Gendering Legal History: Women in the London Moment

It can feel like London during the Second World War was an exclusively male territory. This is particularly true when dealing with jurists during that time. Perhaps unsurprisingly – given the restrictions for women to attend university or even aspire an academic career –, the international lawyers who met in London or Cambridge to discuss the future of international humanitarian law were almost all men. However, if historians of international law really want to diversify the stories they tell, they should make an extra effort and dig a little deeper to uncover contributions made by marginalized groups.[1]

Therefore, I was pleased to find out that two women offered their expertise to the International Commission for Penal Reconstruction and Development, one of the transnational groups dealing with international criminal law in the London Moment. Margery Fry, a penal reformer and important member of the Howard League for Penal Reform, was involved in a committee considering a draft code for the rights of defendants, while Sylvia Sprigge, a journalist, contributed a study on the Italian criminal justice system in 1944. The Commission’s secretary J.W. Cecil Turner contacted the latter via her employer because she had published an article on the Italian penal code in the 1930s. Sprigge happily obliged this request. In her report, she displays an intimate knowledge of the ‘Special Tribunal for the Defence of the State’, a military court and instrument for the executive to dispose itself of undesirable political opponents. Sprigge deplores the way the fascist state exploits the judiciary for political ends, and concludes that until habeas corpus and the rule of law are reestablished in Italy, a democratic post-war order is not possible. Her correspondence with Turner reveals that she left for Italy shortly thereafter, hoping to influence the reform of the criminal justice system.

When I tried to find out more about her biography, the only information readily available was that she was the wife of Cecil Sprigge – also a journalist – and ‘a prominent Berlin correspondent of The Times and herself Manchester Guardian correspondent in Italy from 1943 to 1953.’[2] While Margery Fry’s life and work have received some attention – most recently by Anne Logan –,[3] research on Sylvia Sprigge is scarce. Letters and diaries have been preserved within her husband’s papers, however, these do not concern the time of war.[4] This exemplifies a common problem in gender and women’s history: Because their impact on the world often was (and is) perceived to be small, women have left fewer traces in archives and other private or public collections, perpetuating the problem that most central actors in legal histories are male. This case, narrow as it might be, therefore nicely illustrates the practical difficulties with gendering legal history.

[1] See for example Arnulf Becker Lorca, Mestizo International Law: A Global Intellectual History 1842–1933 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[2] https://www.reading.ac.uk/special-collections/exhibitions/sc-exhibition-italy-at-war.aspx

[3] Anne Logan, The Politics of Penal Reform: Margery Fry and the Howard League (London/New York: Routledge, 2018).

[4] https://www.reading.ac.uk/special-collections/collections/sc-sprigge.aspx


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2 Responses

  1. saraweydner says:

    Dear Penny,

    I have unsuccessfully tried contacting you via Email, which is why my reply is so late. In any case, thank you very much for your comment on our blog. The Special Collections Department of the University of Reading let me know that these diaries and letters do not concern the time of the Second World War. I have clarified this in my article.

    I am very much interested in your research on Sylvia Sprigge. Have you published anything yet?

    Best wishes,
    Sara

  2. Penny Ditchfield says:

    Pleased to tell you letters and diaries of Sylvia do exist, in the same collection. I have been working on them for 2 years for MRes and am now undertaking more research with hopes of PhD at end – and for deserved recognition for Sylvia as talented woman and journalist.

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