Lord Robert Cecil (born Edgar Algernon Robert Gasgoyne-Cecil), first Viscount of Chelwood, was born in Cavendish Square, London, on 14 September 1864, to the third Marquess of Salisbury, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, who would be the Conservative Prime Minister from 25 June 1895 to 11 July 1902. Cecil studied Law at University College, Oxford in 1882. After coming down from Oxford, he joined Inner Temple and was called to the bar in 1887. In 1900, Cecil was appointed as a Queen’s Counsel. Over the course of his legal career, Cecil produced various works, including The Principles of Commercial Law, which was first published in 1891.
In 1906, Cecil successfully stood as a Conservative candidate in the constituency of Marylebone East. In 1911, he stood as an Independent Conservative candidate and was elected to represent the constituency of Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Hitchin was near to Cecil’s ancestral home in Hatfield, Hertfordshire.
I am strongly in favour of abolishing all distinctions as between men and women in public affairs
Cecil worked tirelessly in Parliament to represent his constituents. Most notably, he argued in favour of the Women’s Emancipation Bill, despite being a Conservative Member of Parliament and thus defying the view of his own party. Cecil expressed the view that those who opposed the bill ‘should be profoundly ashamed of themselves’. He also supported lowering the voting age for women, arguing that ‘can anyone really defend the proposition that a woman of thirty shall vote, and one of twenty-eight or twenty-five shall not?’ His actions in supporting equality for women were bold for the time, as he was prepared to act as a voice for those who could neither vote nor seek election to the House of Commons.
The arguments put forward by Cecil were successful in persuading his fellow MPs to vote in support of the Women’s Emancipation Bill, with the House of Commons voting 100 to 85 in favour of a third reading. Unfortunately, the Women’s Emancipation Bill did not become law, as it was overshadowed by the government’s own but less radical proposal. However, if but for the boldness of Lord Robert Cecil and other male supporters in the House of Commons, women may well have had to wait even longer for reform.
Most memorably, during his legal career, Cecil represented Miss Bebb
in the Court of Appeal in Bebb v Law Society  1 Ch. 286. The case concerned an action against the Law Society for not allowing women to take exams in order to qualify as a solicitor. He argued that this should be allowed on the grounds of precedent, both because there had been women advocates in the UK in the Middle Ages, and because other jurisdictions already had women lawyers. Miss Bebb’s challenge failed, and it was not until five years later that women could enter the legal profession, after the passing of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919 – the Act which replaced Cecil’s own Women’s Emancipation Bill.
Cecil was consistent in standing up for the rights of women in Parliament and this is evident from his support of other bills that were in favour of gender equality. He strongly supported the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Bill:
the whole purpose of this Bill is to make women eligible for this House.
He voted in favour of the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill, supported by his colleague Mr Harry Brodie, who had argued that “sex should be no barrier to participation in Parliamentary franchise”.
Throughout his career, Lord Robert Cecil was consistent in fighting for equality and peace by becoming an architect of the League of Nations. The organisation was a forerunner to the United Nations, having been created under the Treaty of Versailles to achieve peace and security. Cecil received both the Nobel Peace Prize in 1937 and the Peace Award of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in 1924, in recognition of establishing the League of Nations.
Cecil died at the age of 94 on 24 November 1958 at Danehill, East Sussex.
Written for First 100 Years by Samuel Marc Evans, Second LLB Student, School of Law, University of Worcester