Suffrage and the First Women Lawyers

Published 22nd October 2015

Dr Mari Takayanagi writes for the First 100 Years project about some links between the women’s suffrage movement and the campaign by women to enter the legal profession.

As the film ‘Suffragette’ comes to a cinema near you, be aware that the First 100 Years of women lawyers that we will be celebrating in 2019 will be preceded with the first 100 years of the vote in 2018. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the Parliamentary franchise to all men and some women for the first time. Women had to be over the age of 30 and meet minimum property qualifications to vote: they had to wait until the Equal Franchise Act 1928 before they got the vote on the same terms as men.

Women who campaigned for the vote wanted it for a wide variety of reasons, in order to help change law and change society. Inequalities in the law that women wished to address included laws on divorce, marriage, property, guardianship of children, age of consent and marriage, widows and orphans pensions, regulation of midwifery and nursing, and much more.

One of the issues for suffrage campaigners was enabling women to enter professions, including the legal profession; the only profession with significant numbers of women before the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was medicine. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that suffrage campaigners included a number of women who had trained in law but were unable to practice, or wished to enter the legal profession.

Perhaps the most famous of these women is Christabel Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the militant Women’s Social & Political Union, who graduated with a first class law degree from the University of Manchester in 1906. Her father, Richard Pankhurst, was also a lawyer who helped draft some of the earliest women’s suffrage bills in the 1870s. Despite being unable to practice, Christabel famously represented herself, her mother Emmeline, and fellow suffragette Flora Drummond in a court case in 1909. The three women were charged with inciting a ‘Rush’ on Parliament in 1908, and Christabel caused a sensation by serving subpoenas on David Lloyd George and Herbert Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary. Despite her efforts, the women were found guilty and sent to prison.

Another suffrage campaigner was Chrystal Macmillan, an active member of the peaceful National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, who went on to become one of the earliest women lawyers after 1919. In November 1908, in the midst of the suffrage campaign and after women had been banned from Central Lobby in Parliament because there were so many suffragette protests there, Chrystal famously became the first woman to address the House of Lords. She was one of five female graduates of the University of Edinburgh, the others being Margaret Nairn, Elsie Inglis, Frances Simson and Frances Melville, who argued they should be able to vote in elections to the university seat on the basis that the word ‘persons’ included women. They brought their case all the way to the House of Lords, where Chrystal argued their case from the bar of the House. The case was lost but achieved much publicity.

Other women who campaigned both on suffrage and on female lawyers include Eliza Orme and Helena Normanton. As well as being a Champion for the First 100 Years Project, I am delighted to be joint project manager and co-curator for Vote 100, a project to mark 100 years of the vote for all men and some women in Parliament in 2018. There are clearly lots of synergies between the two anniversaries.

You can read my review of the ‘Suffragette’ film on the Vote 100 blog.