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Last week, the LSE Law department hosted the above public lecture to mark 100 years since the coming into force of the Representation of the People Act 1918. The event featured speeches from a spread of remarkable female lawyers: Baroness Brenda Hale, current President of the Supreme Court; Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, former director of the human rights group Liberty and current Shadow Attorney General for England and Wales; and Professor Nicola Lacey, Professor of Law, Gender and Social Policy at LSE. Jeremy Horder, Head of the Law Department and Professor of Criminal Law at LSE, chaired the discussion.
With such legal powerhouses present, it was small wonder that the lecture theatre was completely packed out - a sight not often seen during my undergraduate days!
Baroness Hale spoke first and pointed out that little attention has been placed on the fact that the Representation of the People Act 1918 also established women’s right to stand for Parliament, in comparison to the right to vote. It is worth remembering that, while the vote was only awarded to a select group of women, the equally important right to stand for Parliament was awarded to all women in 1918.
Baroness Hale, from the outset, explained that she would not be saying anything much about herself. Instead, her segment was more of a chronology of female judicial progress since 1918. To my shame, I had not heard of most of the individuals she mentioned, so I thought it would be worth passing on my newly acquired historical knowledge. For anyone wondering about Baroness Hale’s role models and sources of inspiration, therefore, it would appear that the following women would be a good place to start:
Incidentally, to depart from Baroness Hale’s chronology for a moment, it was over a full 22 years later that the High Court gained its first female, ethnic minority judge, Bobby Cheema- in late 2015. This news was met with much excitement in my family, except by my mother who harboured dreams of someone else filling that role. She visibly brightened, however, after learning that an Asian, female Supreme Court judge was yet to be appointed…no pressure, then!
When discussing Elizabeth Lane, it is interesting that Baroness Hale said she never thought she would be a judge at the time she left for Cambridge, because “there were not a lot of them about”. I think that this throwaway comment illustrates the importance of visible diversity. Certainly, it is a lot easier to visualise yourself as a future member of a profession when you look and speak like the majority of individuals who are already part of it. This was something I didn’t really appreciate until a couple of years ago; it was only at Bar school that I realised I was- completely involuntarily- taking the representations of those who fit the visual description of most barristers more seriously than my own without any real basis.
The correct method of tackling this issue is one which divides opinion frequently, even among the panel at this event. Baroness Hale expressed her reservations about positive discrimination, instead championing affirmative action, in that she wanted to prevent others from undermining female achievement with the often-heard: “you only achieved this because you’re a woman”.
Baroness Chakrabarti, however, disagreed, and described how the all-women shortlists in the Labour party had led to the exponential growth in gender-balanced politics. Both Professor Lacey and Baroness Chakrabarti also shared stories of receiving similar comments in any event. Professor Lacey described how, as the only woman on a fellowship at Oxford, she was asked about whether she was worried she had only been appointed because of her gender- and this occurred over the course of ten years.
As with most celebrations regarding the attainment of rights, therefore, there was an underlying acknowledgement that the progress made so far is a partial victory. Baroness Chakrabarti began on a sombre note, with the reiteration that we were not celebrating 100 years of the vote for all women. She expanded on Baroness Hale’s theory that working class women were deliberately excluded in 1918; all women having the right to vote would have presented a threat that all women being free to stand for Parliament did not. Women would have been in the majority, history would have been very different and I might not be writing this blog today.
Baroness Chakrabarti warned of the need to be aware of the ‘divide and rule’ tactic and to not only focus on increasing numbers of women at the top tables, but to look out for the women serving at those tables, cleaning them and building them. As Professor Lacey pointed out, the reform that had the largest impact on women under new Labour was the minimum wage reform. Likewise, austerity has disproportionately affected women and other economically disadvantaged groups.
As ever, therefore, the take home message is that, yes, we should celebrate this legal landmark (and continue doing so in years to come) but that there is still a lot to be done.
This blog was by Subagarey Pathmanathan, Legal Assistant in the Regulatory Team.
IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.
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