International Womens Day

Posted: 8th March 2018

“Courage calls to courage everywhere”. These are the words which will be emblazoned on the statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, who will this year join Churchill, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square. Fawcett was one of the prime campaigners for the Representation of the People Act 1918 which marked the beginning of women’s right to vote in the UK. Maya Foa, the Director of the human rights organisation Reprieve, has said that the new monument reminds us “why we owe so much to the determined, brave, pioneering feminists who secured our democratic rights 100 years ago”.

It can seem a far cry from the heroic pioneers of women’s suffrage to the daily abrasions of life as a woman solicitor, a hundred years later. My own stocktake of my career includes memories of being told by my senior partner, as an articled clerk, that “running is unwomanly”. Of joining a new firm as a keen young solicitor, to find that the dress code forbade the wearing of trousers by women. Of it dawning on me, when I was a young mum, that when I left work at 3.30 for the school run I was belittled as a part-timer (and paid as such), whilst my male colleagues who did the same thing called it “working from home” and drew a full-time salary. And of the realisation that although we women now have the right to vote, to attend university, to qualify as solicitors and to attain the highest ranks of our profession, we are not immune from the patronising attitudes brilliantly satirised in a 1923 sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay: “What a big book for such a little head!”.

The day’s grind can seem enough without attempting to paint on a broader canvas. Struggling with children’s uniforms and packed lunches merges seamlessly into struggling with awkward clients and unachievable targets. When I meet my female contemporaries, the refrain is always how difficult life is, how hard.

My wish for us all, though, on International Women’s Day, is that we might be able to lift our heads, if only briefly, from the sink and the timesheet; to celebrate the women who won us the rights we have and to add our voices to support those who are still fighting, from high profile human rights lawyers on the international stage, to every one of us who puts in a stint at the CAB or campaigns for access to justice. And maybe too we might have a moment to think what a better world would look like for women lawyers – if we had work systems that were liveable and fair, both for us and for our male colleagues, and if women’s contribution as lawyers was valued and fairly paid. Our lives – in the West, at least – are much more equal than those of our mothers and grandmothers, but not all the battles have been won. Maybe we could start to identify what we still need to change.