On Sunday evening the Kalisher Trust turned the clocks backs 100 years to a time when the legal profession was exclusively male, presenting the world premier of lawyer/playwright Alex Giles’ play, The Disappearance of Miss Bebb.
It recounts the life and efforts of its pioneering eponymous heroine who, with three other women, in the test case Bebb v The Law Society sought to open the legal profession to women.
Having had their £4 fee to sit the preliminary exams returned, she sought a declaration from the court that she was a ‘person’ within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843, and was therefore entitled to be admitted. ‘When is a person not a person?’ asks Bebb, played with passion by Laura Main, Call the Midwife’s Sister Bernadette. Answering her own question: ‘When she’s a woman’.
The highs and lows of their campaign are interspersed by commiseratory teas at Simpsons on The Strand over ‘indifferent fruit cake’ rather than celebratory champagne and with a cameo performance by Lady Hale, playing Crystal MacMillan, activist and one of the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Bebb was the only woman in her year to read law at Oxford – a ‘wholly unsuitable subject for a young woman’ according to her hostile mother who constantly chides her for her ambition, and would rather she were more like her conventional sister who is content to be a wife, even of an abusive husband.
‘If you love the law so much, why not find a solicitor to marry. What’s wrong with being a solicitor’s wife?’ she tells her errant daughter.
Presented in the form of a radio performance, an all-star cast dressed in dinner suits or frocks, read their lines into old-fashioned microphones, complete with sounds effects of crying babies and trains created by members of the cast.
Martin Shaw, of Judge John Deed fame, plays Bebb’s barrister, Mr (later Lord) Stanley Buckmaster KC, who tries valiantly to persuade the court that just because there has never been a woman lawyer in England and Wales, the law does not prohibit it.
The misogynistic, pompous and curmudgeonly judge, Mr Justice Joyce, was played by President of the Queen’s Division, Sir Brian Leveson. He returned to the company, having previously been called upon, post his great enquiry into the behaviour of the press, to play a newspaper seller in an Agatha Christie play.
Despite Buckamster’s efforts, Joyce rules that women were incapable of carrying out a public function in common law, a disability that must remain ‘unless and until’ Parliament changes the law.
The play also recounts the efforts of Mr (later Major) Hills MP, played by actor Hugh Dennis, to get the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 passed by Parliament. Pre-war and with opposition from the Law Society, Bar Council and City of London Solicitors’ Company, his bill failed.
Reflecting the tone of the argument, one opponent, calling himself ‘A country Solicitor’ wrote in a letter to The Times newspaper: ‘If the Law Society does not oppose this proposal by every means in its power and block the Bill in Parliament as often as it appears, the society deserves to be wiped out of existence and a newer and more effective organization for the protection of our bread-and-butter set up in its place.
‘There is only one bright spot in the proposal to admit women as solicitors, and that is, that the public well know that there was yet a woman who could keep her mouth shut on other people’s affairs.’
After the war, once women, in the absence of male fighters, had run the family law firms, and the death of brothers meant father’s wanted to pass on their firms to their daughters, attitudes shift and the Bill finally made it onto the statute book.
It transpires that Bebb fancies life at the bar, prompting Buckmaster’s incredulous response: ‘If you think the Law Society is a tough nut to crack, the Bar Council is impregnable’.
Having been refused admission in 1918, successfully reapplies after the act, to be admitted as a student barrister at Lincoln’s Inn.
Recalling her first dinner at the Inn, Bebb utters words that surely pass the lips of all would-be barristers: ‘It was magical – one of the best days of my life. I felt a bit like a debutante enjoying my first ball’.
Bebb did fulfil her mother’s ambition for her — she married a country solicitor – Thomas Thomson, played by actor Ray Fearon. With patience, he woes the fiercely independent Bebb, giving her a brooch in the shape of the scales of justice and Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.
Alas, she never fulfils her dream of becoming a barrister, dying aged 31 after the birth of her second daughter.
Her death certificate labelled her simply ‘wife of a solicitor’. Incensed by the final indignity served by society on her gal pal, her co-campaigner Maud Ingram amends it in thick black pen to read ‘OBE, MA Oxon, Barrister-at-law.’
One hundred years on, while many of the views expressed to exclude women may seem laughable today, the attrition rate of female lawyers, gender pay disparity and lack of senior female judges, shows there is still much for twenty-first century Bebb’s to fight for and much for the professions still to do.