The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919

Published 10th September 2015
The First 100 Years project is celebrating the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which enabled women to become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates.

It’s not well known, however, that the Act might never have been passed at all if it hadn’t been prompted by a more radical private members’ bill. The government of the day, David Lloyd George’s Conservative dominated coalition, included a commitment to equality in its manifesto for the December 1918 general election. However the opposition Labour party boldly proclaimed, ‘the Labour Party is the Women’s Party,’ in its manifesto, and promptly used their second place in the private members’ bill ballot to introduce their own bill, the Women’s Emancipation Bill, early in 1919.

The Women’s Emancipation Bill was much more radical than the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was to be. As well as allowing women into the professions, it would have given votes for women on the same terms as men (women had to be aged 30 and meet minimum property qualifications to be able to vote at this time) and enabled women to sit in the House of Lords. The Women’s Emancipation Bill passed successfully through the House of Commons, against whipped government opposition at third reading – a remarkable achievement for a private members’ bill.

However the government then decided to kill the Women’s Emancipation bill by introducing its own bill, which became the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Women were allowed into the professions, but ‘Proviso A’ enabled restrictions to be made on the admission of women to the civil service. Women were consequently barred from the foreign and diplomatic service until 1946. Women were allowed to sit on juries, but ‘Proviso B’ permitted judges to have single sex juries by reason of the nature of evidence or issues. This meant that women jurors were widely excluded from cases such as sexual assault or rape, the very cases where a woman’s point of view may have been most valuable; this continued until 1972.

Additionally, equal franchise was not included in the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, and women had to wait until 1928 to vote on the same terms as men. The House of Lords deleted the clause on allowing women to sit there, and consequently women were not allowed to sit in the Lords until 1958 as life peers, and 1963 as hereditary peers – facts which seem incredible to many people today.

These shortcomings, and others including the failure of the Act to end the marriage bar, meant that many historians have judged its significance harshly. However, I think analysis of the passage of the Act shows that it was passed by MPs in a positive spirit, and was actually a major achievement for the time. The First World War had barely ended, there was civil war in Ireland, returning soldiers and economic problems. Women had been given the vote at age 30 just one year before, and Nancy Astor became the first woman to sit in the Commons only late in 1919. It was amazing the Act was passed this year at all.

And the Act was a big step forward in many ways. It allowed women such as Helena Normanton to enter the legal profession, and women including Gertrude Tuckwell to become magistrates. It also enabled women to enter other professions, such as chartered accountancy, veterinary medicine, and the higher ranks of parts of the civil service for the first time. It permitted universities to award women degrees, and Oxford chose to do so the following year, although Cambridge did not follow suit until 1948. All these were concrete improvements which widened employment opportunities for many women, and should be celebrated today.

If you want to hear more about my thoughts on the Act, I was interviewed on this by Charlotte Coleman for her project Women and the Legal Profession and you can hear it here on Soundcloud.

Written by First 100 Years Champion Dr Mari Takayanagi.

Photo credit: Original Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1919/9&10G5c71

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