couldn’t become lawyers) who did their bit to fight injustice.

I always meant to write an article about it, but never quite got round to it. The full essay, “Gentlemanly and Chivalrous Radicals? : The role and motivations of the `Suffragettes in Trousers’ in advancing the pro-suffrage movement” is here if anyone wants to read it. And, for anyone that’s complaining about the fact that women get a whole day for themselves, as it’s a leap year it means that us men have a full complement of 365 days where, despite all the progress that has been made, it’s still a ‘man’s world’.


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