The Inner Temple is proud to launch a virtual exhibition celebrating the achievements of our female members in this centenary year of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act on 23 December 1919.

Shortly after the Act was passed the first woman to be admitted here was Theodora Llewellyn Davies on 9 January 1920. It was also at this Inn that the first woman Ivy Williams was called to the Bar in 1922. Following these two trailblazing women the Inn has witnessed and hosted many firsts which include Elizabeth Lane, the first woman to be admitted as a county court judge; Dorothy Knight Dix the first woman recorder to be given the power to summon a criminal and send a criminal to penal servitude; the first woman Burmese barrister Daw Phar Hmee; Baroness Higgins, current Bencher and the first woman judge elected to the International Court of Justice and the first woman President of the ICI. Baroness Butler-Sloss, current Bencher and former first woman Treasurer of this Inn can claim two firsts as the first woman Lord Justice of Appeal and the first woman President of the Family Division.

This exhibition celebrates the achievements of these women and many others through their life stories, oral histories and podcasts with a timeline showing their achievements within the context of other legal firsts. It also features podcasts of a number of lectures on women which formed part of a series held monthly on the First Women Lawyers in Great Britain – a Centenary Celebration organised by Dr Judith Bourne. It is also thanks to her that we have biographies from a range of academics and barristers on the women lawyers that most inspire them. Chen Li Professorial Fellow at Fudan University Law School in Shanghai, China has uncovered the stories of a few early Chinese, Malay and Singaporean women who joined the Inn in the 1920s. 

These stories also reveal how far the Inn has come since those early days. The Inn now has the Women’s Forum which is intended to encourage and support women throughout their careers, yet the Bar Standards Board 2017 report on diversity shows that there is some way to go in order to reach equality. Although 51.3% of pupil barristers are female, this number drops significantly for practising barristers where two thirds of the profession are still male, and only 14.8% silks are female. The Inn continues to strive to encourage women to fulfil their full potential at the Bar. 

This exhibition will continue to evolve and develop with the continuation of the oral history project which will focus on women at all stages of their career and the addition of numerous further interesting stories.

Celia Pilkington

Inner Temple Archivist

This digital exhibition celebrates 100 years of women in Law. Its launch commemorates the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, enacted on the 23 December 1919 after many years of struggle to end the male exclusivity of the legal profession. It has been a privilege to assist Celia Pilkington, archivist at the Inner Temple Library, in organising these pages. My Ph.D. thesis was on the life of Helena Normanton (the first woman to join an Inn of Court on 24 December 1919) made me appreciate how little has been recorded of the history of the first women lawyers or indeed, women’s first 100 years working within the legal profession.

This digital exhibition accurately records women’s journey and celebrates their progress. It is designed for, and welcomes, all readers interested in this under recorded history. We hope that it will inspire and influence anyone interested in practising law, whilst also giving ‘roots’ to everyone already in legal practice. It also attempts to fill in some of the many gaps in this history. For me, it was particularly satisfying to be able to record the lives of the women I have researched: servant’s daughter Bertha Cave, a woman who, very publicly, attempted to join Gray’s Inn in 1903; the working class Helena Normanton, the first woman to join an institution of the legal profession, the first woman to practise law in her maiden name, the first woman to appear in both the High Court and the Old Bailey and one of two first women KCs; Beatrice Honour Davy, who was one of the first woman to be called to the Bar; and Lady Chatterjee who was appointed OBE in the first honours list in 1917. But, as you read on, there are many such outstanding women, including many from the Commonwealth (but in 1919 then called the Empire).

Women have achieved much in the first 100 years but, there is much work to be done in establishing equality (not just sex or gender, but race, disability, sexuality, age, religion to name but a few) within the legal profession, especially now that the numbers of women entering the law exceed men. This exhibition starts at the beginning of this story and takes us up to the present. It reminds us that when considering the next 100 years we should revisit the lives of those who first sought admission, and those pioneers of the first 100 years and consider the lessons learned.

Dr Judith Bourne

Programme Director for Law and Senior Lecturer, St Mary’s University

Senior Lecturer - Law St Mary’s University