Document Type

Contribution to Book

Publication Date


Publication Title

Heidi Egginton and Zoë Thomas, eds. Precarious Professionals: Gender, Identities and Social Change in Modern Britain. London: University of London Press, 2021.


For women in late-nineteenth-century Britain, a university degree in law could launch a lucrative and prestigious career that was professional in character but lacked a name because it challenged the very culture of expertise. Highly regulated by powerful institutions, the legal profession established conditions beyond precarity to exclude women until 1919 and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act.1 However, the universities, operating with different values, began cautiously in the 1870s to allow women to attend lectures and later to write examinations and, eventually, to graduate with the degree of Bachelor of Laws. Historical studies of women and the legal profession have stressed the heroic but ultimately futile attempts of these graduates to be admitted to the bar or to the ranks of solicitors.2 Apart from that struggle, though, they found ways to apply their knowledge of the legal profession to establish a profitable foothold on its doorstep, and then to use their academic and occupational confidence to move into the public sphere. Eliza Orme (1848–1937), the first Englishwoman to achieve a law degree at the University of London, in 1888, is the focus of this study, but she was not an anomaly. She had partners and peers who were doing the same thing: Mary Richardson and, later, Reina Lawrence, both with London degrees, shared Orme’s Chancery Lane chambers early in their careers, while Cornelia Sorabji, their counterpart at Oxford, found her own foothold in Indian legal practice. It is likely that further study will reveal more examples of similarly precarious, equally prosperous legal professionals.