Women at the Bar: the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and the admission of women to the legal profession

First page of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919

This post was first published on 17/12/2019.

Author: Katie Broomfield, PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London

2019 marks 100 years since women were first and finally admitted to the legal profession with the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.  The Act, which removed all legal barriers to women, including married women, working as lawyers was the result of a 40-year long campaign by women to be admitted to the legal profession.  Women made many attempts to be admitted to the legal profession before 1919 but access to the profession was controlled by The Law Society and the Inns of Court, whose members resolutely refused to admit women.  Such refusals were upheld in the Courts where it was decided that there was no precedent that would allow women to become barristers (Miss Bertha Cave’s CaseThe Times, 3 December 1903) and that women were not ‘persons’ for the purposes of the Solicitors Act 1843 (Bebb v Law Society [1914] 1 Ch. 286).  As a commentator in 1913 pointed out, with the ‘vast majority of Parliamentary members … themselves legal men’ attempts before 1919 to effect legislative change were also strongly resisted.  Using material held in the archives of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, this blog examines how members of the profession, as members of the General Council of the Bar (the “Bar Council”), responded to attempts to open the legal profession to women. 

Originally called the Bar Committee, the Bar Council was established in 1883 with the purpose of collecting and expressing the opinions of the Members of the Bar on matters affecting the profession, and to take such action thereon as may be deemed expedient [IALS BCO/01/01a].  Unsurprisingly, the question of the admission of women to the profession was fiercely debated as one such issue affecting the profession.  It was first raised at the Annual General Meeting of the Bar Council on 17 January 1913, when it was moved that ‘This meeting approves of the admission of women to the membership of the Bar’ [IALS BCO/04/14].  The motion was proposed by Holford Knight who argued that ‘where tests had been established for the purpose of regulating admission to a profession, the passing of those tests should be accepted as evidence of fitness, irrespective of sex.’  By the time the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed women were permitted to read law at all English and Welsh universities to offer the subject and Eliza Orme was the first woman to graduate with a degree in law, from the University of London, in 1888.  However, before 1919 they were not permitted to undertake any vocational training nor to sit the Bar examination, which was introduced in 1872 as a precondition for Call to the Bar. 

Revealing that, although institutionally opposed to the admission of women, there were individual barristers who supported women’s claims to access the profession, it was reported in The Law Times on 25 January 1913 that a number of speeches were made in support and ‘no-one was apparently willing to speak against the motion.’  Among the arguments made in support of the opening of the Bar to women was the fact that ‘There were many countries of the world where women practised the profession and practised it with great ability … the United States of America, Russia, France and Italy.’ However, the motion was ultimately rejected by an ‘overwhelming majority.’  The Bar Council archives contain a letter from a Chicago lawyer congratulating the Bar Council on their decision, complaining that ‘The woman’s brain was never constructed for higher office than kitchen and family,’ and asking the Bar Council ‘In the interest of this women-ridden country … to send an official report of your decision to the American Bar, asking them, also, to follow suit in regard to our women lawyers.’  While there is no record of any such report having been sent it is clear that in 1913 the vast majority of the Bar Council were opposed to the admission of women to the Bar.

One of the arguments against women lawyers raised frequently in the years before 1919 was that the legal profession was overcrowded and that the admission of women would make the situation worse.  Despite protestations to the contrary and often repeated claims that women as a sex lacked the skill and ability to make good lawyers, this was a tacit admission that women were likely to prove more than capable members of the profession.  As Knight recognised, resistance to his proposal came from those who feared ‘the results that are bound to follow.  The moneyed duffer is being found out … Character and competence must come into their own, and in that harvest no distinction of sex can or should be tolerated.’ [Holford Knight, ‘Women and the Law: The Case for Admission’, Daily Chronicle, 1 April 1914]. 

The question of the admission of women to the Bar was again raised by Knight at the Annual General Meeting of the Bar on 18 January 1917 when he proposed a motion ‘That the General Council of the Bar do consider and report upon the desirability of making provision for the admission of duly qualified women to the profession’ [IALS BCO/04/15].  As was reported in The Law Times of 27 January 1917, this remained ‘a matter of a highly controversial character.’  Knight encouraged the assembled barristers, ‘to reconsider the question in the light of the fresh experience gained during the war of the extraordinary diversity of capacity which had been shown by women’ [The Daily Telegraph, 19 January 1917].  While conceding that it would be ‘a very bold man who would deny that the experience of the war’ had ‘modified many of the prepossessions and prejudices,’ the Attorney-General highlighted the impropriety of considering the question while 1,300 barristers and pupils, ‘the very flower of the Profession,’ were away on active service and in the event only 21 of the approximately 330 members of the Bar present voted in favour of the motion [The Law Times, 27 January 1917] leading the Law Journal to describe those in favour of opening the legal profession to women as a ‘little company of the persistent enthusiasts,’ [The Law Journal, 27 January 1917]. 

Those who supported the opening of the legal profession to women continued to push for change and ultimately, women succeeded in forcing the issue up the political agenda.  By 1919 there were three Bills on the question of women being admitted to the legal profession being debated in Parliament.  When the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act received Royal Assent on 23 December 1919 it was not a watershed moment and attitudes did not change markedly after 1919. 

Helena Normanton, the first woman barrister admitted to the bar
Helena Florence Normanton (1882-1957) (The Women’s Library Collection at LSE Library)

On Christmas Eve 1919, the day after the Act was passed, Helena Normanton was the first woman in England and Wales to be admitted as a student member of any of the four Inns of Court.  Normanton, who as the ‘first’ woman barrister attracted considerable press attention, had a turbulent relationship with the Bar Council.  Numerous accusations of self-advertising, which was prohibited, were made against her, and it was not until 1946 that she was elected to the Bar Council.  Hannah Cross, who was the first woman member of the Bar Council, was not elected until 1938, nearly 20 years after the Act was passed, and it was not until 1998, 60 years after Cross’s election, that Heather Hallett was elected the first woman Chair of the Bar Council.  There have since been two further women chairs, Maura McGowan (2013) and Chantal-Aimée Doerries (2016).  As we look forward to greater equality for women in the next 100 years of women in law it is perhaps appropriate that the chair in 2020 will be the fourth woman to hold that post, Amanda Pinto.


Katie Broomfield

Katie Broomfield is reading for a PhD in History at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a co-author of First: 100 Years of Women in Law.