International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women everywhere. It is a celebration of women’s rights. The first International Women’s Day gathering was in 1911 and was supported by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.
It is difficult to say when International Women’s Day began. It can be traced to 1908, when over 15, 000 women marched in New York City demanding voting rights, better pay and shorter working hours. In 1910, Clara Zetkin, leader of the women’s office for the Social democratic party in Germany proposed the idea that every country should celebrate on the same day ‘Woman’s Day’.
It was a time when, in the UK, woman weren’t actually considered to fall under the category of ‘people’ by the legal profession. In 1913 In Bebb v The Law Society, the Court of Appeal ruled that women could not be solicitors. Section 2 of the Solicitors Act 1843 provided that “No person shall act as an Attorney or Solicitor […] unless such Person shall after the passing of this Act be admitted and enrolled and otherwise duly qualified as an Attorney or Solicitor, pursuant to the Directions and Regulations of this Act.” Gwyneth Bebb had applied to the Law Society to sit preliminary examinations, with a view to becoming a solicitor to which she had been refused. In summary the verdict was, no woman had ever been a solicitor before so, clearly, the Act wasn’t intended to include women. Lord Justice Swinfen Eady concluded that ‘if there is to be any change from the ancient practice, it is a change which must be effected by Parliament, and the law must be altered’. Thankfully, there has been great changes from the position in 1913 re-enforced by the Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
Eliza Orme was the first woman to gain a law degree in 1888 but at this time females were still not allowed to be admitted as solicitors. Only in 1919 did the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act come into force amending the Law with respect to disqualifications on account of sex, letting woman become lawyers. Dr Ivy Williams was the first woman to be called to the Bar in 1922. She joined Inner Temple as a student in 1920. Dr Williams never practiced, but she was the first woman to teach law at University. Helena Normanton became the first woman to practise as a barrister in England. At first her application to Middle Temple in 1918 was refused, but after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force, she was admitted to Middle Temple in 1922.
International Woman’s Day is celebrated in many countries around the world. It is a day when women can be recognised for their achievements in economic, legal and political spheres. The world can appreciate the significant changes in women’s and society’s thoughts about women’s equality. Great improvements have been made but a lot more remains to be done.
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Whitestone Chambers ©
8 March 2019