- Telling the Stories of Women in Law
[T]he bar had many peculiarities. On the one hand a masculine sub-culture was already so deeply embedded in dining in the inns, the circuit mess and the robing room that it would not need to accentuate or invent one as an invisible barrier … On the other hand, the informal creation and nursing of client relationships so important to solicitors was hardly feasible at the bar.1
In the context of this masculine culture at the bar in mid-twentieth-century England, it is significant that Patrick Polden identified Rose Heilbron as one of the two women barristers who were “shining stars.”2 Moreover, as her obituary in The Guardian in 2005 claimed, “[a]lmost everything in the notable career of Dame Rose Heilbron … was a first.”3 A formidable advocate, and one of the first women in England to attain judicial and other appointments, she nonetheless experienced some struggles during her career. Yet, like many women in law in the decades after the Second World War, she emphasized the progress (rather than the struggles) in relation to women’s legal careers. For example, on becoming the first woman to be appointed treasurer at Gray’s Inn in 1985 at the age of seventy-one, Heilbron was quoted as expressing the view that “[t]he legal world does not discriminate by sex or race and this [her appointment as Treasurer] is possibly an example of it working rather well.”4 Although [End Page 451] Rose Heilbron received a great deal of public attention as a barrister and later as a judge, her story is not well known, particularly outside England. In this context, this recent book about her life and career in law augments biographical writing about earlier generations of women in law.5
The book’s author is Hilary Heilbron, QC, a barrister and the daughter of Rose Heilbron,6 and the book is based primarily on materials left by her mother—“a vast assortment of material including diaries, press cuttings, letters and speeches as well as her own contemporaneous notes”—along with the author’s own recollections and those of her late father, Dr Nathaniel (Nat) Burstein.7 Thus, Rose Heilbron’s “private” collection of materials now offers a more “public” record, including not only press cuttings and references to reported decisions in which Rose Heilbron appeared as counsel, or later as a judge, but also details from her diaries, handwritten notes for speeches to juries, and the texts of the many public addresses given by Heilbron. In this way, the book represents a daughter’s reconstruction of her mother’s successful career from these many documents, along with the author’sown memories (narrated in the third person). Yet, while the book makes an important contribution to the “story” of one of England’s most successful women in law in the twentieth century, it generally does so without assessing how Heilbron’s story is part of a broader history of barriers and opportunities for women in law. That is, while Heilbron’s story is clearly highly significant, its historical importance must be understood within this broader context.
This review focuses first on the life and career of Rose Heilbron and some discussion of the highlights identified in this book about her. In doing so, the review identifies several interesting comparisons in the experiences of Rose Heilbron in England and some successful women in law in Ontario, particularly in the decades following the Second World War. In this comparative context, the review also examines briefly the contextual challenges of this book in relation to other scholarship about the “stories” of women in law. [End Page 452]
Rose Heilbron and Comparisons with Ontario Women Lawyers
Rose Heilbron was born in 1914, two years after her older sister Anne, in Liverpool where her Jewish parents operated a lodging house (and later a hotel). At the age of eighteen in 1932, she went to Liverpool University to read law, one of just two female students in the class. She graduated in...