Koo-ee! We’re over here love!

Where are all the feminist lawyers? Discuss. Kat Watson’s essay on the topic was posted on The F Word last week. I was alerted to it by a critical blog post in response written by another female lawyer type who had been irked by it (that post has now been removed hence no link). It irks me too, but not for entirely the same reasons.

The post ponders the question of the alleged absence of feminist lawyers, and prescribes the creation of a “coordinated, active group of feminist lawyers or law students” as a cure for this apparent malaise.

The post refers to the “ever-impending prospect of starting a career at the bar without knowing who to look to as a feminist leader in the field”. You want role models? For goodness sake, didn’t she even do a cursory google search before paying her BVC fees? Can it be possible that someone can gain entry to the profession without being able to use Wikipedia?

Try these (a sample only):

Helena Kennedy QC (Amongst many other things, Author of [amazon_link id=”0099224410″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Eve Was Framed,[/amazon_link] President of The Helena Kennedy Foundation)

Baroness Hale (First woman in the Supreme Court, [amazon_link id=”1849460531″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]supporter of the Feminist Judgments Project[/amazon_link])

Theis J DBE (Mother, Barrister, QC, Former Chair FLBA, High Court Judge)

Shami Chakrabarti (barrister and one woman campaigning machine for human and civil rights, now panel member on the Leveson Press Inquiry)

So, in answer to your question “Where are all the feminist lawyers?”:

We are out there working, achieving, juggling, surviving. In amongst it all some of us campaign for justice in small ways, some in big ways, others just get on with doing a job that would not have been possible for their mothers, and doing it well. Many work quietly to improve diversity at the bar, by mentoring, guiding and supporting young women and young men of talent. They put in extra time to give them a helping hand and to keep an eye out for them. Most challenge discrimination and backwards attitudes when they encounter it. Very occasionally, some of us write about feminist issues.

The law, particularly the bar, is not an easy environment for a woman, or at any rate for a woman with children. There have been many improvements, and although it remains only in isolated pockets, I speak from experience when I say that direct sexism still exists at the bar. But I’ve learnt that feminism is about more than challenging minor acts of chauvinism (women committee members being habitually referred to as “girls” for example). Every time a woman returns from maternity leave, successfully juggles caring and professional responsibilities and achieves in her career it is an achievement that feminists should be proud of. It is to the credit of the individual women (and their supportive others), and to some extent to those within the profession who have pushed change through, that this is possible. Just doing my job day in day out, quite apart from the fact that many of my clients are vulnerable women, is a feminist act. I do being a feminist every day. I don’t particularly feel the need to be a member of any club to prove my feminist credentials – I am a member of the bar.

But that aside, I have to take issue with the proposition that there is “no coordinated, active group of feminist lawyers or law students”. Apart from the Association of Women Barristers obviously. Or the Association of Women Solicitors. Or organisations like the Haldane Society. Or the various Specialist Bar Associations with their Equalities / Diversity Officers and subcommittees.

Maybe we could do with a whizzy new organisation, but based on the examples of “feminist” issues set out in Ms Watson’s post I gather its focus would be on law reform not on legal practice per se. Those matters it seems to me are primarily matters for politicians and for political, representative and lobbying groups to deal with, although professional bodies and specialist bar associations etc often contribute to public debate and consultations about such matters that affect their members or their client groups or that raise points of general public interest (eg FLBA or Sound Off For Justice).

Why is there not more? Because we’re busy people who prioritise our clients. Because we represent those clients, fearlessly, independently of our personal views or convictions – be they female victims of violence, or male perpetrators. When we campaign we campaign for justice. When we gather it is to defend it.

I don’t have F branded on my forehead like some feminist Rimmer. Instead I wear a wig*.

So, to Kat Watson: You may think we’re invisible. But you’re not looking hard enough. You are emphatically NOT the first / only feminist lawyer.

Prescription: more experience. Advice: learn from observation not keyword searches.

* in point of fact I rarely wear a wig as I practice in family law, but I do wear the “dark suit” uniform. I don’t understand the offence taken at the wig – it isn’t gender specific. In fact it renders uniform all members of the bar, be they male or female and thus is a neutralising device rather than a sign of male domination.

7 thoughts on “Koo-ee! We’re over here love!

  1. I get really annoyed by the nouveau feminists preoccupation of being “seen”. Perhaps it’s a throwback to our obsession with celebrity culture, but I can’t say that can I?

    I also find it highly irritating when Internet feminists feel that talking about how bad it is to be a woman in a male world is feminism. They all seem to be so busy moaning about the patriarchy that they miss the reality of feminism.

    I often wonder if it’s a society of expectation that creates these virtual feminists who seem to spend so much time whinging about how bad life as a woman is, that those who are out there, working their arses off competing equally with men in their chosen field, get missed.

    Thank you for your post. Realism at last!

  2. On reading, “where are all the feminist lawyers” I admit I had the same reaction – which was “earning a living”.

    While I do bring my principles to the job and can therefore see prejudice in action (women tend to get harsher prison sentences, victims of domestic violence are ruthlessly pursued by local authorities for rent arrears which “accrued” long after the fled and the housing officer knew, etc) the point is, I don’t have a feminist or “woman-centred” practice. It’s a “by the way, here’s a nifty argument” I’ll throw into the mix. Yemshaw was run by a male solicitor. I don’t know if he considers himself a feminist or just a canny lawyer.

    This, on dispassionate reflection, makes me a bit sad. Back in the day, I wrote about sexual harassment in uniformed services (yes, peer reviewed, thank you for asking). I remember being in a GD hurry to get it published, because I thought the problem would be largely solved by the time it came out. Silly, naive me! A colleage had a forces client who’d been raped in Afghanistan. She thought the soldiers just got randy. My explanation that it was probably more to do with running a front line female soldier out of the Unit was double Dutch to her.

    While I can bring feminist principles to my practice, regrettably, that does not make me a feminist lawyer. I’ve lost that along the way to qualification. You mention Helena Kennedy. Great. She’s my era. The fact is “women” have been pushed down the totem pole of rights and “liberals” heads are exploding trying to deal with the tension between religious and women’s rights. Where are all the feminist lawyers indeed? Ducking for cover.

    Miss Watson will be cheered to know there are a few unsung heroines. They are at Rights of Women. You will love them. Some of us volunteer at the Toynbee Hall’s Saturday women only legal advice clinic. You will earn your stripes there. The things I’ve heard there make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I’m humbled to assist.

    This is the long way of encouraging Miss Watson not to lose focus and for her to step up and be one of the new leaders.

    I tweet @stokenewington

  3. Thanks for this response to my blog on the F Word last week. It’s exactly the kind of response that I’d hoped for and expected.

    Trust me, I did plenty of Google searches. I ordered Helen Kennedy’s book as soon as I saw it on Wikipedia some months ago, and I’ve read the book by the Feminist Judgment project. I had a friend who worked at Rights of Women, so know quite a bit about their work. And, I’m familiar with the major feminist organisations in London, being members of some and having friends who work at others. On top of that, I myself work at a feminist organisation that promotes the sexual and reproductive rights of women around the world. I also recently joined AWB and admire and respect the work that they do. I emphatically DO NOT believe I’m the first or only feminist lawyer – the incredibly positive response to my blog posting lawyers across the UK (and the world) are testament to that.

    I completely respect and admire the work that self-identifying feminist barristers are doing every day to chip away at the age-old traditions that disadvantage women in the profession. I, myself, hope to count myself amongst you someday.

    However, what I’m talking about is a group of qualified barristers and solicitors, as well as law students, who put their skills and knowledge to use in a more activist way outside of their daily practice. I am aware that this group of feminist lawyers – should it ever come about – would have to be professional enough to separate their day jobs from their lives as activists for legal and social change. However, I believe that lawyers are incredibly well-placed individuals to comment on the impact that laws and policies have at the individual level.

    I believe there is room for many different types feminist activism in the legal sector – outspoken activism,traditional ‘campaigning’, joining groups, blogging,tweeting and – crucially – just doing the job that you do.

    I take your points, Pink tape, and I think they are good ones. I may be a green lawyer, but I am not an ignorant feminist. Although I’m probably not as young as you think, it may well be that my generation’s version of feminism is more outspoken, less individualised. More digital, less human. But, that doesn’t mean there is any less of a need for it.

    Thanks again for your post!

    • Thanks for your response Kat. And thanks for clarifying what you have in mind. I guess I do my mini campaigning / ranting through the blog. I can fit that around my other commitments where I might not fit in membership of another organisation, meetings etc. But do let me know if anything gets set up and if nothing else I will report it on the blog.

  4. Sorry but I can’t resist adding to the female role model list. Karon Monaghan QC (how many women employment lawyers has she inspired?), Helen Mountfield QC, Clare Montgomery QC, Vera Baird QC, Phillippa Kaufmann QC (note the number of new ones here), Dinah Rose QC (probably in the top 3 public lawyers practising right now) and this is before I even get going on the inspiring juniors. Fran Webber in immigration? I would put my old friend Amanda Weston up there. See also Maya Sikand and what she has had to say recently about juggling. And I am also going to say Brenda Hale again, just because she deserves mentioning twice.

  5. Excellent post. Can I add Lady Justice Butler-Sloss?

    The decisions she had to make as President of the Family Division were often heartbreaking and left you feeling so glad that you weren’t the one having to make those choices. In cases with no right answers, just less-bad answers, she gave people the dignity they wanted at the worst times of their lives.

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