Image courtesy of the St Hugh's archive

Gwyneth Bebb, born in Oxford in 1889, was one of the first women to be awarded a degree in law at Oxford, the first to achieve first-class honours, and a pioneer for women entering the legal profession. In 1908, she began reading Jurisprudence at St Hugh’s Hall, which officially became an Oxford College in 1911. Bebb received the marks to earn her first-class honours degree. However, until the University regulations were changed in 1920, women were not full members and could not be awarded degrees.

After studying at Oxford, Bebb applied to sit the Law Society examinations. Her application was rejected because women were also barred from sitting the examinations that would allow them to practice. Alongside attempts to pass Parliamentary bills allowing women into the legal profession, Bebb was the named plaintiff in the 1914 Court of Appeal case Bebb v Law Society. Bebb and the three other plaintiffs argued that women should qualify as ‘persons’ under the Solicitors’ Act 1843. Although they lost the appeal, their struggle became the subject of a large amount of publicity and debate, drawing attention to the cause.  

It was not until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 that women would be formally accepted into the legal profession, able to qualify and practice. In 1917, while working at the Ministry of Food as an Assistant Commissioner for Enforcement, Bebb married a solicitor, Thomas Weldon Thompson. She gave birth to her first child just days after the Act was passed, and she was later accepted at Lincoln’s Inn. In 1921, while pregnant with her second child, she studied for her Bar exams. Tragically, the child passed away two days after birth. Following a complication during the birth (placenta praevia), Gwyneth suffered for two months before her own death at age 31. Although she was unable to pursue her own legal career, Gwyneth Bebb’s actions and determination helped open the door for all women who followed in her footsteps.