Precedents, Patterns and Puzzles: Feminist Reflections on the First Women Lawyers

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Women lawyers; Sex discrimination against women; Feminist theory


This paper initially examines the historical precedents established by some of the first women who entered the “gentleman’s profession” of law in different jurisdictions, as well as the biographical patterns that shaped some women’s ambitions to enter the legal professions. The paper then uses feminist methods and theories to interpret “puzzles that remain unsolved” about early women lawyers, focusing especially on two issues. One puzzle is the repeated claims on the part of many of these early women lawyers that they were “lawyers”, and not “women lawyers”, even as they experienced exclusionary practices and discrimination on the part of male lawyers and judges—a puzzle that suggests how professional culture required women lawyers to conform to existing patterns in order to succeed. A second puzzle relates to the public voices of early women lawyers, which tended to suppress disappointments, difficulties and discriminatory practices. In this context, feminist theories suggest a need to be attentive to the “silences” in women’s stories, including the stories of the lives of early women lawyers. Moreover, these insights may have continuing relevance for contemporary women lawyers because it is at least arguable that, while there have been changes in women’s experiences, there has been very little transformation in their work status in relation to men.


This Laws article also belongs to the Special Issue Evolving Challenges: An International Retrospective on Feminist Legal Theory.

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