The First 100 Years campaign inspired me to research the history of women in the legal profession for my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), the equivalent of half an A level. I discovered the First 100 Years campaign after a summer placement at a London Law Firm and subsequently won a school history competition when I used this knowledge to submit an essay on Helena Normanton, who was the first woman to be admitted into the Middle Temple. Although Normanton is not well known, her advocacy of equal pay, equal rights and female independence remain key issues today.
The lack of awareness about the first women in law as well as the upcoming centenary of the Sexual Disqualification (removal) Act in December encouraged me to focus my EPQ on this topic. I spent a week studying primary resources in the archives of the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. In order to gain an insight into views of the time, I read the Law Society Journal and Solicitors Journal at The Law Society Library. At ‘The Road to 1919’ symposium, at the Houses of Parliament, I discussed my EPQ with current researchers, including Judith Bourne a lecturer and leading author on Normanton. Following my research, I wrote a 5,000-word dissertation with the following dissertation title: To what extent was the admission of female lawyers into the UK law profession in 1919, under the Sexual Disqualification (removal) Act, caused by the women’s suffrage movement?
My research explored the three main causes for the passing of the Sexual Disqualification (removal) Act in December 1919. These causes were the women’s suffrage movement, the social and political context and the campaign by aspiring female lawyers, particularly the role of Helena Normanton and Ivy Williams.
At the end of my research I came to the conclusion that the women’s suffrage movement was not the lone cause for the passing of the Sexual Disqualification (removal) Act in 1919. The suffrage movement was an important context for the Act as the suffrage movement demonstrated the need for equality. The passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918 set the tone for the changes to come, arguably, anticipating the passing of the Sexual Disqualification (removal) Act in 1919. Nevertheless, the persistent campaigning of aspiring female lawyers and certain male MPs helped to maintain the publicity for the cause within the press and Parliament. Although, the Emancipation Act was the final push towards the passing of the Sexual Disqualification (removal) Act, I concluded that the sustained movement of aspiring female lawyers was a more significant cause as it helped accelerate the movement. Without the aspiring female lawyer’s desire to challenge public opinion and push open the legal profession to women the British Government would not have been pressured to pass the Sexual Disqualification (removal) Act only a year after the Representation of the People Act.
Written by Emma Barker. Emma received an A* in her EPQ for her full dissertation and begins her degree in French and History at the University of Exeter in September 2019.