The Women’s Legal Landmarks Project

The Women’s Legal Landmarks Project

The Women’s Legal Landmarks Project is a unique interdisciplinary collaboration involving 80+ feminist legal and history scholars engaging in the process of ‘landmarking’ key legal events, cases and statutes for women in the UK and Ireland.

Black and white photo of a group of women around a table during a meeting from 1906
Meeting of Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) leaders c1906 – c1907 from the LSE Library Women’s Library Collection (https://www.flickr.com/ commons/usage/)

Such landmarks – significant achievements marking an important stage or turning point in women’s engagement with law and law reform – cover a range of topics, including the right to vote, sex discrimination, equal pay, forced marriage, prostitution, rape, twitter abuse and the ordination of women bishops as well as the life stories of a number of women who were the first to undertake key legal roles and positions. By combining legal and historical expertise, different disciplinary approaches and sources the Project will create the first comprehensive scholarly anthology of the legal landmarks for women (c.950-2015).

The Women’s Legal Landmarks Project demonstrates, in a sustained and disciplined way, women’s agency and activism in the achievement of law reform and justice.

The Women’s Legal Landmarks Project is led by Rosemary Auchmuty and Erika Rackley. Women’s Legal Landmarks: Celebrating 100 years of Women in Law in the UK and Ireland will be published by Hart Publishing in 2018.

  • Listen to a Pod Academy podcast about the project here.
  • Watch Rosemary Auchmuty talk about the project and doing women’s legal history here.
  • Read more about the project here.

Aims

The Women’s Legal Landmarks Project has both academic and political ambitions.

WLL workshop, LSE

Academically, it seeks to provide a way into an under-explored research methodology – feminist legal history – in the UK and Ireland. It aims to provide fresh perspectives and expertise on archival materials both for legal scholars, who may not ordinarily access such material, and historians, who may see such material with fresh eyes informed by a critical legal perspective. To this end, the project has harnessed the subject-specific expertise and disciplinary knowledge of both historians and lawyers, to ensure the accurate interpretation of complex legal provisions in their correct historical context.

Two colour photos of Women's Legal Landmarks workshop
WLL workshop, Reading

The project challenges the continued marginalisation of women in law, public policy and social justice.

At the same time it offers a direct challenge to the tendency of legal historians (that is, those trained and identifying primarily as lawyers) to focus on specifically legal sources which (given that women were excluded from public office and practical involvement in law until the twentieth century and continue to this day to be in a substantial minority in the law-making process) typically have a partial (masculine) outlook or bias. By exposing legal doctrine to historiography – the idea that history is not simply a collection of established facts assembled in an unchallengeable narrative but can be, and has been, written from a range of perspectives and viewpoints – the project aims to foster a broader study of law reform and legal change across academic disciplines. In particular, it seeks to challenge the traditional ‘top-down’ gender-neutral understanding of law, which all too often emphasises legal actors (mainly judges) rather than the politics and/or activism that influenced court or Parliament and which (mis)presents law reform as a tale of steady progress from injustice and inequality toward justice and equality, as enlightened institutions gradually reform themselves.

WLL workshop, Birmingham

Politically, through the recognition of hitherto overlooked or suppressed histories, the project challenges the continued marginalisation of women in law, public policy and social justice. It seeks to provide a deeper understanding of the impact of law on the lived experience of women and the impact of women on law, offering historical insights as potential avenues for contemporary strategies for feminists and others engaging with and effecting legal, social, policy and political change.

Methodology

Colour photo of the workshop at Bristol Law School
WLL workshop, Bristol

Feminist legal history is characterised as that which (1) locates women at the centre, rather than the margin, of events, (2) demonstrates the different impact of law on women and men, (3) integrates women’s stories into received versions of history (from which they have generally been omitted) and (4) seeks to reconstruct the ‘assumed contours’ of the past (TA Thomas and TJ Boisseau (eds), Feminist Legal History: Essays on Women and Law. New York: New York University Press 2011, p 1). It challenges the traditional understandings of both historians and lawyers of ‘women’s linear progress from oppression under the law to equal opportunity in modern times’ (ibid, p 2).

WLL workshop, Durham

From the outset, we realized that the Project’s scope and ambition would require a large number of participants with a range of expertise. We therefore issued a call for expressions of interest, and received an outstanding response, enabling us to select a large number of landmarks. We also ‘commissioned’ a number of landmarks directly to ensure the comprehensive and reflective coverage of topics, historical periods and jurisdictions. Our authors represent a wide range of legal, history, and criminology scholars, independent historians, parliamentary archivists, activists and practising lawyers, from leading experts in their field to postgraduate and early career researchers. They attended a number themed and/or methodology workshops at which they presented their landmarks and received feedback from the other participants.

Thank you …

We acknowledge and are grateful for the support of our friends and colleagues at:

  • Law School, University of Reading
  • Law School, University of Birmingham
  • Institute of Advanced Legal Studies
  • The Society of Legal Scholars
  • Social & Legal Studies
  • Law School, University of Bristol
  • Law School, Durham University
  • Law Department, London School of Economics

We would also like to thank Laura-Anne Goulding and Jonathan Laidlow, from the University of Birmingham, for their work in researching and building this website. Finally, we are grateful to the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust who supported Erika Rackley’s time on this project.

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Find out more about the Women’s Legal Landmarks Project

Project leaders, Rosemary Auchmuty and Erika Rackley, talk to Elizabeth Woodcraft about the aims, methodology and ambitions for the Project for PodAcademy

Get involved

The landmarks that appear on this website were chosen by participants in the Women’s Legal Landmarks Project.

If you think a key positive legal landmark for women is missing and you’d like to write about it – then get in touch.

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