100 Years of Women in Law

100 Years of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 

It was 100 years ago that an important piece of law, affecting women’s rights, was given Royal Assent on the 23 December 1919 by His Royal Highness King George V. 

In four short sections, the Law was amended so that a person could not be disqualified on account of their sex or marriage from any public function, from holding any civil or judicial position.  This piece of legislation most importantly allowed women the right to not be excluded from attending a university so that they may complete a degree. Women were also allowed to become solicitors as well as jurors.   

Before the Act, any woman who wished to take a law degree had to take a ‘Special Exam for Women’, meaning they had completed the degree to the same standard as their male counterparts, but were not awarded the same qualification.   

The first woman to do this was Janet Wood from Girton College, Cambridge, in 1878, who received a first-class honour but did not formally graduate.  

The first university to allow women to study law and achieve a degree was the University College London in 1878 and it was ten years later that Eliza Orme became the first woman to earn a law degree in England.   

In 1913 four women took legal action against The Law Society to allow them to take the preliminary examinations, so as they may become solicitors.   

The case, Bebb v The Law Society was unsuccessful for the women, with the judge citing that women were not allowed to become solicitors or be called to the bar, because no woman had ever been ‘allowed to be attorney-at-law’.  The judges in the case refused to allow a woman to be classed as a ‘person’ under Section 2 of the Solicitors Act 1843.  It was also stated that: 

“If there is to be any change from the ancient practice, it is a change which must be effected by Parliament, and the law must be altered.’ 

Following the introduction of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, there was a quick progression of women entering law and the legislature.  The same year saw the first woman take her seat in the House of Commons, Nancy Astor MP, and the first female magistrate, Ada Summers. 

The following year saw the first woman to hold public office in the UK, the first female jurors sworn in and the first female solicitor, Madge Easton Anderson. 

That was not the end of it though, each year following saw more and more progression of women to positions they had been denied previously, as well as further equality in law for women, with the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1923, which meant women could appeal for divorce on the basis of adultery. 

The seventies saw the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976 as well as the first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. 

Since then, most years have seen a progressive step for women both in the law industry and law itself.   

There is still much to be done to address still apparent inequalities throughout society, for example, gender pay gaps, but it is encouraging that each year there is a step towards gender equality.   

To explore the history of women in law, the charity Spark21 has worked in conjunction with The Law Society, the Bar Council and CILEx to create ‘The First 100 Years’, that chart the journey of women in law through history.   

The project was created by Dana Denis-Smith, the CEO of Obelisk Support.  Launching the project she said: 

 “People don’t know their history — who the first woman solicitor was, for instance. There is no archive like the First 100 Years to help us place ourselves in history.” 

Work has been under way to produce a digital museum of valuable archives of video stories, telling the story of women in law.  Aiming to produce a legacy of the positive role models for women in law, to ensure a strong and equal future for all women in the legal profession’, as well as to ‘celebrate the past to shape the future for women in law’.   

Philippa Sturt, Managing Partner, Joelson, comments on the significance and meaning of the Act:

“This Act was the first hugely significant step that allowed the creation of diversity that we see in the legal profession today. Without it, our society would certainly be a very different place. We would never have learnt the names of Gareth Peirce, Brenda Hale or Shami Chakrabarti.

“This Act not only allowed women to enter the legal profession, but also to serve on juries, something which we now take for granted. In the last 100 years, the legal sector has progressed hugely, but still has a long way to go both in terms of sex equality and race equality and yet many of these continuing changes would not have been possible without the foundational work of this Act. It is without a doubt an incredible landmark, which should serve as a reminder to celebrate the great work achieved every day by women in the legal sector.”

Want to have your say? Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more stories

Join nearly 3,000 other family practitioners - Check back daily for all the latest news, views, insights and best practice and sign up to our e-newsletter to receive our weekly round up every Thursday morning. 

You’ll receive the latest updates, analysis, and best practice straight to your inbox.