Women on the Jury

Published 6th May 2016

It is fairly well known that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 abolished the previous bar on women serving as lawyers, judges or magistrates. What is less well known is that the 1919 Act also removed other bars to women’s formal inclusion in public life. It opened up much of the civil service to women, for example, and also made them liable to serve as jurors. There had actually been a role for women on juries since the thirteenth century, when special juries of ‘matrons’ were first recorded. This special class of jury was asked to discover whether a woman found guilty of a capital crime was currently pregnant (and so should not be executed for the time being). Such juries were rare by the end of the nineteenth century, however, and had become obsolete by the 1930s.

What was different about the 1919 reform was that it enabled women to serve, for the first time, on the grand and trial juries which actually determined whether an accused person was guilty. Previously, women serving on ‘juries’ had been restricted to post-verdict fact-finding of a specialist, feminine nature. ‘Is this woman pregnant?’ Not ‘Is this person guilty?’

The appearance of women as trial jurors was one of several major reforms in women’s formal civic presence in the early twentieth century, and like the other reforms it was closely scrutinised in the press. Newspapers chronicled the first female jurors with much interest, telling us for example that several women were summoned to Colchester Quarter Sessions as early as April 1920, although no women seem to have actually served on a jury until the Bristol Quarter Sessions in July of that year; and that the Old Bailey’s first jurors served in January the following year.

Articles charting the novelty of female jurors quickly turned to critique, however. As early as September 1920, the Derby Evening Telegraph complained that men would be only too happy to cede the burden of jury service to women, if only female jurors could be trusted to endure the gruesome business. Discussing a recent Manchester trial for malicious wounding, in which a female juror had fainted, and been replaced by another woman before the trial was restarted, the paper complained that all men ‘want to avoid is having to perform the work twice over because a lady member chances to fall out in the middle of a case’.

This was a fairly common complaint: that women lacked either the constitution or the intellect required to serve as jurors, frequently succumbing to their emotions either by fainting or by voting for an improper verdict. When Alfred Hitchcock turned Noël Coward’s Easy Virtue into a silent film in 1928, almost a decade after the first female jurors had been empanelled, he began his picture with a critique of the female juror. In scenes with little direct connection to Coward’s 1926 play, Hitchcock added a High Court divorce proceeding to the story, and addressed a notable limitation of silent film-making by showing us the notes taken by a female juror while she heard evidence, such as her emotional observation that ‘Pity is akin to love’. In the jury’s subsequent deliberations, a male juror argues ‘The attractive wife of a drunken husband – alone all day with another man who loved her – the evidence seems conclusive to me.’ The woman whose notes we have already seen adds ‘And remember, the co-respondent had left all his money to Mrs Filton – another man’s wife!’ The jury convicts, and something approaching Coward’s play then begins.

When Hitchcock’s film was released, the Bucks Herald called it ‘The story of a beautiful woman, who suffered because she was beautiful, having the misfortune to appear in the Divorce Court before women jurors less attractive than herself’, while the Bury Free Press noted ‘the women jurors were careful to see that the innocent woman did not escape!’, and the Northern Whig said the film ‘shatters the claim that women are sufficiently fair to be trusted in Divorce Court proceedings’.

When newspapers asked women to describe their recent experiences as jurors, they usually reported having found the experience more interesting, and less complex, than they had expected. Female jurors were rarely asked their thoughts about specific trials they had served on, however, unless their trials were particularly brutal or shocking. Their responses to these more specific questions may have helped maintain the public perception that women found jury service difficult, and should therefore be spared the burden.

Little is known about how many women actually served on juries in the years immediately following the 1919 Act, or whether they were concentrated in particular types of case (where they were routinely kept off trials for homicide or sexual offences, for example?). What is known is that until the 1970s jurors had to satisfy a property qualification, and that few women were therefore qualified. It is also known that Lord Reading insisted a power be inserted into the Act allowing judges to order single-sex juries ‘by reason of the nature of the evidence to be given or of the issues to be tried’, and that counsel retained their power to ‘peremptorily challenge’ jurors, removing them from a particular jury without having to give reasons for their challenge. So while we know a lot about the law regarding female jurors, as well as having good evidence of how the media viewed them, little is known about the earliest female jurors themselves.

Kevin Crosby is a lecturer in law at Newcastle University. He is currently working on a project, funded by the British Academy and Newcastle University, exploring the use of female jurors in 1920s England