As a child growing up in my grandmother's house in Liverpool, there was one name that always made my grandmother excited: Rose Heilbron. Rose was an advocate, and when she was arguing a case before a jury at the Liverpool Assizes my grandmother would follow her cases avidly, sometimes even from the public gallery. "She is simply the best" she would say "and so beautiful too".
So Rose Heilbron became a role model for me and an example of what a Liverpool girl could achieve in the law. That was only reinforced when in the late 1960s, in a UK TV series called Justice, the glamorous Margaret Lockwood played a female advocate loosely based on Rose. My grandmother and I watched every week. So when the time came for me to decide what I was going to do with my life, it was no surprise that I reckoned the law was a good career for a girl from Liverpool.
But I was shocked to then discover that the reason Rose was so famous was that she was so rare. In 1949 she was the first woman to become a King's (later Queen's) Counsel (QC, as senior advocates are called in the UK), and she remained the only practising woman QC even by the mid 1960s.
In 1956 she became England's first ever woman Judge when she was made Recorder of Burnley, a part-time appointment. But it was not until 1974 at the age of 60, that Rose was finally appointed as the second woman High Court Judge. There was widespread recognition that the appointment was long overdue, and indeed the overwhelming consensus in the legal world was that had Rose been a man, she would have been appointed ten years earlier. This was important because a High Court judge is on the lower rungs of the judiciary ladder and at 60 years old, she had no time to spend several years working her way up to the next level, a Court of Appeal judge.
Though this was one of the few legal firsts that Rose did not achieve, it still wasn't until 1988 that the first woman, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, was appointed as a judge to the Court of Appeal. Even today when over 50% of the new entrants to the legal profession are women, there is still a glass ceiling in the UK judiciary with only around 12% of judges being women. Without inspirational pioneers like Rose, I've no doubt that that percentage would be even smaller.
But it wasn't her novelty value as a woman that made Rose's career at the Bar such a glittering success. She was a master of her brief and a brilliant advocate, and her melodious voice and charm worked magnificently in a court room, belying those male members of the profession who, even when I was first a law student in 1972, were still claiming that women were not suited to being advocates because their voices were too weak to carry in Court.
She also proved that it was possible to be both a great advocate and also a normal woman. Far from being a woman just imitating a man (a not uncommon accusation levelled at a woman in the law), she was at the same time both a wife and a mother to her daughter Hilary, who herself became only the 29th woman QC in 1987 - not a great deal of progress for women in 38 years.
Rose's daughter gives us in this book a personal and warm insight into Rose, the advocate, and a comprehensive account of the glittering variety of her legal cases from the notorious to the more mundane. But above all she gives us Rose, the woman, the brilliant and attractive woman who rose above the petty barriers that impeded her career, the working mum who always found time for her family, the much-loved, caring employer to everyone who ever worked for her, and the feminist - in the true sense of the word - who cared about equality and justice for other women and who, throughout her public life, spoke up for a woman's right to achieve what men take for granted - a fulfilling career and a normal family life."
This article marks the launch of ROSE HEILBRON: Legal Pioneer of the 20th Century: Inspiring advocate who became England's First Woman Judge, a biography written by her daughter, Hilary Heilbron.Suggest a correction