Reflecting on a career and life in legal scholarship

Celia Wells is Professor Emerita at the University of Bristol where she was Head of the Law School 2010-14. She previously held Chairs at Durham and Cardiff Universities and visiting appointments at the Universities of Sydney and Queensland. In 2006-7 she served as President of the Society of Legal Scholars of UK and Ireland. She was chair of the Law Sub Panel for RAE 2008. She founded the Women Law Professors Network in 1998. Her expertise as a criminal lawyer extends into the fields of corporate liability and compliance, corruption and human rights. She has three adult children, a grandson and loves running.

This is a story which explores my sense of being a serial outsider, and questions whether that makes me a dangerous woman.

I did some life writing and research on women law professors back in the late 1990s. At the time, I felt like an outsider. But I thought women should be more ‘inside’ the legal academy, yet I hadn’t appreciated until I talked to all the women law professors (WLPs) in the UK that I was in fact an outsider among outsiders. At the time, many WLPs had attended private schools and most had graduated from Oxford, Cambridge or London. [1]

In this they were similar to their male peers. But their outsiderness came from feeling unwelcome at the Bar, so they drifted into the academic profession, and from the perception that within universities and within professional associations they were marginalised, and/or treated differently. Not everyone I talked to felt this way but most did; outsiders by gender but not by class. Of course I tread on rocky ground here. Class is not an impermeable given (nor is gender for that matter).

Now my writing is pitched from the vantage point of retirement after a further decade and a half as an academic. I achieved professional recognition yet still felt I did not belong. Like many other WLPs who have held senior management positions, I too have encountered raw sexist labelling and treatment that I do not believe would be tolerated or contemplated of my male colleagues. It would take too long, and possibly be too painful, to dissect this in detail but the core message is that tokenism, discrimination and stereotyping are all alive and well, albeit under subtle disguises. While there clearly are more women in leading positions within universities than there were in the 1990s, they remain a minority, especially in the more elite institutions.

I started thinking about how my upbringing might have affected the academic I became. What is there in my childhood, my background and my family that might have made me such a serial outsider, who challenged the status quo and who has been – arguably – dangerous in those terms?

I grew up in Oxford, in a family dominated by my parents’ political activism first in the Communist Party, later in the Labour Party. Neither of my parents was able to access higher education until they were in their 30s or 40s. Like my sister and brother before me, I was exposed to the 11+ selection system which determined the sort of secondary school you would go to. While I attended a girls’ grammar school from 1961 with an expectation that I would go to University, my sister who was nearly 6 years older went to a co-ed school that seemed to assume girls would leave school at 16 and go on to nursing, teaching or secretarial training.

I believe that many of the differences between my life and career and those of my sister are explained by the political, economic and cultural shifts between the 1950s and the 1960s. The number of universities doubled from 22 to 46 in the second half of the 1960s. One option available to me in the 1960s was Warwick University, recently established in 1965. And I chose law, when a more common choice for women in my situation was English or History. This was because my sixth form class teacher suggested it, perhaps because I was known as someone who argued a lot. I had never met a lawyer nor did I know anyone who had studied it at university. I resisted the pressure to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. I remember thinking I was not like – and did not want to be like – the women students I saw on the buses in Oxford. It was as though I could belong only by clinging to the edges, perhaps a sense that I should also have felt at home but didn’t.

But what was my background?

This is where my most recent research has started to make a difference in my understanding. I started from a position of ignorance about my father, Ted’s, family as well as an interest in how my parents came to meet and the impact of WW2 on their identities. My mother seemed middle class while my father gave the impression he was from a solid working class London family, which turns out to be true in one sense. Yet step back a generation and I found a very different picture. I never met any of his relatives. His parents simply ‘did not exist’. I now know that both his parents were alive until I was well into my teens.

My mother, Muriel, arrived in Oxford from London in 1939, aged 18, evacuated with the insurance company for which she was then working. Within three months she was living with my father who was five years older and within six months was married to him. In 1942 she was employed in a production line job to which she would not normally have had access (or desire to do) but for the war. Oxford was not a ‘pure’ university town in the way Durham and Cambridge were. It was home to Morris Motors, Pressed Steel and Osberton Radiators, which between them employed 30 per cent of Oxford workers. There she stood out. There is a pen portrait of Muriel in Arthur Exell’s history of the production line at Radiators, and a photo of her on the first shop stewards’ committee in 1942 [2].

My mother had told me she had been forced to leave her fee-paying school two terms early because her father, a chartered secretary, was in debt (a gambler or drinker or both?). She studied in the evenings but her part time place at the LSE ended when the war broke out; the LSE evacuated only its full time students to Cambridge. Her move to Oxford was pivotal in many ways. She did not return to education until the 1950s, after she and Ted had three children. They took adult education courses at Ruskin College.

The watershed moment came when Ted went off to University College North Staffordshire (UNCS, now Keele University) in 1957. His award of a Mature State Scholarship was a sufficiently noteworthy event to justify a family portrait in the Oxford Mail. Muriel meanwhile obtained a Diploma in Social Administration and argued tenaciously that she should be allowed to take a postgraduate Diploma in Education at the Oxford University Institute of Education. These preparations for their subsequent professional lives were the backdrop of the first 11 years of my life (1950-61). My teenage years were very different. My father completed his degree, then left home and had teaching contracts in Ghana, London and Ethiopia until his death in 1971. My mother pursued a career as a secondary school teacher from 1961-1984. Muriel was passionate about the divisive effect of the system of selection at 11 and actively involved in the Committee for the Advancement of State Education.

I did know we were a bit different from most of my friends’ families. I observed at the age of 8 that other children went to Sunday school, that most of my friends in North Oxford lived in houses, had televisions and cars. We lived in a flat, had neither TV nor car and did not go to church. By the time I was 11 and at grammar school I was aware that although I lived by then in a house, it was a council house, and it was not in North Oxford. It was not like the other houses in the street as it had no net curtains and large numbers of books could be seen through the windows. With their orange and red covers, the Victor Gollancz Left Book Club ones were always prominent: ‘Red Star over China’, Stalin on Lenin and so on. By the time I was 12 my sister had a baby and I was an aunt. I didn’t have any friends whose 17 year old sisters had a baby. My maternal grandmother came to stay a few times. She was rather refined and I had the impression my mother still resented her role in Muriel’s leaving school early (by not giving up her paid help). This explains a lot about my mother’s valorisation of educational achievement above other skills and attributes in her children and grandchildren.

It is not unusual for people to discover their families were not quite what they assumed them to be. My father has been something of a ghost for most of my life. He was away at university for 4 years and then left when I was 11. I have the sense that I just got on with things while my sister and brother were more overtly troubled. We did meet Ted on a few occasions when he was on leave from his teaching abroad, in London, or once for tea in a Henley hotel. He was judgemental about my sister’s pregnancy and my brother was angry with him in many ways. I had few friends who would have remembered him either. I knew him only as a person present in my childhood, absent and then dead. I had a photo of a grave in Addis Ababa and correspondence with the British Consulate. It was only when I read the war time correspondence my mother had kept that I began to fill out more of a picture of the man. There are letters from her father and her friends warning against this hasty marriage. There are letters between my parents and with their close friend, fellow CP member Eton educated Brian Carritt, who died of TB in 1942.

In one letter Ted describes himself as ‘a poor penniless orphan (not counting my father – I don’t count him anyway as you know)’. In fact, Ted’s father Ethelbert was possibly illegitimate, brought up by his mother and railway porter stepfather in Camden. Ethelbert married Lily Gwendoline King in November 1914, some ten months before Ted’s birth. Lily’s father (my great grandfather), Thomas John Servington Savery King (TJSSK), was the product of a union of two prominent, wealthy, landed Devon families, on one side the Servington Saverys and on the other the Kings. Funnily enough, a major dispute had arisen between the two families at one time, culminating in the 1856 Chancery case Savery v King, still cited as a precedent on undue influence. [3]

Despite these auspicious beginnings, TJSSK had a pretty chequered life. Admitted as a solicitor in 1869, he did not seem to practise until he moved to London in 1881 after his marriage. He brought an assault case against Mr Nix, described as a labourer. When TJSSK was on the way home from the races with two of his children, Mr Nix had shouted: ‘When are you going to pay me that account of mine’. When TJSSK refused to get involved, Mr Nix became verbally abusive and threatened him with a stick. In what reads as a sanctimonious fit of pique TJSSK said ‘you are no gentleman to use such language in front of my children’. Edward (aged 13) and Hilda (aged 11) gave corroborative evidence. The court concluded that an assault ‘albeit a slight one’ had been committed and fined Mr Nix 2s and 6d. No mention is made of the alleged debt. What a good example this would have provided all those years when I taught criminal law both of the class bias in law and of the difference between assault and battery.

The developing picture of TJSSK gets worse as he was suspended as a solicitor for unprofessional practices (touting) in 1902. Lily would have been about 10. His older children emigrated to the United States and when his father died in 1912 he left his estate to TJSSK’s younger sister, rather than to his only son.

What about Lily? Was my father an orphan as he claimed? Well it turns out that she bigamously (re) married in 1918 a Lieutenant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. She then lived in Canada for the rest of her life, had three more children, and died in British Columbia in 1970. She made a return visit to London in 1939 when her youngest sister died. I somehow doubt that she looked for her son.

All of this does begin to explain my father’s ‘orphan’ comment to his friend Brian Carritt. What he knew of his mother I will probably never discover. Perhaps he had been told she had died. Ethelbert must have found out about Lily’s bigamous remarriage fairly quickly as he divorced her, citing adultery, in 1921. Ethelbert himself was living in Oxford by 1936 when he too remarried and is described as a widower. He died in Hertfordshire in 1966. It has been disconcerting to find out that both of my father’s parents were alive for a good portion of my life.

I am beginning to see a pattern and hear echoes.

My memories of Ted as a combative, opinionated person are confirmed in recollections of some contemporaries at UCNS (many of whom would have been much younger than him): ‘He was a very influential member of Keele Labour Club. … Ted’s views were listened to with respect and carried additional weight because he was older and had seen more of the world’ and ‘He was extroverted, talked vigorously and had plenty to say. He was not one to go along with conventional thinking without challenging it. And I think he enjoyed being a devil’s advocate, and making us sit up and think.’[4]

My father smoked and drank a lot, which no doubt contributed to his early death at 55. TJSSK sounds as though he had similar personality traits, and fell from professional grace during Lily’s childhood. I have no idea how she met or became involved with Ethelbert whose background was very different to hers. Again I don’t know what happened between Ted and his father but we do know that Lily had gone by the time he was three. And then my mother and father repeated the pattern; they too were from (superficially at least) very different backgrounds, they too married at the beginning of a world war, and Ted left his family to go abroad in 1961.

So who was – or is – this dangerous woman – the product of these lives and these exchanges?

I can now see a distinct opacity about my family’s social, political and cultural identities. It was a fractured family, which complicated the ostensibly straightforward image that a grammar school girl from Oxford would normally convey. It was a family that was always sceptical about religion and the right wing political establishment.

It has strong echoes in how I have lived my professional life. It helps to explain why I have always resisted the categories of traditional legal scholarship, why I have tended to cross boundaries, and why it was hard(er) to fit in.

I spent most of my life saying I was brought up in a shoebox, but I now understand it was a much more complicated riches-to-rags story on my father’s side.

As a result I think I was often at war with myself and my self image as well as with the assumptions of the dominant male hierarchies of elite institutions.

I am a dangerous academic woman.

[1] C. Wells, ‘Women law professors – negotiating and transcending gender identities at work’ (2002) 10 Feminist Legal Studies 1-36.

[2] Arthur Exell: The Politics of the Production Line, Autobiography of an Oxford Car Worker, History Workshop Journal 1981

[3] Savery v King [1856] VHLC 626

[4] My thanks to John Easom of the Keele Alumni office for his exceptional help.