“Clear Up the Dust and Bring in the Muslin Curtains": Women Barristers at the Inns, Circuit Messes, and Courts of Law

Sunday, January 6, 2013: 8:30 AM
Chamber Ballroom I (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Lauren Pepitone, Johns Hopkins University
This paper will explore contests over space between the first female law students and barristers and the resolutely masculine institutions of the legal profession in the early twentieth century.  The Inns of Court were unincorporated, self-governing bodies that regulated the English and large portions of the British and Imperial Bars.  Members of the Inns were inculcated with the values and attitudes appropriate to British barristers through a culture of fraternity, promoted through rituals and socialization attached to particular, historic spaces of the Inns.  Precedent dictated that women's legal incapacities prevented them from joining an Inn, and homosocial traditions created a masculinist environment to reinforce women's exclusion. 

Despite feminist pressure to open the legal profession, the Inns resisted women's presence until the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act mandated that no institution could refuse admission on the basis of sex. The Societies worried over women's infiltration into their formerly collegiate spaces, especially the Hall, center of fraternal dining rituals.  To preserve masculine homosociability, one Inn even insisted that female students dine separately.  The circuit messes, which operated as fantastic extensions of the Inns for barristers outside of London, similarly instituted policies excluding women from their operations.  London's courts often lacked lavatory and cloakroom facilities to comfortably accommodate female barristers.  In the face of these challenges, women barristers understood that success was predicated on de-emphasizing their gender and embracing the fraternal atmosphere of the profession. They partook in dining rituals and ceremonies in the Hall, took chambers at the Inns, debated their way into circuit messes, and divided the courts' cramped resources amongst themselves.

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