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The passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 enabled women to qualify as solicitors and barristers, as well as to become magistrates and members of other professions to which they had hitherto been denied entry. In December 1922, Carrie Morrison became the first woman to qualify as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales.
Nine women qualified by the end of 1923, four of whom obtained honours in the Law Society examinations; one, Agnes Twiston Hughes, came top of the finals class and beat all her male contemporaries to both the John Mackrell and the Clabon Prizes.
This small, exclusive and highly-educated group of women designated themselves the 1919 Club and, in an important step, the Law Society provided them with a room where they were permitted to meet on an occasional basis.
Although it is impossible to pinpoint the exact date of the founding of the 1919 Club, 1923 is usually taken as the year of its inception. No list of its original members has survived, although several were still active members many decades later.
The club initially operated primarily as a social group, but it also provided a forum for the discussion and resolution of the difficulties facing women solicitors, such as what to wear in court and how to persuade clients and other lawyers to take them seriously.
Overwhelmingly middle-class in origin, and with the social benefits of private and university education, club memberscombined poorly-remunerated “poor man’s lawyer” work with successfully arranging annual dinners which attracted speakers of the highest calibre, including Lady Pentland in 1935 and Lord Denning in 1950.
The club’s first dinner, which was addressed by the president of the Law Society, was held in 1934, at a time when there were only 166 qualified women solicitors - as opposed to 400 women dentists and 194 women architects.
It took some time for the club’s membership to require any formal structure, but by 1946 it had published a set of rules, which indicated that membership was now extended to law students as well as to articled clerks and fully qualified solicitors. Subscriptions differentiated between “Town” (roughly Greater London) and “Country” members (the rest of England and Wales), as for many years nearly all meetings were held in London, and until 1970 were a somewhat irregular occurrence.
One aspect of the club’s membership policy, which has distinguished it from most, if not all, other Law Society groups, is that members can retain their membership even after retiring or ceasing practice as a solicitor. This is in keeping with the club’s belief that younger members of the profession can gain much from informal mentoring by their older and more experienced colleagues.
At three points in its history, in 1949, 1960 and 1969, attendance at club meetings had sunk so low that its members considered whether it should be wound up; on each occasion, members decided that the Club’s initial raison d’être of providing social and instructional meetings while encouraging professional companionship was still valid.
After the 1969 AGM, Juliet Becker, Eva Crawley and Rosalind Bax, all of whom later became AWS chairwomen, formed part of a new, revitalised committee. This committee looked beyond its social responsibilities to provide tangible services to female solicitors - of whom there were only 750 with practising certificates in the whole of England and Wales.
By 1969 the title “1919 Club” was felt to be insufficiently explanatory, and it was decided to add the strapline “Association of Women Solicitors”. In time, the original name was dropped and the Club metamorphosed into the Association of Women Solicitors, or AWS.
As the organisation refocused itself, more and more women were becoming solicitors, and over the next decade different regions around the country began to formed their own affiliated groups. With the creation of regional groups across England and Wales, the AWS began to operate in much the same way as the Law Society itself. Local groups provided social, networking and support functions, while the society acted as a central umbrella organisation whose views on women’s position were increasingly sought.
For the first 50 years of the club’s existence, the majority of women solicitors came from a small section of society, well off and aided by servants. Many of them expected to give up work after having children or getting married.
As their numbers increased, they felt a greater need to speak out against discrimination, and a greater confidence to do so.
The AWS responded in two ways. First, it changed from being a non-campaigning organisation, to one which publicly promoted the interests of its members, as well as arguing for the legal and social rights of women generally. Second, it provided and publicised ways of assisting women solicitors throughout their careers.
The AWS Working Party (later the AWS Law Reform Committee), among other things:
The Returner Course held at Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge was begun by Eva Crawley in 1977, and carried on by Geraldine Cotton in order to bring solicitors who had been out of the profession for some time up to date with legal developments and to prepare them for the contemporary workplace.
Eva Crowley also created the mentoring scheme, which operates as a consultancy service able to give confidential advice to those considering major changes to their careers.
Judith Willis ran the maternity helpline for 15 years, giving basic information on the employment rights surrounding pregnancy and motherhood. This service was renamed the maternity and paternity helpline in 2007, when new legislation gave time off rights to fathers as well as mothers.
Communication via a regular newsletter began in 1954. The newsletter expanded and grew in sophistication through the efforts of various editors (Geraldine Cotton, Jenny Staples, Amanda Royce, Elizabeth Cruickshank and Katherine Southby), from a duplicated sheet provided to 100 members to a glossy magazine sent out to the 18,000 members of the AWS.
In 1987, the AWS became a fully-fledged group of the Law Society. Two years later, the AWS chain of office was created by Keith Grant-Peterkin, the husband of AWS chairwoman Theresa Grant-Peterkin, and in 2001 Alison Parkinson became the first AWS-nominated member of the Law Society Council, giving women solicitors a voice on the Council for the first time as of right.
In 2013, the AWS voted to be absorbed into the Women Lawyers Division of the Law Society. The regional groups have remained as independent entities.
The Association of Women Solicitors, the predecessor to the Women Lawyers Divison, made only one Lifetime Achievement Award. This was given to Rosalind Bax in 2006
This award was introduced by the Assosciation of Women Solicitors in 1998 to be given to women solicitors who have made an outstanding, and possibly unremunerated, contribution to the advancement of women in the law