Forgotten story of our early female legal pioneers finally given a voice

Women now make up half of new solicitors, but they are still lagging behind in terms of pay and senior positions in firms.

A recent report highlighted that only 30 per cent of our judges are female, compared to over 50 per cent in most of the rest of Europe.

We still only have one female judge in the Supreme Court, the highest court.

But it was not so long ago that women could not become lawyers at all, purely because of their gender. One woman who was partly responsible for women entering the legal profession was Gwyneth Bebb and her three female peers whose high-profile court case against the Law Society contributed to the Sex (Disqualification) Removal Act 1919 and forms the basis of my new play The Disappearance of Miss Bebb.

Like many a law student I had come across the case Bebb v Law Society, but knew nothing of the brave young woman Gwyneth Bebb, who had taken the Law Society to court for the right to become a lawyer just 100 years ago. Who was she? What had happened to her? Did she actually ever become a lawyer? Why haven’t I heard of her? Some of these questions were answered when I attended an engaging presentation by Professor Rosemary Auchmuty of Reading University, the only academic who has done any detailed research into the case and Gwyneth herself. I say some of my questions were answered, but many more questions were raised; perhaps that was Rosemary’s intention…

As I delved into the research more, with frequent trips to the Woman’s Library at LSE, I felt Gwyneth’s story deserved a wider audience; not just because it was a fascinating tale with many a twist and turn, but also because it had the potential for a powerful female-led drama where I could write some great parts for women. And I wanted to know: why did she disappear?

It had all started so well; Gwyneth Bebb left Oxford University the top law student of her year, the only woman amongst 400 men.  But, she couldn’t practise as a lawyer; why? Because she was a woman  And so in 1913, with her dear friend Maud, along with Nancy and Karin, their battle begins with the infamous “Bebb v the Law Society”.  They lose the case. Undaunted, the real confrontation against power and prejudice begins with their Campaign to change the law itself in Parliament, and overcome the dirty deals and underhand tactics from the likes of Lord Finlay, the fearsome Lord ChancellorThe play brings alive the women’s struggles; their relationships; their joys and tragedies. Will the fight tear them apart, or will friendship prevail, and let them taste final victory together?

2019 will be the centenary of their triumph. They deserve to be heard, at last…

‘The Disappearance of Miss Bebb’ has a star cast including Call the Midwife’s Laura Main, Outnumbered’s Hugh Denis and Judge John Deed’s Martin Shaw. Tickets are available through the Kalisher Trust website.

All proceeds support the charity’s work to support the brightest and the best, whatever their background, to create a diverse and socially mobile criminal Bar through internships, awards and training.

About the author

This article was written by playwright Alex Giles, who created ‘The Disappearance of Miss Bebb.’

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