Cherie Blair, 24 October 2012
Rose Heilbron, advocate and judge, was an "inspirational pioneer" for women and an icon of the 1950s and 1960s.
As a child growing up in my grandmother’s house in Liverpool there was one name that always made my grandmother excited: Rose Heilbron QC. When Rose Heilbron 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 TV series called Justice, the glamorous Margaret Lockwood played a female barrister loosely based on Rose. My grandmother and I watched religiously 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 place for a girl from Liverpool.
However I was shocked to then discover that the reason Rose was so famous was that she was so rare, in 1949 the first woman ever to become a QC, and she remained the only practising woman QC even in the mid 1960s . When, in 1974, she was finally appointed to the High Court Bench at the age of 60 by a Labour Lord Chancellor, the overwhelming consensus was that had she been a man, she would have been appointed ten years earlier. This was important because when you are appointed a judge in the High Court it’s like being the new girl at school and you have to work your way up over a number of years to get to the next level, a Court of Appeal judge. So it wasn't until 1988 that Elizabeth Butler-Sloss became the first woman to be appointed to the Court of Appeal, one of the few legal firsts Rose did not achieve. Even today when over 50% of the new entrants to the legal profession are women, there is still a glass ceiling in the judiciary with only around 12% of judges being women. But thanks to inspirational pioneers like Rose, the glass is slowly breaking.
But it wasn't her novelty that made Rose’s career at the Bar such a glittering success. She broke the mould because she was a brilliant advocate and a master of her brief. There were other women advocates by the 1970s, but her melodious voice and charm belied those who, even when I was first a law student in 1972, would claim women were not suited to being advocates because their weak voices would not carry in Court! She also proved that you could not only be a great advocate but also a real woman, not just someone imitating a man, for at the same time she was a happy wife and mother of 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, with a comprehensive account of a 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 rules of the profession that impeded her career, the working mum who always found time for her family and who was a caring and much-loved employer to both her domestic and professional staff, 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 wonderful family life.