The first woman lawyer

Eliza Orme (1848-1937) became the first woman to pass a law degree in 1888, but her influence spread far beyond the legal community.

She was a supporter of women’s suffrage, a feminist, a campaigner for women’s employment rights and even lived in a ‘same-sex marriage’ – around a century before such a union was made legal. 

At the turn of the 20th Century, women decided enough was enough, and they demanded to be heard. As the calls for votes for women grew louder, the stakes were raised. Suffragettes chained themselves to railings, set fire to post boxes, smashed windows, went on hunger strikes, detonated bombs and, most famously, Emily Davison threw herself at the feet of the King’s horse at The Derby. It was estimated that 1,000 suffragettes were imprisoned.

History remembers the militant and brave women who risked arrest and violence for the cause, but this was also a time when, away from the clamour and fireworks, equally fearless women were smashing rigid gender barriers, paving the way for future generations.

One such woman was Eliza Orme, a name few will recognise but she was a genuine pioneer.

Breaking the legal barrier

Like much of society, the law profession was deeply sexist, a preserve of men alone. Eliza refused to accept that her gender should prevent her realising her dream to be a lawyer. It was not an easy journey. Eliza found work in the chambers of a barrister in 1873, but her aspiration to be recognised as a ‘conveyancer under the bar’ was blocked. It was a very much a ‘gentleman’s profession’

Not to be deterred, along with a friend, she set up an office on Chancery Lane in 1875, where Eliza recalled, “I ‘devilled’ for about a dozen conveyancing counsel who kept me busily employed on drafts they wanted done in a hurry.” A devil is a trainee or junior usually tasked with the labour intensive jobs no-one else wants to do! This support-level work was the only legal employment open to women, who were not permitted either to be called to the bar or join the Law Society.

“This support-level work was the only legal employment open to women, who were not permitted either to be called to the bar or join the Law Society.”

But Eliza persevered and in 1888 she passed her law degree at the University College – the first woman to do so. As a qualified lawyer, Eliza made the point that it was necessary to break down conventional barriers, allowing each individual to do what natural talent prompts rather than what social status demands. It sounds like a fairly innocuous and obvious statement, but in the 1890s it was akin to a revolutionary slogan!

A Feminist and a Liberal

Dr. Leslie Howsam, a Distinguished University Professor Emerita at University of Windsor is an authority on Elize Orme. Dr Howsam wrote that, [Being a lawyer] was only a small part of Eliza Orme’s reputation as a public figure.

Eliza Orme was a feminist, but her feminism came second to her Liberal politics. She was an executive member and lecturer for the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In the mid 1880s she joined the Women’s Liberal Federation, and edited their newspaper, the Women’s Gazette and Weekly News.

She was a member of the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women, a group outspoken in its opposition to protective legislation for women’s work. In 1892 she became Senior Lady Assistant Commissioner to the Royal Commission in Labour, supervising the work of three colleagues; her own particular areas of investigation were the working conditions of barmaids, women in the metal industries, and women’s work in Ireland.

The Barmaids’ Champion

There are surprisingly few features on the internet about Eliza Orme, but we have her work on the condition of barmaids to thank for one of the most illuminating features – courtesy of, which proclaims it has been: “Beer blogging since 2007, covering real ale, craft beer, pubs and British beer history.” This unlikely source has one of most in-depth profiles of an iconic legend of the legal profession.

The study of barmaids was not without controversy. The common belief was that being a barmaid implied a lack of morality. Numerous stories circulated about young British women being lured to the continent with offers of barmaid jobs, only to be forced into prostitution.

Eliza’s report dismissed the stereotypes of sexual immorality. After visiting over 150 pubs and bars she concluded that barmaids were largely ‘teetotal, contrary to the temperance narrative’.

She also found that barmaids tended not to be employed in beer-houses (very basic pubs), rough pubs, or the rough bars of multi-room pubs. One publican testified that , “The main reason for employing women was that they were cheaper and that any licensed victualler who can afford the expense of a barman would prefer to have one.”

What Eliza did uncover was a culture of poor working conditions and the expectation to work exhaustingly long hours, sometimes over 100 hours a week. The health of barmaids suffered accordingly with many suffering from chronic fatigue, swollen legs and feet, and varicose veins.

As a result of her investigations, A Barmaids’ Political Defence League was eventually formed to look after the interests of the estimated 20,000 women in the profession. It wanted to keep this avenue of employment open but introduce restrictions on working hours and improve conditions.

Eliza Orme was one of its vice presidents.

A Boston Marriage

The Wikipedia entry for Eliza Orme includes the following line: “Her colleague Reina Lawrence was the executor and residuary beneficiary of Orme’s will when she died in 1937. They may have had an intimate relationship, referred to as a ‘Boston marriage’.”

Same-sex marriages became legal in 2014, following the legalisation of civil partnerships in 2005. It appears that Eliza and Reina had a ‘same-sex marriage’ around 100 years earlier.

Were the Victorians more liberally minded than we assume?

On, Erin Blakemore explored the loose acceptance of Boston Marriages, named after the American city where they originated: “Though homosexuality was taboo during the 19th century, intense and romantic friendships among women were common. Since women were seen as devoted, asexual, and gentle, society accepted behaviors like kissing, holding hands, linking arms, and openly expressing affection among them.

Having a crush on another woman wasn’t blinked at, it was expected and considered part of women’s college culture.

“Boston marriages offered equality, support and independence to wealthy women who were determined to push outside of the domestic sphere.”

Did Eliza and Reina have a lesbian relationship? Such detail is impossible to know. Blakemore writes, “Each relationship was different, women often referred to one another as husband or wife, kissed and hugged, wrote passionate letters when they were apart and shared beds. However, this was not necessarily seen as sexual in the 19th century since women were assumed not to have the physical desires of men.”

“Female relationships were not seen as sexual in the 19th century since women were assumed not to have the physical desires of men.”

Eliza Orme was before her times in so many ways. The first woman lawyer, a campaigner for women’s rights at work, an advocate of female suffrage and a partner in a same-sex ‘marriage’.  She is an historical feminist icon.

Yet Dr Howsam, a researcher into Eliza’s life, suspects that this is not the legacy she desired:

“Although she was concerned with women’s rights and opportunities, I believe Eliza Orme would be somewhat dismayed to know that she is remembered in terms of her gender. She valued her own reputation as a sensible ‘sound-minded woman’, the type  to use her own word  ‘to wear ordinary bonnets and carry medium-sized umbrellas’ while being able to undertake a railway journey on her own, or stand by a friend through a surgical operation.”

They may be modest goals, but sometimes the desire to do ordinary things, without any fuss, is as challenging to the status quo as a full-blown revolution.

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