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Women & the Law: the road to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919

On 23 December 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed, allowing women to enter the legal profession in the UK for the first time. Following its enactment, women could become students of the Inns of Court with the express purpose of being called to the Bar, and could take examinations to qualify as solicitors. This opening up of the legal profession to women had been a long process; by 1919, women had been able to study law at university (on an equal footing to men) for over forty years. Though they could not qualify as solicitors or barristers, women could work as clerks in legal offices, copying documents or sometimes preparing paperwork. In 1860, Maria Rye opened a law stationer’s office at Lincoln’s Inn Fields to train female clerks in copying legal documents. In 1878, the University of London admitted women to its degrees; however, it would be a decade until Eliza Orme became the first woman to earn a law degree in England (from University College London, in 1888). Miss Orme in 1888 was already unusually qualified for a law degree; she had read in the Lincoln’s Inn chambers of Savill Vaizey in 1873 and, from 1875, had unofficially ‘practised’ law out of a Chancery Lane office, preparing paperwork for property transactions, wills, and mortgages.

The Inns of Court, however, were reluctant to offer equal opportunities to women. In 1891, an attempt was made by one Miss Day to join Lincoln’s Inn, not with the intention of being called to the Bar, but to become a licensed conveyancer “under the Bar” [Lincoln’s Inn Black Books v. 5 p.275 (1962)]. In the early nineteenth century, it was popular among students of the Bar to become special pleaders rather than set up in practice, though by the end of the century this was a less common occurrence. Though Miss Day specified that she did not wish to be called the Bar, only admitted to the Inn for the purposes of becoming a special pleader, her application was still declined.

A little over a decade later, the Benchers of Gray’s Inn were confronted with the question of whether women could be admitted to an Inn of Court for the express purpose of being called to the Bar. In March 1903, the Benchers had received a letter from Miss Bertha Cave asking to be admitted as a student of Gray’s Inn. Two Benchers, Masters Rose and Macaskie, moved that Miss Cave be admitted; however, mindful of the precedent such an act would create, Masters Mattinson and Terrell moved that the matter be adjourned until a committee had considered the legal implications of admitting a woman to an Inn of Court, and whether the Benchers were legally able to make such a decision. The committee returned their verdict on 24 April: the judges alone (or judges by command of the Privy Council or Royal Command) made orders for the regulation of all the Inns of Court, including matters such as calls to the Bar; the Benchers of a single Inn could not change these regulations. As the rules in 1903 specified that “males and males alone” be admitted to the Bar, Miss Cave’s application was declined. An appeal against this order was brought before the Lord Chancellor and the Judges in the House of Lords by Bertha Cave in December 1903, but was rejected; no precedent for women barristers existed and the judges were not willing to create one at that time.

Similarly, in January 1904 Christabel Pankhurst appealed to the Masters of the Bench of Lincoln’s Inn to be admitted as a student of the society. She had written to the Steward of the Inn on 2 January 1904, who had replied that as female students had not hitherto been admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, she would have to put her application to the Inn’s Benchers. Her subsequent request, read and received at a council held on 11 January, was refused [Lincoln’s Inn Black Books, vol v, p. 357 (1962)]. Nearly a decade later, in 1913, the issue of admitting women to the Inns was once more discussed at the annual meeting of the bar; again, the matter was rebuffed.

In the early 20th century, women also fought for the right to qualify as solicitors. In Scotland in 1900, Margaret Hall had failed in her appeal that she qualified as a “person” within the meaning of the 1843 Solicitors Act. The conclusion from the courts was that in this case “person” implied men. A more high-profile attempt to allow women the right to qualify as solicitors was launched in 1913, by Gwyneth Bebb, Maud Isabel Ingram, Karin Costelloe, and Frances Nettlefold. The four of them (with Bebb as the named plaintiff) brought a court case against The Law Society, again seeking a declaration that women were included within the definition of “persons” of the 1843 Solicitors Act. Bebb was represented by Stanley Buckmaster KC (and future Lord Chancellor) when the case was heard in the Chancery Division in July 1913. However, again the judge ruled that according to the law, women could not be solicitors. It was up to Parliament, the creator of laws, to change the existing legislation that prohibited women qualifying as solicitors. This verdict was upheld in the Court of Appeal in December 1913.

The Great War halted any further attempts by women to enter the legal profession, though the work of women during the war did much to disprove the archaic view that they could not excel in certain professions. Even Lord Birkenhead, infamously opposed to women’s suffrage before the war, recognised that women had proven themselves capable of working in traditionally-viewed male professions since 1914 [Hansard, House of Lords Debate 11 Mar 1919 (vol 33 c596)]. Thus, towards the close of the war, real strides began to occur regarding women’s suffrage, and the ability for women to enter professions previously closed to them. The Representation of the People Act, given royal assent on 6 February 1918, gave women over the age of 30 the right to vote (if they were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency). Following the end of hostilities in November 1918, the major political parties promised to commit to equality in their manifestos for the December general election. The Labour party went furthest in this cause, branding itself “the Women’s Party” during this election. These pledges bled through into the bills presented to Parliament in 1919, which culminated in the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act.

The first bill introduced relating to women in the legal profession was the Barristers and Solicitors (Qualification of Women) Bill in February 1919. Lord Buckmaster, who had previously represented Gwyneth Bebb in her attempts to qualify as a solicitor, presented the bill, assuring doubters that “nobody thinks that the passage of this bill is going to flood the legal profession with women. It will enable a few women, who are peculiarly qualified, to earn an honourable living.” [Hansard, House of Lords Debates 11 Mar 1919 vol 33 c591]. The bill passed the Lords with little opposition. A second bill, the Justices of the Peace (Qualification of Women) Bill, was presented to the Lords shortly afterwards. At this bill’s third reading in June 1919, an amendment was passed to restrict the age of women qualifying as magistrates to thirty, keeping in line with the earlier age restriction for women’s suffrage. However, Lord Birkenhead, Treasurer of Gray’s Inn and Lord Chancellor, argued against this restriction, for “if any such woman is able to satisfy not only the Advisory Committee but the Lord Lieutenant and the Lord Chancellor, she would be a rather remarkable young women, and might conceivably be a valuable addition to the bench.” [Hansard, House of Lords Debates 25 Jun 1919 c1066-7]. Ultimately, both these bills were rendered obsolete by the enactment of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act late in 1919, and neither reached the point of debate in the Commons.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill was not, however, the first bill in 1919 to address the issue of greater equality for women. A private members’ bill, the Women’s Emancipation Bill, was introduced in the House of Commons on 21 March 1919 by the Labour MP Benjamin Spoor.  It contained three clauses: to remove the disqualification of women from holding civil and judicial appointments; to include women on equal franchise; and to allow women to sit and vote in the House of Lords. The bill successfully passed all stages in the House of Commons. During second reading in the Commons, only seven MPs spoke in opposition to the bill. Many spoke in favour of civil and judicial appointments for women, following the logical argument that if a women had passed all the examinations for her desired profession, she was just as capable to work in that profession as a man with the same qualifications. By third reading, however, the government had decided to propose an alternative bill which addressed the issue of women’s equality; they were particularly keen to remove the clause granting equal franchise to women. Despite whipped opposition, the majority of MPs (some of whom were under duress from their constituents, others ideologically in favour of the original bill) voted in favour of the Women’s Emancipation Bill 100 votes to 85.

However, a government-backed alternative to the Women’s Emancipation Bill, the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Bill, was presented to the Lords by Lord Birkenhead on 14 July 1919, and its second reading occurred only a week later, on 22 July, crucially two days before the second reading of the Women’s Emancipation Bill in the Lords. Birkenhead took the opportunity on second reading of the government’s bill to rubbish the private members’ bill, and propose that the Lords support the government alternative. The Labour Lord Kimberley, who had presented the Women’s Emancipation Bill to the Lords and was due to do so again on 24 July for second reading, was blindsided by this attack, remarking that he was at a disadvantage because he was “not in the least prepared to hear my “baby” – my Bill – torn to pieces” by the Lord Chancellor that evening [Hansard, House of Lords Debate 22 Jul 1919, vol. 35 c901]. Although Kimberley went through with the Women’s Emancipation Bill’s second reading in the Lords, the peers of the realm preferred to back the government’s own bill, and the earlier bill was defeated.

The main difference between the Women’s Emancipation Bill and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill was that the former contained a clause including women on equal franchise to men. Both bills removed the disqualification of women from holding civil and judicial appointments, and both (initially) contained clauses allowing women to sit and vote in the House of Lords. However, the clause to allow women to enter the Lords proved unpopular among the British peers, and was removed at the committee stage. Thus, by the time the bill moved to the House of Commons in August 1919, it only contained the clause allowing women to hold civil and juridical appointments. There was no debate at second reading (any concerns had presumably been addressed by the earlier Women’s Emancipation Bill) and – despite the government delaying consideration of the bill from August to October – eventually the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act received Royal Assent, on 23 December 1919, on the last day of the parliamentary session, after some minor amendments. An attempt by the Commons to reinstate the clause allowing women to sit in the Lords was dismissed, after the peers rejected it a second time. Thus, although the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act opened up professions previously closed to women, it was far more limited than the earlier Women’s Emancipation Bill, which offered equal franchise for women, and peeresses in the Lords. Women had to wait until 1928 to vote on the same terms as men, and could not sit in the Lords until 1958 as life peers, and until 1963 as hereditary peers.

Despite the increased activity relating to women and the legal profession in Parliament in 1919, the Inns of Court were reluctant to anticipate any possible legislation. In January 1919, Gwyneth Thomson (née Bebb) was refused admission from Lincoln’s Inn. In April 1919, after the Barristers and Solicitors (Qualification of Women) Bill was introduced in the Lords, the Benchers of Middle Temple closely voted not to admit women to the Inn. Such reservations were removed with the enactment of the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act. As the legal sphere had argued that they were not ideologically opposed to women entering the legal profession, only unable to change the law to open up the profession to women, there was little opposition to the new act. Gray’s Inn did suggest that the Inns issue a joint statement declaring that they had not been coerced by Parliament into accepting women, an attempt to allay rumoured concerns abroad; the other Inns, however, declined [Lincoln’s Inn Black Books, p. 146].

By the end of January 1920, each of the Inns of Court had admitted their first female students. Helena Normanton was first, admitted at the Middle Temple within forty-eight hours of the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act, on Christmas Eve 1919. She had previously applied (unsuccessfully) to the Middle Temple in 1918 after the enfranchisement of women became law. Then, in January, Theodora Llewellyn Davies was admitted to Inner Temple (9 January), Marjorie Powell was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn (16 January), and Mary Selina Share Jones was admitted to Gray’s Inn (27 January). On 10 May 1922, Ivy Williams became the first woman called to the Bar, followed shortly by Helena Normanton, called on 17 November 1922, the first practising female barrister. The first woman called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn was Edith Hesling, admitted on 14 October 1920 and called 13 June 1923.

Dr Daniel F. Gosling

23 June 2017

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