First female barrister in England
Dr Ivy Williams
On 10 May 1922 the Law Journal described Ivy Williams’s Call to the Bar at The Inner Temple on 10 May 1922 as:
One of the most memorable days in the long annals of the legal professionLaw Journal,57, 1922,161
Her journey towards this memorable day had been prolonged and her feelings at this deferment is revealed in her comment in the same Law Journal in 1904.
The legal profession will have to admit us in their own defence … a band of lady University lawyers will say to the Benchers and the Law Society ‘admit us or we shall form a third branch of the profession and practice as outside lawyers’.
With the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal Act) on 23 December 1919 which allowed women to join the professions she was able to finally achieve her dream. Ivy Williams was admitted to The Inner Temple on 26 January 1920 with the sponsorship of Sir John Simon.
Ivy Williams was eminently well qualified to be a barrister. She had been educated privately with her brother and studied Latin, Greek, Italian and Russian and was fluent in German and French. At the age of 19 she joined the Society of Oxford Home Students (later to become St Anne’s College) and took a second class in jurisprudence in 1900 and the BCL examination in 1902. She obtained an LLD at London University in 1903. Her final Bar examination first class certificate of honour excused her two terms dining, propelling her ahead of the other women admitted at the same time.
Ivy Williams did not practise as a barrister but devoted her life to academic study as a tutor and lecturer in Law to the Society of Oxford Home Students. She was dedicated to the furtherment of women in the legal profession. She received a number of academic honours for her tireless work. In 1923 she became the first woman to be awarded a DCL at Oxford for the publication of her book The Sources of Law in the Swiss Civil Code. In 1925 she published The Swiss Civil Code: English Version with Notes and Vocabulary, both books were republished in 1976. She was a delegate to the Hague Conference for the Codification of International Law .
In later life with failing eyesight she taught herself to read braille and published a braille primer which was published for the National Institute for the Blind in 1948.
She died at her Oxford home on 18 February 1966. Her achievements and those of many thousands of women who have followed her lead to be called to the Bar have belied the Law Journal’s belief at the time of her Call that the admission of women, ‘was never likely to be justified by any success they will achieve in the field of advocacy’ (Law Journal,57, 1922, 161).