The Female Barrister – Fair, Feared and ‘Finished at Forty,’ 1896

The 1896 decision of the Benchers of the Ontario Law Society to admit women to the Bar of Ontario, resulted in a flurry of excitement as to whether the same dread fate might await this jurisdiction.

The Freeman’s Journal of 12 August 1896 did not look kindly on the idea of female barristers, stating that

“[t]he most litigious ladies have been heretofore content to conduct their own cases and… have conducted them very badly.”

The Ballymena Observer, 27 November 1896, likewise doubted if women barristers would ever be a success:

“The emotional days of the Bar are over. Modern juries love facts and logic. Have women, as a sex, a wholesome respect for facts, and have they a lawyer’s love of logic?  But these are questions which judicious men do not answer in public.”

Not to mention that

“the danger of women competition is formidable, because the legal profession is considerably overmanned… Many a case has been won by an attractive lady in the witness box.”

There was however one possible benefit: 

“From the vantage ground of one important class of case the introduction of lady barristers would effect a revolution. Install a lady counsel to cross-examine a lady plaintiff in a breach of promise case, and the damages would come down from thousands of pounds to a farthing.”

A variation on the ‘handsome woman’ theme (highlighting added) appeared in the Irish Daily Independent of 20 November 1896:

“The Lady Barrister looms – we will not be so ungallant to say large –on the horizon.  She is an established fact and a fair success in the United States… what has happened in Canada is clear indication that her sphere of action is extending… And why not?  The ladies have a well-founded reputation for fluent speech and fair command of invective when their tempers are aroused, as no doubt sometimes happens…

Let us consider as seriously as we can the advantages which lady barristers would enjoy over their male competitors only if pretty and fascinating, for we can foresee nothing but failure for the plain and the sour tempered. If the handsome lady in the witness box can make an impression on the jury, as she invariably does, is there any reason why the lady barrister should not exercise the same influence and, perhaps, in a more pronounced form?  Wide awake clients anxious to secure a verdict would compete for the prettiness of the lady barristers, who would, not doubt, net as many briefs by their good looks as by their legal knowledge and forensic powers.


“the career of the Lady Barrister would of necessity be comparatively brief.  Juries would not take kindly to old maids and matrons who might answer to the description of ‘fat and forty’   When the lady barrister ceased to impress the jury and to a mild extent, the judge, briefs would fall away, and the new recruits would elbow their elder sisters out of the running, to be elbowed themselves in turn. 

The question arises: What effect would the advent of Lady Barristers have on the legal profession.  Would it make the lot of the briefless junior even more hopeless than it is?  We hardly think so, inasmuch as the prospects of that forlorn individual is almost as bad as it well could be.  If the male juniors could not get briefs why should they not marry the more fortunate lady barristers, carry their briefs triumphantly to court, and help their really better-halves with the advice which now wastes its sweetness in the desert air of the back benches.  To be the husband of a lady barrister might afford the opportunity to young men of ability, who at present run to seed through sheer neglect. 

But seriously, and whether there is room for the lady barrister or not, she is bound to make her appearance in this country sooner or later, and perhaps sooner rather than later…”

Did this fiendishly painted picture, each barb a masterstroke, induce such terror in the Irish Bar as to postpone the admission of women for a further full generation? Rather than allowing themselves to be set against one another, should the would-be women barristers and briefless juniors simply have joined forces to change a system not prepared to adjust to accommodate their needs?

Matters in forward-thinking Ontario proceeded regardless, and the following year, 1897, saw Clara Brett Martin, of Toronto, become the first woman barrister in the British Empire.

She was also of Anglo-Irish origin – something overlooked by the authors of the articles above when they deplored her admission. Or perhaps they thought this interesting fact too dangerous to point out lest it might inspire their own countrywomen to similar efforts?

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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