Vol. 17 No. 2 (February, 2007) pp.185-187
THE FIRST WOMEN LAWYERS: A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF GENDER, LAW AND THE LEGAL PROFESSIONS, by Mary Jane Mossman. Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2006. 342 pp. Paper £25.00/$45.00. ISBN: 1841135909.
Reviewed by Jennifer Woodward, Department of Political Science, University at Albany. Email: jw735896 [at] albany.edu.
THE FIRST WOMEN LAWYERS shows the roles that individual women (and to a lesser extent men) played in the establishment of gender equality within the legal professions. With this thoroughly researched project, Mary Jane Mossman does an excellent job of demonstrating how document analysis from various sources, focusing upon a range of individuals and circumstances, can result in similar and often interweaving struggles of legal pioneers. It is a compelling story both scholars and the general population should be able to appreciate. In addition, the book is particularly well suited for those interested in comparative scholarship, gender issues, and of course, law and politics.
Mossman begins by asking “to what extent did women become lawyers without challenging the gender premises of the law and the legal professions?” (p.7). Her answer, demonstrated through the stories of the first women lawyers in the United States, Canada, Britain, New Zealand and Australia, India and Europe, shows that the extent varied. However, certain legal arguments and approaches are found in common among these jurisdictions. For instance, a majority of these women identified themselves as lawyers first, and women second, thus placing many of them in a position where their individual victories ran counter to the larger struggle for women’s equality occurring around them during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Mossman also explores how legal professions responded to women entering a male profession, how women characterized their right and interest in admission to the legal professions, and why some women were successful in their challenges while others were not. She shows how women challenged notions of gender in the legal professions and how these challenges were received by both legal institutions and the public.
Mossman’s writing style is almost biographical. While this may serve to obscure her methodology to a certain extent, the benefits to the reader are well worth it. It is one thing to write a scholarly work, and another to write in a manner that makes the experience both informative and enjoyable. Mossman clearly does the latter while holding true to comparative and historical institutionalist methodology. This approach also allows her to show the choices the first women lawyers made in the larger context of their personal lives, the legal profession and historical evolution of women’s rights. Her sources include personal records, academic theses and dissertations, news reports and archives (p.18). [*186]
Public law and legal scholars should find THE FIRST WOMEN LAWYERS fits well among historical institutionalist works. Mossman’s focus on individual women demonstrates how they worked both with and against prevailing views regarding the status of women under the law. The different stories also provide insight into the decision-making of judges hearing these women’s cases. Mossman also adds to the debate regarding judicial activism by demonstrating how gender reform was often not obtained through the judicial process (despite some decisions, particularly in the lower courts) and required legislation for women to gain formal recognition. Repeatedly, institutional constraints these women faced were often only overcome through legislation. Interestingly this legislation frequently allowed women to be admitted to the bar ‘on the same terms as men’ which served to further the male norms institutionalized into the legal professions (p.72). Cases, often based upon the interpretation of words such as “person” and whether the term “male” included females, point to debates over issues such as textualism, legislative intention and use of precedent (both foreign and domestic). Despite various methods of decision-making, case results showed consistent judicial restraint to maintain male dominance of the legal professions.
The book’s focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when efforts for women’s suffrage were taking place, also lead to a number of interesting conclusions. For instance, Mossman observes that individual legal arguments could be framed in a manner which ran counter to suffrage efforts. So, women seeking admission to the bar often placed their individual victories above the wider-reaching victories suffragists hoped to gain. Other evolutions, such as the changing views of law and legal education also helped to frame the debate over its first women lawyers. Since lawyers generally had learned law through an apprenticeship, development of the case study method opened doors to women without male relatives or other connections in the profession and shows the influence of extralegal changes on the legal professions. Other influences such as class, economics, religion and war are also taken into account. Moreover, the role of the judiciary can be seen as weak in comparison to legislative and executive bodies, in Mossman’s accounts.
In the introduction Mossman lays a foundation for comparing the women discussed in her book to the modern day struggles of women in the legal profession. Through the stories of the first women lawyers, Mossman also does a particularly compelling job writing about societal hurtles they faced when confronting institutionalized male norms – from exclusion from bar association functions and inadequate accommodations to remarks about their dress and debates over women’s role in the family. In response to these constraints, Mossman observes that women identified themselves as lawyers ungendered, doing the best to fit in. Nevertheless, some women used their gender as an advantage. The chapter on Cornelia Sorabji is a prime example. By framing her argument on the need for a [*187] woman lawyer to handle purdah cases (seclusion from public view, assuming no voice or free will), Sorabji created a niche for herself that was less threatening to those opposed to the idea of women lawyers and gained her acceptance and success. Comparisons between these challenges and those faced by current women in the legal professions should prove fruitful.
Finally, Mossman’s chapter on Louis Frank provides insight into a valuable ally to women struggling for rights and legal recognition. Since the role of male allies in the struggle for equality is often overlooked in gender studies, this is another promising aspect of Mossman’s research that more gender scholars should emulate.
THE FIRST WOMEN LAWYERS focuses on the first women to enter the legal profession and who also sought legal recognition of their status. While the book is thorough in its description of the women and their struggles, a few minor additions could have made the book stronger. For example, the book could easily be strengthened (and appear more attractive to the general public) by adding footnoted translations of the numerous French quotations and perhaps images of some of the original documents mentioned in the text. It would also have benefited from a heavier editorial pen; although never redundant, the writing at times seems repetitive.
Mossman begins by asking what impact the introduction of women lawyers had on the law and the legal professions and explores whether women assimilated the norms of men or developed their own. She effectively demonstrates that the first women lawyers placed their status as lawyers before their gender, although some, such as Cornelia Sorabji, used their gender to confirm the need for women in the profession. In doing so, Mossman provides a window into the personal and professional lives of the first women lawyers, the difficulties they faced, and their efforts to overcome them. Scholars in Public Law, comparative and women studies, and particularly those interested in the evolution of legal systems, gender equality or the role of the judiciary, will profit from reading THE FIRST WOMEN LAWYERS.
© Copyright 2007 by the author, Jennifer Woodward.
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The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, Law and the Legal Professions