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Watching women watching the courtroom


Excluded from most of the legal process until the early Twentieth Century, women’s role in the courtroom has largely gone unremarked. That was until Linda Mulcahy from LSE’s Department of Law decided to link her love of art and law.

When Professor Linda Mulcahy attends everyday criminal trials for her research, the unusualness of her presence in the public gallery, as someone who is not a member of the defendant’s family, means she is often mistaken by the court staff as the duty solicitor.

Yet public galleries were not always so empty. In the Victorian era they were characterised as ‘noisy’ and ‘smelly’ places crowded with members of the public, including women. This was in spite of social codes which encouraged women, particularly from the middle classes, to aspire to confine themselves to the private sphere of home and suburb and acceptable leisure spaces such as the park, opera or museum.

When Professor Mulcahy wanted to learn more about these women and the public gallery more generally she had to turn to art, rather than traditional legal biographies which focus on the – mainly male – elite.

“There is a really rich database of visual images out there which can help us with our understanding of the courtroom and tell us things that ‘the law’ doesn’t know,” she said.

“It enables us to construct a revisionist history, putting people to the fore who are usually considered to have been marginalised in the legal process and demonstrates that, instead, they were once considered to be much more important.”

As part of her research Professor Mulcahy analysed depictions of trials from fine art and sketches, engravings and watercolours produced for nineteenth century books, pamphlets, journals and newspapers.

Courtroom drawings from one of Britain’s earliest tabloid newspapers, The Illustrated Police News, for example, showed both middle-class and working class women as participating in trials as spectators alongside men. They are portrayed as watching all kinds of trials, even of the most heinous crimes such as murder and abduction. Perhaps most significantly they are depicted as behaving in exactly the same way as men. They misbehave, shout out and throw objects protesting against the proceedings.

For instance, an image from The Illustrated Police News, 9 March 1889 depicts a lady in the public gallery offering ‘friendly advice’ to the defendant, shouting “Bite ‘em Tommy, bite their legs”. Tommy, for his part, is shown about to throw his boot at Police-Constable Essex who appears to be giving evidence against him.

Not GuiltyProfessor Mulcahy contrasts this with the demure femininity portrayed in two extremely popular paintings of the time ‘Waiting for the Verdict’ and ‘Not Guilty, The Acquittal’ by Abraham Solomon.

These pictures show a family of predominantly women quietly waiting for the verdict in the trial of their male family member in an antechamber outside of the criminal court, and then their relief as the news of his acquittal is communicated to them.

In both the courtroom remains remote, with the women being shown as recipients of justice rather than participants in the trial.

“We can see that while the male sphere is full of people busily going about their work, the female world is populated by people in a state of misery who are dependent on the outcome of deliberations in the masculine sphere of the painting,” says Professor Mulcahy. “Only a straying petticoat and a wistful over-the-shoulder look of the young female relative suggests that there is any connection between the two. “

She argues that Abraham’s paintings were a response to contemporary concerns about the ‘uncontrollable impulse of the feminine’. Against the back drop of the methodology of law which is analytical and logical, women were seen as emotional and irrational, and therefore dangerous.

“There is evidence that judges talk about men who are misbehaving in the public gallery as displaying feminine characteristics,” she says “So the feminine gets associated with the irrational in contrast to law’s cold rationality”

For Professor Mulcahy these kinds of depictions in fine art reveal the symbiotic relationship between it and the management of people in the courtroom in prescribing what constituted ‘appropriate’ behaviour for the middle classes, who dominated both spheres.

The lively depictions of women in court in The Illustrated Police News suggest that Abraham’s popular paintings did not reflect necessarily reality but they undoubtedly contributed to the construction of the exemplar of the passive female spectator.

“Until the beginning of the 20th Century judges and barristers were men. Women would appear as witnesses, and from the 1920s onwards as jurors. But the whole of legal history is a about a system that was set up and controlled by men" says Professor Mulcahy.

“We don’t know which of these sets of images actually reflects reality, but the tabloid images suggest that women may have not just been sitting, passively taking in the court’s proceedings.

“Indeed, the court may have been one of the few public spheres in the Victorian era where women could go and participate – in the sense of watching – and take their civic responsibility seriously by helping to render justice ‘open’.”

Posted August 2015

Useful links

This article is based on Professor Linda Mulcahy’s research: ‘Watching Women: What Illustrations of Courtroom Scenes Tell Us about Women and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth Century’ 

Professor Linda Mulcahy’s Experts Profile

Professor Mulcahy coordinates the LSE Law Department’s Legal Biography Project 

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'Waiting for the Verdict' (1859) and 'Not Guilty' (1859) by Abraham Solomon - both digital images courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Programme.