Recovering Lost Lives: Researching Women in Legal History

Date01 March 2015
AuthorRosemary Auchmuty
Publication Date01 March 2015
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 34±52
Recovering Lost Lives: Researching Women in Legal
Rosemary Auchmuty*
Drawing on the research I undertook into the life of Gwyneth Bebb,
who in 1913 challenged the Law Society of England and Wales for
their refusal to admit women to the solicitors' profession, this article
focuses on the range of sources one might use to explore the lives of
women in law, about whom there might be a few public records but
little else, and on the ways in which sources, even official ones, might
be imaginatively used. It traces the research process from the case that
inspired the research (Bebb v. the Law Society [1914] 1 Ch 286)
through to the creation of an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography and wh at this means for women's hi story,
emphasizing the importance of asking the `woman question' and
seeking out the broader significance of a woman's life in the context of
her times.
There are very few biographies of legal women in the United Kingdom. This
is partly because very few such women have been considered important
enough to merit the conventional type of study, based on their contribution to
public life, but also because women's legal history has also not, until
recently, been considered important enough for academic study. Para-
doxically, what this really meant was that it was too important, for to reveal
women's legal history too clearly would be to uncover the many mechanisms
by which men have retained power for themselves in law and to give the lie
to the vaunted equality of opportunity for men and women. Today,
fortunately, no scholar need apologize for focusing on women; the problem
is, rather, the paucity of information about those legal pioneers, for whom
records have not been kept precisely because their lives were deemed
*School of Law, University of Reading, Foxhill House, Whiteknights Road,
Reading RG6 7BA, England
ß2015 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2015 Cardiff University Law School
unimportant. This means we have to be imaginative in our search not only
for source material but actually for women subjects to research, and to ask
different questions of the public records that do survive and have been
written up in the past.
As Karen Tani puts it, the task of historical scholarship is
to continually assess and re-assess significance; to take existing categories and
orderings and reconstruct them, so that raw data, new and old, becomes
meaningful to today's consumers. It is especially the task of historians of
women, since their data is so often cast into the `unimportant' bin.
Painstaking research by Patrick Polden,
Anne Logan,
Hector MacQueen,
and others has uncovered the names of many of the `firsts' among English
and Scottish legal women but, as they found, naming them is just the start; in
trying to reconstruct what it was like to be one of these pioneers, and to fill in
the context of their lives ± not simply the public struggles and achievements
but also, if possible, the private ones ± the source problem is magnified a
hundredfold, for personal records are so rarely kept. Even sizable archives
like that of Helena Normanton (early woman barrister and contemporary of
Miss Bebb) contain no personal papers.
Mary Jane Mossman's The First
Women Lawyers,
which compares the experiences of early women lawyers
in the United States, Canada, England, New Zealand, India, and some
continental jurisdictions, benefited from a reasonably wide range of public
sources, while for her North American case studies she was assisted by an
increasi ng body of doct oral disse rtations o n early wome n lawyers.
Nevertheless, the amount of effort in recovering these stories was prodigious
and she had to ask different questions from the usual `tale of progress' to
reach the uncomfortable conclusion that admission to the legal profession
was the start, rather than the end, of women's struggle for equality.
For what I actually found out about Miss Bebb, I refer readers to the
substantive article in Legal Studies.
In brief, she studied law at Oxford,
worked for some years in government service, brought the test case against
the Law Society, married, and had a child, all the while playing an active
role in a well-organized, persistent, and very public campaign (about which
1 K.M. Tani, `Portia's Deal' (2012) 87 Chicago-Kent Law Rev. 569.
2 P. Polden, `Portia's Progress: Women and the Bar, 1919±1939' (2005) 12 Inter-
national J. of the Legal Profession 293±338.
3 A.F. Logan, `In Search of Equal Citizenship: the campaign for women magistrates in
England and Wales, 1910±1939' (2007) 16 Women's History Rev. 501±18.
4 H. MacQueen, `Scotland's first women law graduates: an Edinburgh centenary' in
Miscellany VI: Stair Society (2009) 221±65.
5 J. Bourne, `Helena Normanton and the Opening of the Bar to Women', unpublished
PhD thesis, University of London (2014).
6 M.J. Mossman, The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, Law and
the Legal Professions (2006).
7 R. Auchmuty, `Whatever happened to Miss Bebb? Bebb v The Law Society and
women's legal history' (2010) 31 Legal Studies 199±230.
ß2015 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2015 Cardiff University Law School

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