The ‘sacred year’ of 1919

Published 25th May 2016

‘A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation.’ (Beginning of the Sexual Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919)

In her 1938 essay ‘Three Guineas’, Virginia Woolf refers deferentially to 1919 as ‘the sacred year’, heralding the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act as a pivotal moment for the emancipation of women. Vera Brittain wrote with excitement in 1920 that she would get her degree from Oxford and graduate with a mortarboard and gown; the ‘visible signs of a profound revolution’. So why has this momentous piece of legislation also been called ‘a broken reed’ and a ‘dead letter’? The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was absolutely a compromise, introduced to temper the more radical Women’s Emancipation Act, which had clauses to establish equal franchise and the introduction of peeresses to the House of Lords. By comparison, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came with considerable restraints, most of all in the employment of women in senior positions in civil service. However, these limitations should not cloud that this piece of legislation brought previously unheard of opportunities for women to have exciting, dynamic, and fulfilling careers. As Virginia Woolf said, the doors to the public world were now flung open to women.

Millicent Fawcett wrote that 1919 was ‘not a bad harvest…when we remember the twelve years work necessary to get the Midwives Bill 1902’. There was great positivity about the future for women who could now serve on juries, work as magistrates, in universities, and in the legal profession. The fact that 1919 also saw the election of Nancy Astor, first female MP, and the equal treatment of women in the new League of Nations, indicates that it was a great leap for women in achieving equality. The successes of the bill are even more striking given the political, economic, and intellectual climate, which was unfavourable to total emancipation of women. There was significant support in parliament for allowing women to practice in the legal profession; indeed it was the least controversial part of the failed Women Emancipation’s Bill, and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Bertrand Watson said that he had never seen a good or valid reason why women should not practice as solicitors or as members of the Bar. Women were felt to have proved themselves during the First World War, and in particular it was thought that they would be specially qualified to benefit the new children’s courts.

Many concerns existed about the participation of women on juries. They could still be excluded if they were considered too sensitive, and it was considered unsuitable to have mixed-sex juries for cases dealing with commercial disputes, because women had insufficient commercial experience. Opposition to women serving on juries was even made on the basis that there was a lack of lavatory accommodation for them. However, increasing pressure meant that rules for how women jurors would be selected were eventually drafted. Helena Normanton, who later became the second female barrister in England, wrote in a note that there was a clamouring for the procedure to be implemented. The path to mixed-sex juries was, however, tediously slow; the courts still had a discretionary right to exclude women from juries until 1972.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act failed to achieve equal franchise and also did little to remedy the obstacles facing married women working in the professions. The 1919 law was very significant for the lives of women, but there was still a long way to go towards full emancipation. Many more parliamentary acts were necessary to create a more equal reality for women in Britain, but this was a crucial step.

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