Eesti esimesed naisnotarid. First Women Notaries in Estonia
This article explores the beginning of the professionalization process of female lawyers in Estonia upon the example of the profession of a notary public. Here, women students were allowed to study law and female lawyers were allowed to practice professionally several decades later compared to many countries in Europe and the world. Women got access to a wider variety of educational lanes after the Republic of Estonia gained its independence and women students started to be accepted to the university on equal basis with male students. Between the two world wars, several offices in Estonia needed specialists with a higher education in law. The most natural potential career paths for a legal academic are usually working in the court system, bar association or as a notary public. Yet, the prejudices widespread in the society and later the economic crisis of the 1930s, alongside the competition with male lawyers made it difficult for women to get a job that corresponded to their education.
During the interwar years 1,618 students graduated from the faculty of law: 1,475 of them were men. There were 143 women graduates in the period, i.e., 8.8% of the law students. About a half of the law graduates found work in the field, while several female lawyers worked as apprentices or low-paid office clerks at courts. No female lawyers were appointed judges in Estonia before World War II, 42 women were admitted to the Bar Association.
The first woman to become notary public, Ilma Sarepera, was appointed to office as late as in 1936. It is remarkable that the first appointed woman notary public remained the only woman notary public until 1944 when the Soviet power in Estonia was restored and authorities actively started to appoint women notaries. There was no actual resistance to appointing women notaries before World War II. At the same time, female lawyers were not queueing to get an appointment. The faint interest female lawyers expressed towards the profession of notary public can be explained with objective reasons: in the conditions of an economic crisis women rather preferred a low-paying but stable job as an office clerk. Several women also decided to become advocates or found work in an entirely different field.
Most women notaries were appointed to office by the Soviet power in Soviet Estonia. War losses, repressions and the replacement of the former body of law practitioners in the 1940s brought new employments perspectives. In April 1949 there were a total of 28 notaries in 26 offices in Estonia, 11 of them women, all of them Estonian. The next women notaries after Ilma Sarepera were appointed to office in 1944 when the work of notarial offices was rapidly restarted. Only one of the women who were appointed notary public in 1944–1949 had a higher education in law, which shows that women without a relevant education were also appointed to office. Most of the women went to three-month courses for the preparation of notaries public in the USSR rear zone in Yegoryevsk, Moscow oblast or in the Tallinn Law School before they started work as notaries public. During the Soviet period women had more opportunities to become a notary public, yet, at the same time, a legal education was not considered as important as loyalty to the Soviet power and membership in the Communist party.