Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919: where are we now?

Coral Hill is Associate Professor at The University of Law and a non-practising solicitor. She reviews The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and where the profession is now.
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The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 allowed women to qualify as lawyers; it's the shortest statute in the last 100 years and with enormous impact.

The many events that marked this centenary have highlighted the achievements of some remarkable women, showed what challenges still exist and how the momentum for change must continue.

What was special about 1919?

It's important to recognise the degree of social change in the period immediately following the end of World War I, and the achievement in 1918 of the right to vote by most women over 30, and all men over 21, giving the right of representation to millions more people.

Although women had been campaigning for rights and to access the legal profession over the previous 50 years, this was the historic moment to seize. 

Why were female applicants turned away?

Both the Inns of Court and the Law Society were nervous of altering the status quo and so refused applications simply on the basis that there was no precedent.

An exceptional woman called Gwyneth Bebb (with a first in jurisprudence) had applied to sit the Law Society exams in 1912 but was refused permission.

Undeterred, she issued proceedings for a declaration that the word 'persons' in the Solicitors Act 1843 must include her.

The act had the time-honoured statement that the use of the masculine extended to and included the feminine.

However, the Court of Appeal held that this should not be interpreted such that women could be admitted and so, effectively, women were not included in the definition of 'person' within the act. 

How quickly did the 1919 Act have an impact?

The act was passed on 23 December and the very next day, on Christmas Eve 1919, Helena Normanton applied to Middle Temple, the first step to becoming a barrister.

Subsequently, Dr Ivy Williams was the first to be called to the bar.

Solicitors have a longer qualification route than barristers and the first solicitor admitted was Carrie Morrison in 1922.

There were four women admitted together (Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts, Mary Sykes and Mary Kidd). Initially, they were limited in their use of the Law Society and indeed there were no lavatories for women until much later, in the 1950s.

The 1919 Club and discrimination

This very small group of female solicitors formed the 1919 Club in honour of the date of the act and later changed its name to the Association of Women Solicitors.

The fact that women could qualify did not stop discrimination.

It was usual to have to leave work if you became pregnant or in some cases even if you had the temerity to get married. Firms openly made decisions about employment using discriminatory criteria.

The successor to the 1919 Club still exists today as AWS London and AWS Manchester. The Association of Women Barristers was created in the early 1990s.

The mission of these societies has always been to support and promote women in the law. Men, as well as women, are always welcome at meetings.

As Baroness Hale said recently – there are both male feminists and there are women who do not promote opportunities for others.

What is important is the belief in equality and the need for the world of law to adapt to the needs of modern men and women.

Equality – are we there yet?

The numbers of women studying and qualifying in law are very healthy.

Since the 1980s, women have been studying and becoming lawyers in similar numbers to men and now often overtake the numbers of men.

It was quite reasonably assumed that it was just a matter of time while those women worked their way into senior positions but this has not happened for a host of reasons. Some of these were explored in the 2019 Law Society survey, for example, unconscious bias and lack of flexible working arrangements.

As a result, a substantial number of women leave the profession after about six-to-10 years of qualification.

There is still an attitude that people must adapt to the law profession rather than the other way around. This is one of the greatest drivers to women setting up their own firms.

The next challenge

It's going to require greater cultural change in our society and attitude to work to effect a real change.

This is where the networks through women's groups or diversity initiatives in firms come in.

There are a large number of assumptions about what work women want to do and it affects all women, not just those who are or intend to be mothers. There's an assumption that they prefer to be based at home, not travel, not do long hours etc, and concentrate on areas such as family law. 

For some women, hours or travel are not an issue at all, whereas for others, men and women are demanding more flexible working arrangements to allow them to live a different life, whether this is accommodating children, looking after parents, or other passions or voluntary work.

The key issue is having an open mind and asking people what their genuine aims are. This is true of all diversity initiatives.

Do we still need women's networks?

Support networks for any group which suffers discrimination are vital.

It is not just whether an individual achieves their goal but whether that group overall is gaining the same opportunities and rewards. This needs to be monitored and measured.

There is a clear need for evidence-based research and reports, as carried out by the Women Lawyers' Core Group, led by Christina Blacklaws.

Groups can record sexism and ensure there is pressure on the firm or chambers to change; preparing responses to consultation, providing mentoring etc.

It is great that we have so many different groups as they meet many different interests. There is room for many different projects to answer different needs.

My view is: small is beautiful when you are working with networks, so lots of regional groups work well.

What next?

All groups want continued change and here are a few suggestions where we can all make a difference:

  • unconscious bias – introduce compulsory training in your workplace.  You can start with the Harvard Unconscious Bias test which is free or buy online packages
  • speaker panels – refuse to participate unless it is a balanced panel
  • review team work and prevent staff from burning out by banning use of emails on certain days/hours or ensure the work is covered by rota
  • get some management training – listening to staff and providing support for those who need time out makes all the difference and can create the most loyal workforce ever
  • leadership projects – highlight what is required to gain partnership; does your workplace provide mentoring; review and track what work is distributed and how

My key interest is in visibility of under-represented groups at the Law Society in Chancery Lane.

I would like to see rooms named after pioneers, a better reflection of the 21st century profession by its portraits and rehanging of existing work, as being done in Parliament. Visibility is vital.

Thanks to those who made it possible

Female lawyers have advanced a long way in 100 years.

We owe a great deal to the very first pioneers in the law and it is fantastic to have many female lawyers today to inspire younger women.


Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society

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