Sunday 7 August 2011

From the archives: France's first woman lawyer

While England's first women solicitors and barristers qualified in 1922, it was in 1799 that a Frenchwoman first argued a court case. The circumstances were exceptional, however; it would be 1900 before women were able to act as lawyers again.

During the French revolution, many aristocrats lived under the shadow of the guillotine. However, one extraordinary woman saved not only herself but also her husband - by acting as his lawyer.

Marie-Victoire de Lambilly was happily married to the Comte de la Villirouet. During the revolution, they were both arrested and Marie-Victoire was held in a former convent in Lamballe, Brittany. The conditions were awful, but Marie-Victoire wrote letters and appeals which secured first her own release and then that of her fellow-prisoners.

However, her troubles were not over: her husband was imprisoned and faced the death sentence. Again, Marie-Victoire's response was practical. She took advantage of the fact that a revolutionary law abolishing all trade associations had effectively removed the traditional qualifications for lawyers: there was nothing, she argued, to stop her acting as her husband's advocate. Her argument was accepted, so she carefully studied and prepared for the trial.

Marie-Victoire's court appearance was a success. It combined emotional appeal and legal argument. The Comte de la Villirouet was released; by contrast, all his co-defendants were executed. Having successfully won her first case as France's first woman advocate, however, Marie-Victoire did not pursue a legal career. She and her family continued to live happily in Lamballe, where she was buried after her death in 1813.

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