Cambridge University Society for Women Lawyers

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Women and the Law

I find it hard to believe that it is now over a quarter of a century since – along with colleagues Stephanie Palmer and (originally) Loraine Gelsthorpe – I first began facilitating the Women and the Law seminar course in Law Tripos Part II. I say ‘facilitating’ rather than ‘running’ because that is always how it has felt, as the participating students have gelled into a group which each year has taken on its own life and character, as a vibrant forum for discussion of the current legal issues affecting women.

What has been fascinating to me is watching how the preoccupations of the young women on the course (and some men – but mainly women!) have shifted and developed over time. In an introductory seminar each October on major themes in feminist legal theory, I always begin by asking the students to jot down a few sentences about what they understand by ‘feminism’, which they then take turns to share with the group. The answers over the years have changed in ways which mark discernible trends.

As students grounded in two years of the study of law, it is not surprising that ‘equality’ is a word which has always, and still does, recur. But the way this is framed tends to be different today from how it was viewed in the 1990s. Less is said about women simply striving to be equal to men, to prove themselves as good as men, while more is said about maximising of women’s own opportunities and potential as women. The old liberal notion of formal equality (equal rules) has been overlaid and qualified by the demand for practical, outcome equality (equal results). And recently there has emerged, increasingly, a suspicion with the old binary men/women distinction, on which the fight for equality – and the measurement of inequality – has traditionally been founded. Today’s undergraduates have a more nuanced approach, sceptical of the very category of ‘women’ as potentially limiting of individual expression. The concern is now with identity as much as it is with equality.

And yet some things have – dispiritingly – remained the same. The lack of change in the world beyond the seminar room has meant that many dissertation topics continue to need revisiting. Students still write about domestic violence: our understanding of domestic abuse may now be more sophisticated and embrace patterns of coercive control, but there are still women who live in fear of flying fists on a Friday night. Students still write about rape: notions of women’s freedom and capacity to consent may be more enlightened than in the ’90s, but shockingly low conviction rates persist.

And in the legal professions, too, things remain stacked against women in numerous subtle ways. Back in the ’90s we might not have talked about ‘micro-aggressions’ but students certainly wrote dissertations highlighting the daily, disempowering dripfeed effect of sexual harassment. Their research exposed the self-same problems facing women lawyers in the workplace of today: the family-unfriendly expectations of Chambers and City firms alike; the clerks who put work the way of the male juniors and overlook their female counterparts; the networking and corporate hospitality which takes place in ‘male’ environments from Twickenham to bars and even strip joints; the shunting of those with caring responsibilities into ‘soft’, less rewarded roles and the tyranny of promotion based on ‘billable hours’.

Right from the beginning, the Women and the Law class always felt subtly different from every other teaching session in which I have been involved at Cambridge. There was tea and cake, for a start, and in those early days when Stephanie had twin baby daughters, failings of nursery provision left us on at least one one occasion sitting in a circle discussing the gender pay gap while a small person stacked bricks on the carpet between us. Later, during half-terms or when the schools were closed for snow, my own daughters also both attended the odd seminar.

And in that quarter-century, how has the Cambridge Faculty of Law changed for women? For quite some time now female students have formed half of the undergraduate body, but percentages decrease when it comes to postgraduate students and to teaching posts, especially senior positions. At present the Faculty’s academic staff webpage shows only seven female professors (two of those next door in Criminology), compared with twenty-three male.

Gradually but inexorably, though, the culture of the place has certainly changed. Some things might, superficially, seem trivial. Twenty-five years ago, when class lists were published the men’s names appeared with just their surname and initials, while the women’s names were prefixed with the title ‘Miss’, a pointed designation of their other-ness. Not so now. When I adopted my two girls in 2003, Equity lectures had taken place at 9:00am since time immemorial, but they were moved for the next few years to 10:00am to accommodate the school run, a generous sign of the family-friendly place that the Faculty has in many ways become – at least for those on the academic staff. Whether life is any easier for that handful of valiant students who are juggling their studies alongside parenthood is quite another matter.

There is one thing that happened back then, though, which I trust would never happen today. When we proposed the introduction in Tripos Part II of a seminar course on Women and the Law, there were hands thrown up in horror, at least in some quarters. This was divisive, they claimed; this was unhealthy separatism; this was dangerously subversive. Some old-school Directors of Studies refused to let their students take the course. It seems almost funny now, to think of it, when gender studies across the arts, humanities and social sciences have become so respectably mainstream.

Like the CU Society of Women Lawyers, I like to think our seminar course is inclusive rather than divisive – while perhaps still able to be a little bit subversive! Our Faculty, like the law itself and the legal professions, needs female voices and female perspectives. Women in the law – and Women and the Law – are very much here to stay.


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