One woman’s challenge to the Victorian Legal Professions

our authors Mar 8, 2024

by Leslie Howsam

In Britain in the 1870s, when Eliza Orme began to think about going to university to study law, there were no women lawyers because the institutions that controlled entry to the profession were open only to men. The nominal reasons for this prohibition were taken very seriously, although they sound ridiculous today: in court, a lady barrister might hear evidence of sexual misconduct that was deemed unsuitable for her feminine sensibilities; she would have to wear a wig, which would make her look ridiculous; her brain was not designed to encompass the logic necessary to deploying legal argument; or the intellectual labour might impair her body for its foreordained purpose, that of childbirth. And so on.

Nevertheless, to coin a phrase, she persisted. University College London permitted women to study law, although there was no pathway from academic degree to credentialed practice. Eliza Orme earned her degree, and found ways to work around the professional barriers without challenging them directly. She earned good money and developed a reputation for competence and responsibility. In her own words, Orme was ‘hopelessly practical’. Some twenty-five years later, when a handful of younger women were making yet another (unsuccessful) effort to attain official recognition as pupil barristers, she was interviewed about her own career. The interviewer, rather than pursue Orme’s success in property conveyancing, expressed concern that male lawyers would be too gentlemanly to engage in acrimonious courtroom debate with a lady:

In 1903, the Law Journal asked ‘Would not the introduction of women into the field of advocacy hinder the administration of justice by checking the fighting instincts of the chivalrous barrister? Is not the struggle in the Courts too keen and personal to admit of the rivalry of women?
Eliza Orme responded: No undesirable results have followed the admission of women to the legal profession in America. I have met a number of American advocates of both sexes, and have been told that any sense of strangeness has soon disappeared. I cannot believe that any man would be less vigorous in the cause of his client merely because he was opposed by a woman. The forensic attitude would be too strong, and no woman who succeeded in becoming a member of the Bar would expect or wish it to be otherwise.

Here is a splendid recording of the London actor Julia Pascal, of the Pascal Theatre Company, reading those magnificently dismissive words. Eliza Orme doesn’t engage with the Law Journal’s provocative question on its own trivial terms. Instead, she takes the opportunity to report on her experience of a more enlightened jurisdiction. She reminds the hapless reporter that a well-trained lawyer is a lawyer, regardless of gender.

Law recording

When I first started the research that eventually became Eliza Orme’s Ambitions, it was before the days of search engines. In libraries I found this Law Journal article, some journalism that Orme had written, and a little about her family. I learned that she had been involved in politics, as a member of the Liberal Party and a leader of the Women’s Liberal Federation. In 1892 she headed up a government sub-commission on the employment of women in various industries including bartending and metal forging. A few years later she reported on the conditions of women in prison. That was all good to know, but unsatisfying. It didn’t help me understand how she might have felt, in 1903, still being asked the same question she’d been answering throughout her working life: how is it possible for a woman to be a lawyer?

Recently and with the help of digital searches and online sources, I have learned enough to guess what was behind Eliza Orme’s sarcastic remarks about gendered politeness having no place in a court of law. I can also speculate on what she might have been thinking during the quarter-century between the interview and her own legal education and training: I believe the answer lies in her ambition. It was wildly ambitious to aim to practice law on the same basis of men, but I believe she wanted even more: to challenge the assumptions that excluded her from something else lawyers could do, namely use their professional experience and connections to launch a career in parliamentary politics.

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Eliza Orme’s Ambitions: Politics and the Law in Victorian London
Why are some figures hidden from history? Eliza Orme, despite becoming the first woman in Britain to earn a university degree in Law in 1888, leading both a political organization and a labour investigation in 1892, and participating actively in the women’s suffrage movement into the early twentieth…

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