A photo of Lady Hale's memoir 'Spider Woman' against a purple background.

As President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale won global attention in finding the 2019 prorogation of Parliament to be unlawful. Yet that dramatic moment was merely the pinnacle of a career throughout which she was hailed as a pioneering reformer.

A lifelong smasher of glass ceilings, who took as her motto ‘women are equal to everything’, Lady Hale is an inspirational figure admired for her historic achievements and for her landmark rulings in areas including domestic violence, divorce, mental health and equality.

Wise, warm and inspiring, Spider Woman tells the story of how a self-professed ‘girly swot’ found that she could overcome the odds stacked against her, as well as showing how the law shapes our world and supports us in crisis.

Here, in an exclusive extract from her memoir, Lady Hale describes some of her own moments of 'imposter syndrome', from being the first pupil from her state school to be offered a place at Cambridge University to being sworn in as the first female president of The Supreme Court.

A photo of Lady Hale's memoir 'Spider Woman' on a wood surface against a light grey background.

We all have our imposter moments. I defy any woman to say that she doesn’t. Here are four of mine.

Imposter moment no. 1

It is September 1955. I am ten years old. I am standing all alone in the playing field at Richmond High School for Girls, in North Yorkshire. I am wearing a navy-blue gymslip with a square neck and a pale blue blouse also with a square neck. It looks absurd – why on earth are we not allowed to wear shirts with a collar and tie until the sixth form? But I am glad to be wearing it because it means that I am at the High School and not at the dreaded Secondary Modern School on Catterick Camp where rumour has it that everyone gets the cane in their first term, even goody-goodies like me. I look like a goody-goody. Long hair in pigtails. Round National Health Service spectacles. A speccy swot. Short. Rather overweight. The youngest girl in the school because they entered me for the 11-plus a year early and unbelievably I passed. My older sister Jill is the oldest girl in the school and head girl. Impossibly godlike and no company for her baby sister. Alone because I am the only girl from Bolton-on-Swale Church of England primary school to have passed the 11-plus that year. All the other girls in the class seem to have at least one friend from the same primary school as them. Am I an imposter? Should I be here yet? Can I cope?

Imposter moment no. 2

It is October 1963. I am eighteen years old. Still a speccy swot. Rather more attractive spectacles. Pigtails gone and a short bob. Not thin but not noticeably overweight. Still short. I am walking along King’s Parade in Cambridge. On my left is King’s College. Intricately carved stone tracery separates its grounds from the street. The east end of its magnificent chapel faces the street: one of the most glorious church buildings in the country. Ahead of me is the Senate House, an elegant eighteenth-century stone building, where one day I may kneel before the vice chancellor to receive my degree. To my right is Great St Mary’s, the university church. Tucked away between King’s College Chapel and the Senate House are the Old Schools, more eighteenthcentury elegance, where the Law Faculty is based, and the Squire Law Library. That is where I am headed. Unbelievably, Girton College, the first women’s college in either Oxford or Cambridge, has awarded me an exhibition to read law. The first girl from Richmond High School to go to Cambridge and the first to read law. I pinch myself. Am I really here? Am I an imposter? Can I cope?

Imposter moment no. 3

It is May 1984. I am thirty-nine years old. Rather more stylish spectacles. Still with a short bob. Still not fat but not thin. Still short. I am sitting at my desk in my office in Conquest House, at the corner of Theobalds Road and John Street, just north of Gray’s Inn. A long way from home. Unbelievably, I am the first woman and the youngest ever Law Commissioner. I am ploughing through an immensely detailed and learned discussion of what should be done with the law of blasphemy: abolish, modernise or replace it? That is the sort of thing the Law Commission does. The other commissioners are some of the cleverest men I have ever known. Am I an imposter? Can I cope?

Imposter moment no. 4

It is 13 January 2020. I am seventy-four years old. Smart spectacles by Elle. Still with a short bob, rather smarter than the earlier cut (though Anne Robinson had said I ought to get a proper haircut when I announced the Supreme Court’s decision in the great prorogation case), and more grey than dark brown. Not thin but not noticeably overweight. I am walking through St James’s Park in London. To my left is the lake with its pelicans and wildfowl and a distant view of Buckingham Palace (last visited for the banquet for President Trump), also the pretty little fake cottage with its traditional cottage garden. To my right are the Treasury, with the Churchill War Rooms beneath, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the other end of Downing Street, the back of Dover House (where the Scottish Office lives), and Horse Guards Parade. Where am I coming from? Earlier in the morning I had been in Courtroom No. 1 in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom applauding as my successor was sworn in as president of the Supreme Court. After that I was in the House of Lords, being welcomed back by the Clerk of the Parliaments after ten years’ absence as a Justice of the Supreme Court, presenting my writ of summons in the Chamber and taking the oath, necessary if I want to take part in parliamentary business. Swearing the oath of allegiance to Her Majesty, her heirs and successors according to law, I slightly emphasised the word ‘law’ and was surprised when many of Their Lordships said ‘Hear, hear.’ Where am I going to? Up the Duke of York steps, along Waterloo Place, and into the Athenaeum club to have lunch at the club table, before checking the arrangements for a dinner I am giving for my fellow justices that evening. Unbelievably, I was one of the first group of women to become members eighteen years ago. If I was an imposter, I must have learned to love her.

 

This is the story of how that little girl from a little school in a little village in North Yorkshire became the most senior judge in the United Kingdom. How she found that she could cope. And how all those other people who feel they are imposters can learn to cope too. Some of them may even be men.

  • Spider Woman

  • 'Brenda Hale's story is extraordinary. She has been a pioneer... Spider woman and agent of change' Harriet Harman

    Lady Hale is an inspirational figure admired for her historic achievements and for the causes she has championed. Spider Woman is her story.


    As President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale won global attention in finding the 2019 prorogation of Parliament to be unlawful. Yet that dramatic moment was merely the pinnacle of a career throughout which she was hailed as a pioneering reformer.

    As 'a little girl from a little school in a little village in North Yorkshire', she only went into the law because her headteacher told her she wasn't clever enough to study history. She became the most senior judge in the country.

    How does a self-professed 'girly swot' get ahead in a profession dominated by men? A lifelong smasher of glass-ceilings, who took as her motto 'women are equal to everything', her landmark rulings in areas including domestic violence, divorce, mental health and equality were her attempt to correct that.

    Wise, warm and inspiring, Spider Woman shows how the law shapes our world. It is the story of how Lady Hale found that she could overcome the odds and change British law for good.


    'Essential, entertaining and inspirational reading for all lovers of freedom, equality and justice' Shami Chakrabati

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