Born in 1882, Helena Normanton was the first woman to practice at the Bar (although not the first to be called to the Bar: that accolade went to Oxford academic Ivy Williams). She continually shocked and scandalised the legal profession – and wider political circles – with her tireless refusal to accept female exclusion. She was a staunch champion of women’s rights, campaigning throughout her career for equality in both marriage and the working world. However, despite being such a prolific figure in the profession at the time, many of the finer details of Helena’s career remain enigmatic. Without indulging hyperbole, it is fair to say that there is a bizarre disparity between Helena’s achievements and her celebrity in legal history.
Speculation has been cast over how Helena came to join the legal profession, but scholars often find themselves frustrated by the inhibited tenacity of their guesswork; there is very little to be gleaned from history about her pre-legal life. For instance, we know that Helena moved from her home in Brighton to study teacher training at Edge Hill University, but we do not know why she made this move which, geographically speaking, was relatively radical in the early 20th century. Legal historians have suggested that this could have been a product of Edge Hill’s renowned feminist culture, but it is impossible to be sure.
Helena’s intellectual excellence is universally acclaimed, with her talent winning her a scholarship to York Place Science School, and from here her academic career flourished. Having received a first in her modern history degree from the University of London, she began to lecture at both Glasgow and London Universities. At the same time, the women’s movement was gaining momentum, and Helena was seen as a key player in the campaign for equal pay for equal work; she wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Sex Differentiation in Salary’ in 1914, asking – rhetorically and emphatically – whether women should be paid according to their sex or their work. It is a testament to her radicalism that the debate she first addressed a century ago is today still as pertinent as ever.
Given her determination and ability it is inevitable that, when Helena put her mind to becoming a barrister, she would not take “no” for an answer. When she first applied to be admitted to Middle Temple in 1914, she received an unceremonious rejection on the grounds of being a woman, but, instead of admitting defeat in the face of bureaucracy, Helena took the case to the House of Lords. Before the case was heard, though, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill came into play and, once the Act was passed in 1919 Helena tried again. Within hours of her reapplication, she was admitted to the Middle Temple. She swiftly passed her exams and was called to the Bar.
Radically (a word which, it is clear, has become synonymised with the name Helena Normanton), she preserved her maiden name in order to maintain her professional identity and became the first married British woman to be given a passport in her maiden name. This pioneering move, coupled with her feminist writings and novel status as a woman in the profession, gained her substantial notoriety. Despite this, though, she struggled to make ends meet practising at the Bar (fulfilling her own prophecy of the professional inequality first broached in her 1914 pamphlet) and was forced to rent out rooms to lodgers and work as a freelance journalist to make her living.
As a barrister, she was formidable and fierce, becoming the first woman to prosecute in a murder case in 1948, and, alongside Rose Heilbron, the first woman to be appointed King’s Council at the English Bar in 1949. With these accolades and achievements, it is hard to believe that Helena’s place in history is not more celebrated, but, due to the lack of information available on her life, much about her remains enigmatic, and thus so does her fame. As one scholar puts it, Normanton should be to women lawyers what Neil Armstrong is to astronauts, and this is no exaggeration. But, despite her achievements, the name Helena Normanton is often unfamiliar even to the most diligent law students. Perhaps, one day, this disparity will be remedied.