In 1923, when she was only 23 years old, Margaret Kidd became the first ever female Advocate in Scotland. Although I’m sad to say I never met her myself, I’ve always been impressed by her achievements. The theme for International Women’s Day this year is Choose To Challenge. With her career peppered by legal “firsts” and landmarks, I feel that Dame Margaret Henderson Kidd, Q.C. is an excellent example of that idea.
Margaret Henderson Kidd was born in Bo’ness, West Lothian on 14 March 1900 – 121 years ago! (give or take a week). She was the eldest daughter of teacher Janet Gardner Kidd (née Turnbull) and James Kidd, a solicitor and MP for West Lothian. She attended Linlithgow Academy, then studied law at Edinburgh University, graduated in 1922, and called to the Scottish bar a year later.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 finally gave women in the UK the right to vote (so long as they owned property and were over the age of 30). The following year, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 opened the legal profession to women for the first time. In an article that year, The Scotsman reported that a representative member of the Faculty of Advocates…
“…declared the feeling of the Faculty to be that, although they did not think women suited for the work, there was no use protesting [the Bill] at this time of day.” The same article noted the belief that women were unlikely to become solicitors or heads of legal firms. Instead, they “would probably be found in the position of assistants, or conveyancing clerks, or heads of cash departments. While the profession in Edinburgh was conservative on the subject of legal practitioners, the general feeling was that [the Bill] should not be opposed.”“Sex Disqualification Bill: views of the legal profession”, The Scotsman, 28 November 1919
Perhaps choosing to challenge these somewhat unwelcoming and certainly ambivalent attitudes, 23 year old Margaret Kidd entered the legal profession only a few years later.
When Margaret Kidd was called to the bar on the 13th July 1923, she became the first woman admitted to the Faculty of Advocates since its foundation in 1532. She would remain the only woman until Isabel Sinclair called 25 years later – coincidentally, in the same year Margaret Kidd was appointed King’s Counsel.
In 1926 The Scotsman – who were always inordinately interested in what she was wearing 🙄 – published a piece entitled “The Scottish Woman Advocate: A Talk with Miss Kidd”:
“Time was when the question of what women advocates should wear on their heads was a momentous question… As regards her dress at Parliament House – “I had a plain black frock at first,” … “until it wore out.” Then she adopted a black costume, the coat of which covers a plain white over-blouse, with a white tie. In Parliament House she replaces her coat with a dinner jacket, severe and masculine-looking, and over that, of course, her gown is worn. …Dress, Miss Kidd holds, matters very considerably to a woman speaker. It should be plain and dignified, otherwise it is apt to interfere with the effect of her speech, and distract attention from it. …”The Weekly Scotsman, 3 March 1926
Later in 1926 Margaret Kidd became the first female counsel to appear before the House of Lords. She acted as junior counsel in the case of Adair v Colville & Sons 1926 S.C. (H.L.) 51 with Mr MP Fraser K.C as her senior. Dean of Faculty, Mr Condie Sandeman K.C. (good name!), led the opposition. The Glasgow Herald carried a two column report of the case, which contained the following mention of Miss Kidd’s presence:
“The appeal was of exceptional interest, not only in that it raised a question of Scottish legal procedure, but also from the fact that Scotland’s first woman advocate, and the first woman barrister of any Bar to appear in the House of Lords – Miss Margaret H Kidd – was briefed in it on behalf of the appellant”Glasgow Herald, 12 June 1926, p.7
After the death of her father in 1928 brought about a by-election, Margaret Kidd was the first woman in West Lothian to stand for election to the House of Commons.
“Miss Kidd gave her first election speech to a crowded gathering of between 800-900 people at the Corn Exchange in Bathgate. A journalist reporting in the Scotsman commented upon Margaret Kidd’s “quiet, confident, matter-of-fact style of speech.” Her political arguments and knowledge were also commended.
Margaret Kidd’s by-election campaign gathered momentum when she was joined on the platform by Britain’s first female MP, Lady Astor. Nancy Astor spoke at both Bathgate and South Queensferry where she made reference to female suffrage. During her speech she joked that some of the men in the House of Commons hoped she would be the first and the last female MP. She also stated that she was campaigning for Miss Kidd both because she had been fond of her father, but also because she wanted to get another woman into the House of Commons.”Sutherland, Women & Democracy: the West Lothian story, p. 21-22
Margaret did not win that by-election and didn’t stand for Parliament again, although she retained an interest in politics.
In 1930 she married Donald Somerled MacDonald, WS. They had a daughter named Anne. Alongside her successful law practice, Margaret Kidd was an assistant lecturer in public law at Edinburgh University, and during the 1930s became a founder member of the Stair Society and Secretary to the Poor’s Court Aid Committee. She served as editor of the Court of Session Reports from 1942-76. During World War II she helped organise Christmas treats and functions for the families of men serving in the 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, especially the 39th Battery commanded by her brother Col. J. T. Kidd.
Margaret Kidd was appointed the UK’s first female King’s Counsel in 1948, the year before the first two female K.Cs were appointed to the English bar. It is worth noting here that Frances Moran had been appointed Senior Counsel to the Irish bar back in 1941.
For 13 years (from 1956 to 1969), Margaret Kidd (by now a Queen’s, rather than King’s Counsel) served as the first female Keeper of the Advocates Library. As such she was the first woman to hold a position as Office Bearer within the Faculty. Again, she remained the only female office bearer for many years. It wasn’t until 2004 that Valerie Stacey, Q.C. became Vice-Dean of the Faculty.
When Margaret Kidd, Q.C. was appointed Sheriff Principal of Dumfries and Galloway in 1960, this was yet another first for her – the first female Sheriff. She served as Sheriff in Dumfries and Galloway from 1960 to 1966, and then in Perth and Angus from 1966 until 1974, when she retired. To mark the 50th anniversary of her historic admission, the Faculty of Advocates held a dinner in her honour. In 1975 she was awarded the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She received honorary degrees from Dundee University in 1982 and from Edinburgh in 1984.
Dame Margaret Henderson Kidd, Q.C. died on 22 March 1989. She had just turned 89 years old. Mr David Hope, then Dean of the Faculty, said:
“Her success was won by strength of character, courage and integrity and it is a mark of her true qualities that, despite what might seem to be the revolutionary nature of her achievement, she always held the affection and respect of those around her”.Glasgow Herald. 27 March 1989, p.16
Woman’s historic legal selection. BBC News. 24 November 2004
Scottish Judicial and Legal Dress at Court. Faculty Archives, Ref. 68/3
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/49228
Scottish case in House of Lords, The Glasgow Herald, 12 June 1926, p.7
Scotland’s First Woman Sheriff”. The Glasgow Herald. 25 March 1960. p. 1.
Leaders in law and public service”. The Glasgow Herald. 14 June 1975. p. 3.
Royal visitor at graduation”. The Glasgow Herald. 17 July 1982. p. 3
Dame Margaret Kidd, pioneer of women in law, dies aged 89. The Glasgow Herald. 27 March 1989, p.16
McRobert, A bar removed: Legal pioneers: Margaret Henderson Kidd, Scotland’s first and for 25 years only female advocate, The Journal, vol 59 issue 10, 20th October 2014
Scotland’s History: Dame Margaret Henderson Kidd QC”. 14 March 2017.
Sex Disqualification Bill: views of the legal profession, The Scotsman, 28 November 1919 (Newspaper Cuttings, 1917-1921, p.103. Faculty Archives.)
The Scottish Woman Advocate: A Talk with Miss Kidd, The Weekly Scotsman, 3 March 1926 (Newspaper Cuttings, 1923-1937, p. 10. Faculty Archives.)
Sutherland, Women & Democracy: the West Lothian story, p. 21-22
Walker, The Faculty of Advocates 1800-1986: A biographical directory of members admitted from 1 January 1800 to 31 December 1986. 1987.