Photo illustration by John Lyman



Lawyers in Heels: How European Women Paved the Way

Though justice is female, it has not always been fair to women. This is demonstrated in the story of Lidia Poët, a woman who made history by becoming the first Italian lawyer. Poët succeeded in passing the bar on August 9, 1883, first granted and then having it taken away shortly afterward.

At a time when most girls – to quote Poët’s own words – dealt “exclusively with needle lace and rice puddings,” Poët dared to imagine being able to practice the profession she loved in court. After years of commitment, obstinacy, unconventional choices, and passion for the study of law and human rights, she finally acquired the title of a lawyer at the age of 65.

So, who was Lidia Poët? Born in 1855 into a wealthy rural landowner, a Waldensian family, Lidia Poët was the youngest of eight children. She started her studies in Valle Germanasca and then she moved to Switzerland where she obtained a secondary school teaching certificate, followed by a second certificate as a teacher of English, German, and French.

Back in Italy, Poët enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Turin in 1878. She graduated in law at age 25, defending a thesis on the condition of women in society and on women’s right to vote, and practiced law in Pinerolo, in the office of lawyer and Senator Cesare Bertea. After two years, Poët received her registration with the Bar Association of Turin.

Poët then passed the bar exam, after which she applied for admission to the Turin Bar Association. Two lawyers, in protest, resigned after the request was put to a vote and approved. In the opinion of the President of the Turin Bar Association, Xavier Francesco Vegezzi, “according to Italian civil laws, women are citizens like men,” and Poët became the first Italian woman to be admitted.

Unfortunately, shortly afterward, the Kingdom of Italy’s Attorney General contested the Turin Bar Association’s decision and appealed to the Turin Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals declared Poët’s enrollment in the Turin Bar Association to be illegitimate, preventing her from working. Penniless but full of pride, Poët never surrendered to such views, and continued her legal work with her brother Enrico, although she could not defend herself in court.

She acted as a secretary at the International Penitentiary Congresses and as a delegate at Congresses abroad, then joined the National Council of Italian Women in 1903. During World War I she was also a volunteer nurse for the Italian Red Cross, receiving a silver medal for civil valor.

In the meantime, Poët appealed to other courts, which again denied her right to practice law.

Henceforth, Lidia Poët became an international example of a women’s struggle for justice, especially within the career of law. Poët’s strong positions led to debates in society at the time and, thanks to her, the role of Italian women in law began to be discussed.

The world became small for Poët, who went to Paris, London, and St. Petersburg to debate women’s suffrage, women’s emancipation, and prison conditions. Poët endured humiliation and sacrifice to pursue her desire to be a lawyer, and, in the end, she succeeded. At the age of 65, she finally managed to rejoin the Turin Bar Association. In the remaining days of her life, Lidia Poët continued to fight for international women’s rights. In 1946, she participated in the first round of universal suffrage elections and died three years later at the age of 94. On her tombstone is written “Italy’s first female lawyer.”

In 1887, not far from Italy, Emilie Kempin-Spyri became the first woman to obtain a law degree at the University of Zurich. Despite graduating with honors, Kempin-Spyri was denied the right to practice law due to her lack of “active citizenship.” According to the constitution at the time, a “Swiss citizen” had to pay taxes and serve in the military – which excluded women. Kempin-Spyri even turned to the Swiss Supreme Court, but her appeal was rejected. In 1889, she then emigrated to New York where she founded the Emily Kempin Law School, a private institution for women. In 1896, Kempin-Sypri got a job in Berlin teaching private and family law. During her time in Berlin, Kempin-Spyri took a moderate stance on women’s rights.

Olga Petit made history by becoming the first woman to take the oath in France to practice law on December 6, 1900. After obtaining her doctorate, Petit requested access for women to university studies. Petit wanted women to not be restrained to menial jobs, but access to higher education to guarantee equal access to employment. Because of Petit, the doctorate was available for women. Petit’s thesis was on “Law and order in states that do not know the separation of legislative and executive powers.”

Historically, even though women in Europe have had some success in breaking the glass ceiling, there’s a long way to go to bring gender equality into the legal profession. Within the European Union, women comprise more than half of law school graduates. However, women tend to be less specialized lawyers than men. Women are also more likely to work with individual clients from the lower and middle strata as well as practice family and social law, and in fields with little prestige and financial clout. Presently, there is a total of 871,090 lawyers in the EU, and women make up 46.62%.

Within the legal profession, there is much to do in terms of gender equality in the European Union. To understand what the future looks like for women, we need to recognize and celebrate how far women have come and consider the changes that still need to be made such as raising awareness of inequality, promoting creative solutions, empowering women to become leaders, and channeling the support of male advocates for change. We need to work together, women and men, in discussing and finding solutions toward equality. I hope we have more and more women like Lidia Poët, Emilie Kempin-Spyri, and Olga Petit to inspire the upcoming generation of women in the legal profession.