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Celebrating a century of women in the legal profession

Celebrating a century of women in the legal profession

The country’s most senior judge will today give a public lecture honouring the achievements of a pioneering Yorkshire MP.

The Rt Hon Baroness Brenda Hale, the UK’s first woman law lord and the first female president of the Supreme Court, talks on A Century of Women’s Rights at 6pm this evening in the University's Great Hall. 

2019 marks the centenary of women being able to join the legal profession and hold public office. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time.

Last January, the inaugural Alice Bacon Lecture – held to honour Yorkshire’s first woman MP – was given by senior MP Harriet Harman in a packed Great Hall.

No stranger to firsts herself, Leeds-born Lady Hale, who grew up in Richmond, North Yorkshire – her full title is Baroness Hale of Richmond – was the first from her school to go to Cambridge University and the first to read law. She was also the first woman member of the Law Commission and the first woman law lord (predecessors of the justices of the Supreme Court).

Women in my generation could often be first – it’s much harder now for women to be the first at anything because we’ve nabbed all of those spots.

Baroness Hale

She said: “Women in my generation could often be first – it’s much harder now for women to be the first at anything because we’ve nabbed all of those spots.

“I feel a responsibility to be as good as I possibly can be in the job, partly not to let down women in the future – because there’s a risk if the first woman doesn’t do too well people will say ‘that’s because she’s a woman’.

“I also feel that, if my having this role encourages young women starting out in a legal career to think ‘well, if she can do it, I can do it’, that’s wonderful.”

Alice Bacon was elected to represent Leeds North East in 1945 and served her city constituents continuously until her retirement a quarter of a century later (she transferred to Leeds South East when constituency boundaries were revised in 1955). Awarded a CBE in the 1953 Coronation Honours, she took up a seat in the Lords as a Baroness on her retirement as an MP in 1970.

Leeds did not return another woman to the Commons until the election in 2010 of Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves, who is also Baroness Bacon’s biographer.

Ms Reeves teamed up with the School of Politics and International Studies at the University to establish the lectures in the name of her trailblazing forebear, with the aim of commemorating the achievements of West Yorkshire women – locally and nationally.

Rachel Reeves added: “Following a fantastic year of celebrating 100 years since some women first won the right to vote, 2019 marks the centenary of women being able to join the legal profession and hold public office.

The Alice Bacon lecture provides us with the opportunity to commemorate the contribution women have made to politics and public life.

Rachel Reeves MP

“The Alice Bacon lecture provides us with the opportunity to commemorate the contribution women have made to politics and public life.

“It is an incredible honour to host Baroness Brenda Hale – the first female president of the Supreme Court – to hear her perspective of social and legal changes pioneered by women over the last century.”

Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds, said: “We very much look forward to welcoming such a high profile and inspiring senior judge as Lady Hale to give our students and others the opportunity to hear about women’s role in the legal profession over the past century.

“British politics and representation form a significant strand of research and teaching for staff and students in the School of Politics and International Students here at Leeds, as exemplified in the recent inauguration of our Centre for Democratic Engagement.

“The School hosts regular talks by eminent politicians, such as Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP, and Mother of the House, Harriet Harman MP.”

Further information

  • For more details, images or interviews, contact Gareth Dant, Media Relations Manager in the University of Leeds press office, on 0113 343 3996 or email g.j.dant@leeds.ac.uk
  • Baroness Hale became the first and only woman ‘Lord of Appeal in Ordinary’ in 2004, after a varied career as an academic lawyer, law reformer and judge. She was born in Leeds, educated at Richmond High School for Girls in North Yorkshire and Girton College, Cambridge (where she is now Visitor) and was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1969. She taught Law at the University of Manchester for 18 years, specialising in family and social welfare law, and also practised for a while at the Manchester Bar.
    In 1984 she became the first woman to serve on the Law Commission, a statutory body which promotes the reform of the law. There she led the work of the family law team, resulting in (among others) the Children Act 1989 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005. She was also a founder member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and chair of its Code of Practice Committee from 1990 to 1994, when she was appointed a Judge of the Family Division of the High Court. She was promoted to the Court of Appeal of England and Wales in 1999 and in 2004 to the House of Lords. This was the top court for the whole United Kingdom, until the ‘Law Lords’ became the Justices of the newly established Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in 2009. She became Deputy President of the Court in 2013 and its President in 2017.
  • Baroness Bacon CBE (1909-1993) was born in Normanton, West Yorkshire. Her father was a miner and Labour county councillor. After working as a teacher, she was elected to Parliament in the post-war Labour landslide. She transferred to the Leeds South East constituency with constituency boundary revisions ten years later, serving as its MP until her retirement in 1970. She was a Minister in the Home Office and then the Department of Education and Science between 1964 and 1970 and served on Labour’s National Executive Committee from 1941 until 1960. She served as party chair from 1950 to 1951. She was appointed a CBE in the 1953 Coronation Honours and created Baroness Bacon of the City of Leeds and of Normanton in 1970.

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