Celebrating the women who took the first step to pave the way for generations to follow: 100 years of women in the legal profession

February 1st, 2024
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Women that have made their mark in history. From left to right: The first woman appointed to the Constitutional Court, Justice Yvonne Mokgoro. Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya. President of the Supreme Court of Appeal Justice, Mahube Molemela. Judge President of the KwaZulu-Natal Division of the High Court, Thoba Poyo-Dlwati. Judge President of the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court, Sheila Mphahlele.

In 2023, South Africa marked 100 years of the promulgation of the Women Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923, which allowed women to be admitted as legal practitioners. Before the Act was promulgated women were not allowed to be admitted into practice. Women emerged unsuccessful after a decision that was taken in a matter between the Incorporated Law Society v Wookey 1912 AD 623. The Judiciary hosted ceremonial sittings across the country in all the High Court divisions, to commemorate the 100 years of women in the legal profession.

In this issue of the SA Lawyer we look at some of the women who have been the first to break the glass ceiling and take the first step in their respective positions, so others can follow.

The first woman to be admitted as an attorney was Constance Mary Hall in 1926.

In 1923, Irene Antoinette Geffen was admitted to the Transvaal Bar as the first female advocate.

In 1967, Gladys Steyn was the first female legal practitioner at the Appeals Court in Bloemfontein.

In 1962, Olga Brink became the first female magistrate.

In 1967, Desiree Finca was admitted as the first black female legal practitioner.

In 1969, Leonora van den Heever was the first woman to be appointed as a judge.

In 1994, in the democratic South Africa, Yvonne Mokgoro was the first woman appointed to the Constitutional Court.

In 2010, Monica Leeuw was appointed at the first woman Judge President. She was the Judge President of the North West Division of the High Courts.

In 2017, Mandisa Maya, was appointed as the first female President of the Supreme Court of Appeal.

In 2022, Thoba Poyo-Dlwati was appointed the first female Judge President of the KwaZulu-Natal Division of the High Courts.

In 2022, Justice Mandisa Maya was appointed the first female Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa.

In 2023, Justice Mahube Molemela, the first female Judge President of the Free State Division of the High Court was appointed as President of the Supreme Court of Appeal. Also in 2023, Sheila Mphahlele was appointed the first female Judge President of Mpumalanga Division of the High Courts.

Even though the legal profession is steadily working on addressing gender transformation, there is still a long way to go. Even though more female legal practitioners are being admitted to the legal profession, some of them exit the profession because of issues such as abuse, lack of quality work, lack of support from the profession, but also to raise families. On many occasions different speakers stressed the importance of gender transformation in the legal profession and in the Bench. For women to acquire more deserving roles, without having to work twice as hard as their male counterparts, more should be done to have women take the leadership role and occupy spaces at the high tables.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.

This article was first published in SA Lawyer in 2024 (January) DR 9.

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