Beyond firsts: feminist biography and early women barristers

Derry, Caroline (2023). Beyond firsts: feminist biography and early women barristers. In: Barnes, Victoria; Honkala, Nora and Wheeler, Sally eds. Women, Their Lives, and the Law: Essays in Honour of Rosemary Auchmuty. London: Hart Publishing, pp. 43–59.

URL: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/women-their-lives-an...

Abstract

A consistent theme running through Rosemary Auchmuty’s publications on the history of women in the legal profession is the need for a nuanced, feminist approach which eschews straightforward narratives of progress. From her ground-breaking exploration of the life of Gwyneth Bebb, a pioneering law student who challenged women’s exclusion from the profession, to her recent articles on feminist legal biography, Auchmuty has argued that the ‘great lives’ model is ill-suited to exploring the systemic effects of gender upon women’s engagement with the law. This chapter examines a persistent survivor of ‘great lives’ approaches in current celebrations of early women lawyers: a focus upon ‘firsts’. It critically examines the causes and effects of this specific temporalisation of women’s experiences through considering pioneers Olive Clapham (first women to pass Bar Finals examinations) and Monica Geikie Cobb (first woman briefed to appear in court). It considers why the status of ‘first’ has been given such importance; the benefits and limitations of framing women’s roles and achievements in this way; and the implications for our understanding of the profession’s present and possible futures. It argues that by moving beyond ‘firsts’ into complex, multiple temporalities, we can better engage with the complexities of feminist biographies to create a richer dialogue between past and present, opening new possibilities for conceivable futures.

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