Women’s History Month 2023

March 31, 2023

Women’s History Month is an annual declared month that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. It is celebrated during March in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, corresponding with International Women’s Day on 8th March. More than a century later, women around the world are still fighting for equality. During this month, women are encouraged to celebrate the achievements they have made, and to highlight issues that they continue to face.

At Exchange Chambers, we are committed to promoting equal opportunities for all, including members, pupils, employees and applicants. We value the importance of both International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month and take this opportunity to celebrate the brilliant achievements of our female members and staff, as well as looking at some inspiring women from the Bar throughout history.

Firstly, we acknowledge the work of Dr Ivy Williams.

Dr Ivy Williams occupies a special place in the world of women, firsts, and law. On 10th May 1922, she became the first woman to be called to the Bar of England and Wales. Williams studied law at the Society of Oxford Home Students (later St Anne’s College), also making her the third woman to study law at Oxford University. The Law Journal described her call to the bar as ‘one of the most memorable days in the long annals of the legal profession’. From 1920 to 1945 Ivy Williams was a tutor and lecturer in law to the Society of Oxford Home Students. She was elected an honorary fellow of St Anne’s College in 1956.

Stella Jane Thomas (later Marke) is another notable figure in the history of the Bar, after becoming the first black African woman called to the Bar of England and Wales.

Stella was a Yoruba Nigerian of Sierra Leonian descent. She travelled to England in 1929 to study law at Oxford and there she joined Middle Temple, and in 1933 became the first African woman to be called to the bar. In 1934, she was the only African woman to participate in a discussion with Margery Perham at the Royal Society of Arts, and she took the opportunity to criticize Lord Lugard and African colonialism before an influential audience. She practiced in the UK for a short period then returned to West Africa where she enrolled at the Sierra Leonean bar. In December 1935, she established her own law firm in Lagos Island, where she worked on criminal cases and family matters, amongst a range of legal matters.

We recognize the inspiring work of Dame Rose Heilbron DBE, QC, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey.

Rose was born in Liverpool in 1914, and was called to the bar in 1939, after attending the University of Liverpool, where she became one of the first two women to gain a first-class honours degree in law. Heilbron practised mainly in personal injury and criminal law. By 1946, Heilbron had appeared in ten murder trials, and in 1949, just a few months after the birth of her daughter, she was one of the first two female Queen’s Counsel at the English Bar. Heilbron was instrumental in changing the legal landscape of Britain, particularly in terms of gender equality. She worked tirelessly to promote the rights of women in the legal profession and was a key figure in the movement to end the disparity between men and women in the judiciary. In addition to her career as a lawyer and judge, Heilbron was also highly active in public service, serving as a magistrate, a member of the Council of Legal Education, and a member of the General Council of the Bar.

Finally, we would like to highlight the incredible work of Joyanne Bracewell, most senior judge of the family division and responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Children Act 1989:

Dame Joyanne Bracewell was a prominent figure in the legal world, having served as a barrister in the United Kingdom for over 40 years. Born in 1955 in Manchester to a wealthy family, Joyanne was educated mainly at home and became a talented child actor, before changing career paths in later life. She read law at Manchester University and was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1955. Joyanne was passionate about family law, but was also comfortable with high-profile criminal cases. She was known for her ability to empathise with those whose family problems she was dealing with, doing so with enormous care and humanity: her decisions were rarely successfully appealed. In 1978 she was appointed Queen’s counsel, and she was a recorder of the crown court from 1975 to 1983 – when she was made a circuit judge.