The Rise Of Women In The Legal Profession: Men Be Afraid!


The legal profession has been from antiquity and, from its inception, has been the exclusive prerogative of men. It used to be an “old boys club” and women where non-existent. This was traceable to the patriarchal setting of the society of that time, where women were thought of as been only befitting of the role of home maker. Even in far back Athens, women were subdued and were not allowed to vote or occupy public office, nor could they pursue a career beyond the family hearth.

This perception prevailed throughout the Middle Ages and up to the Renaissance Era. In all that period the sight of women in the legal profession was almost a rarity. It wasn’t until the mid-18th century when a few daring women in the world sought to break the jinx that had shooed their female folks away from the shores of the male-dominated legal profession.

Women first gained entrance into the legal profession in 1869 somewhere in Iowa, United States, where a woman named Arabella Mansfield became the first historic female lawyer. This was followed by Eliza Orme in Britain, who though had obtained all the credentials of a lawyer but the formal call to bar could not practice until 1875. The exploits of these pioneer female lawyers spurred other women and as early as 1897, Clara Brett Martin, a Canadian woman became the first female judge in the world.

However with the granting of universal suffrage to women in 1948 and the rise of such movements as gender equality and feminism, events took a positive turn for women in the mid-20th century. During this period, the once prevalent male chauvinism (the belief that men were superior in terms of ability and intelligence) that trailed the legal profession was rivaled by gender equality (the view that everyone should receive equal treatment and not be discriminated against).

Women started to question the divine right of men to be the only eligible sex to claim membership of the legal profession. All of sudden, the barricades were removed and women started streaming into the profession. Today while women are still underrepresented in terms of the top positions in the legal profession, there has been a demonstrable increase in the number of female lawyers. For instance, in my law graduating class of 2016, females comprised more than half the class and this is fast becoming the norm the world over.

Again the statistics on the number of women in the judiciary has been equally impressive. In Italy, about 60% of new judicial appointees are women. In the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, the highest court for 9 countries including Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and Saint Kitts and Nevis, over 60% of judges on this court are women.

Similarly, in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asian Countries there are about 40% women judges. Elsewhere in Canada, 4 of the 9 judges on the Canadian Supreme court are women and that is nearly the case in the US where 3 of the 9 judges on the US Supreme Court are women.

Again in New Zealand, the number of female judges has risen from 26% to 28% in the last 5 years, while in the UK, 19% of women make up the judiciary and 37% percent of judges in the Tribunal Service are women. If we decide to turn to statistics of women in the US judiciary, we will find that nearly 33% of state and federal court judges are women.

These statistics heralding the rise of women in the legal profession are impressive, considering the fact that only a century ago, women were lacking in the profession – it was the exclusive preserve of men.

Even here in Nigeria, women are experiencing something of a renaissance. Ever since the early 1940s when Stella Jane Thomas rose through the ranks in the Nigerian bench to become the first woman magistrate in Nigeria, women have drawn inspiration from her exploits to trial blaze the profession. In 1962, Folake Solanke emerged as the first female SAN and the first Nigerian female lawyer to wear the silk gown as senior counsel.

From that moment on, the dikes that were built against the entrance of women in the Nigerian legal profession were bulldozed and female lawyers have since been on the up and up. Today women are rising gradually to take up key positions in the Nigerian Judiciary. To date, Lagos state has had about 5 female judges culminating in the appointment of the incumbent female chief judge, Justice Oluwafunmilayo Olajumoke Atilade.

Even at the Nigerian appellate court – the Court of Appeal, a woman presides over that court, in the person of Justice Zainab Adamu Bulkachuwa (PCA). In early 2012, Justice Aloma Miriam Mukhtar, a modern great in her own right, etched her name in the annals of Nigerian history when she became the first historic female Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) in the midst of a male-dominated Supreme Court of Nigeria.

At the moment there are 3 women justices of the 17 justices on the Nigerian Supreme Court. In their order of seniority they are Mary Peter Odili, Clara Bata Ogunbiyi and Kudirat Kekere-Ekun. These women are steely, brave and no-nonsense, even as women at the Apex court to the point where they can insist that there are no females on the bench–an implicit assertion of their manly juristic competence. These women can hold their own among their male counter-parts and have further given credence to the assertion that “Whatever a man can do, a woman can do it better.”

They would even go on to insist that they be addressed as “His Lordship,” and no one would have the chutzpa to address them otherwise. So given the rate at which women are becoming lawyers in Nigeria and the world over, it won’t be long before they upstage their male counterparts in the bench and bar. One day we might come to imagine a legal profession populated not by men as has been the case in the past but by women.

Can women take the lead? It’s just a matter of time.

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