Rosemary Auchmuty is a feminist historian who teaches law at the University of Reading
Last week a new woman appeared in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography, a woman who played an important role in English first-wave feminism. Gwyneth Bebb gave her name to the case that challenged the exclusion of women from the legal profession – Bebb v The Law Society – yet, until now, the details of her life were unknown.
Law was the last profession in England, apart from the Church, to hold out against women’s entry. Women had been trying to gain admission for 40 years. Their lack of success led campaigners to try a legal challenge and Bebb was selected as the test case in 1913. A brilliant student, Bebb had studied law at Oxford when women could take the examinations – she got a first – but were not awarded degrees.
She lost the case, the judges holding that women were disqualified from carrying out a public function and would remain so until Parliament changed the law. But the press were mostly sympathetic to the women and the publicity helped to mobilise a campaign. After repeated bills in Parliament, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 finally admitted women to the legal profession.
Bebb, meanwhile, had worked throughout the war in the Ministry of Food using her legal skills to prosecute black-marketeers. In 1917 she married a Tewkesbury solicitor, Thomas Weldon Thomson. But she did not let marriage and motherhood stand in her way of her becoming a lawyer, and as soon as she had recovered from the birth of her first baby she applied to join the Bar.
She should have been England’s first woman barrister, but it was not to be. A second pregnancy ended disastrously with the death of her baby and, after two months of suffering, of Gwyneth Thomson herself. She was only 31.
Her disappearance from history is partly due to her change of name, partly to her early death, but partly because so many historical accounts leave out women’s experiences as irrelevant to the public record. Her addition to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography brings to the attention of a wider public not simply the campaign that led to the case that bears her name but a life revealing of the particular challenges that face women publicly and privately.