New women of the law

New women of the law

Stephen Wade looks at the revolution in the lives of women working in the law from the 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act

Header Image: Pioneering policewoman Edith Smith (1876–1923)

Stephen Wade, social historian

Stephen Wade

social historian

Sylvia Pankhurst’s father told his children ‘If you do not work for others, you will not have been worth the upbringing’ and the great socialist Beatrice Webb made it clear in her autobiography that by the end of the 19th century ‘the idea of service had been transferred from God to man.’ In other words, long before 1919, when legislation made it possible for women to become lawyers or county sheriffs, a steady pressure for reform in this area had long been in progress as women were increasingly involved in social work.

There were plenty of liberal thinkers in this respect in Victorian Britain. Typical of this is perhaps William Godwin, the architect, who married the actress Ellen Terry. He wanted young women to become architects because, as Michael Holroyd notes, he saw that they had the ‘desirable accuracy and repose as well as that equipoise which was indispensable for the creation of beauty’. But beauty and equipoise were nothing if a smart woman with a degree could not enter a profession because the law stood in her way.

Of course, behind the law stood the set of attitudes which also made a barrier. Virginia Woolf, giving a lecture to women long after 1919, wrote, ‘Even when the path is nominally open – when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant – there are many phantoms and obstacles… looming in her way.’ Nonetheless, as Robert Musil writes in The Man without Qualities, ‘Wherever a person finds her highest potential and the richest field for her energies is where she belongs…’

The 1919 Act set out to open up exactly that: a situation in which women could see their ‘highest potential’ being something that could be accomplished. The statutory aim was put plainly: ‘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 office or post or… civil profession or vocation…’

The Great War had called for women to man the factories and hospitals, do the accounts or work as police officers, to fill the gaps left by conscription; now it was time, as most recognised, to remove the barriers blocking a continuation of this situation. Between c.1880 and 1918 there had been many signs of radical change. Women’s clubs had burgeoned, a few institutions had awarded degrees to women, and for some wealthy women such as Marie Belloc-Lowndes (sister of the writer Hilaire Belloc) there was socialite success. Her diary entries give glimpses of experiences which most women could only dream about, such as this, from 1915:

There were seven at the Thirty Club. I sat between Lady Stanley and Fanny Prothero. Everyone felt uneasy about the Russian position, but not much was said, owing to the presence of the Russian Ambassadress. There was a good deal of talk about the effect of the war… Marie de Rothschild told us that she heard the Germans had a hundred submarines.

There is a hint here about what opportunities in education and gregarious leisure would be possible for the ‘New Woman’ and of course social mobility and peer respect among the wealthy and the highly educated was something only for the elite before the Act.

women police had their own quarters
A sign from the 1940s showing that women police had their own quarters Courtesy of Ripon Police Museum

Edith Smith
Edith Smith was sworn in as a police officer in 1915; she had powers of arrest, the first woman to have these and that makes all the difference in defining her achievement. These first women constables were soon officially funded from public funds. Even then, as Joan Lock recalls, not everything ran smoothly: ‘The Home Office was not at all impressed by this history-making and declared the swearing-in illegal… But with the Provost-Marshall behind them, the Chief Constable and his Watch Committee took no notice.’ In fact, there had been a report published in February 1915 which pointed out just how much benefit there was in having the women police in Grantham. The Times said, ‘In Grantham, a town of about 20,000 inhabitants, with a camp of troops lying just outside, two policewomen have been stationed… The general commanding the 11th Division has expressed the opinion that had they been installed six months earlier a great deal of the trouble which had been occasioned by the coming of so large a body of troops would have been prevented.’

Edith Smith, formerly a midwife, summed up the achievement in these words: ‘The appointment has made such a difference – the prostitutes have found that it does not pay and the frivolous girls have bowed down.’ She worked – as all constables did – six days a week and had one weekend off every three months. In her time during the work with the Grantham camp, she cautioned 100 girls, and had ten prostitutes convicted. She retired in 1918 and died in 1923. The picture we have of Edith is of a quiet, assured professional – a woman who would take no cheek from anyone. At last she is honoured in Grantham: a blue plaque in her memory was placed in the town by the Grantham Civic Society, in October, 2014.

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What about other areas of the criminal justice system? For instance, at the end of 1919 Ada Summers became a justice of the peace. Ada was born in Oldham in 1861, the daughter of a mill owner. In Stalybridge she was a Liberal and she was to have a very long career serving her locality on the council. She became known as ‘The Lady Bountiful’ as a result of her passion for good works and charity. These generous initiatives included a school for the education of mothers, and this was to become a centre for child welfare; at Christmas, Ada gave presents for local children and paid for a tree to be set up. She even established a centre for the unemployed. Establishments of an even larger scale followed: a nurses’ home in 1926, funds given to the local infirmary, and a number of leisure and recreation activities for women and children.

Her work in the administration of crime and the local elements in the criminal justice system was just as impressive: she was involved in the probation and police court functions close to home. She died in 1944, and there was a service at Mottram church. Fittingly, today there is a blue plaque in her memory at Stalybridge Civic Hall.

After Ada Summers, there were several other magistrate appointments for women: three were appointed in the County of London, one of whom was the socialist writer Beatrice Webb; the others were Margaret Hannah and Gertrude Tickwell. There were three more in the regions: Margaret Lloyd George, Mary Ward and Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry. In the five years after 1919, there were 1,200 women appointed to commissions. Just after the end of the Second World War, the Magistrates’ Association advised that every local bench across the land should have its quota of women members.

As for women lawyers, the USA was well ahead of Britain in this. But there were exceptions. Cornelia Sorabji, of Parsee descent but whose father had adopted Christianity, had an education in India, and excelled in scholarship. Her career is better known than many, as she wrote a number of books, including India Calling, which gives a full account of her education and her life as a lawyer. Remarkable, and in sharp contrast to the other women’s lives in this biographical listing, she had her foot on a legal career immediately. She wrote: ‘In 1919 the Bar was open to women and the Allahabad High Court admitted me to the Rolls immediately upon application. ‘ But such were her high standards that she still wanted to take the Bar exams back in England.

Mary Ann Bullock, prison officer with her daughter
Mary Ann Bullock, prison officer with her daughter, 1912 Courtesy of Ruth Saunders

Eventually she was called at Lincoln’s Inn, and had lots of contacts from her student days when she attended Somerville College in Oxford, where she passed the graduate exams but was not allowed to graduate, and she describes her return with humour: ‘It was that which encouraged an old woman who had never been really “examinable” to enter the lists with the young things who in these days [1934] do examinations off their heads. ’

Then, in 1924, she returned to India to work at the Calcutta Bar. In India, she had early in her life experienced the condition of women in Hindu society, and a particular experience fired her to become a lawyer. After Cornelia there were many others, such as Helena Normanton and Margaret Lane.

Some limits
Not everything went so smoothly. The issue of women jurors took centre stage for some time. From 1921 women could sit on murder case juries, and there was perhaps humour in that the legal professionals ensured that ‘the ladies’ could cope with such serious subjects, and did they have enough tea? But more seriously, a study conducted by three academics in 2019 showed that there were immense difficulties in jury selection and composition, along with moral and practical problems.

However, in spite of the obstacles to progress, the Act was the first step. The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 and then the 2010 Sex Equality Act tried to handle the fine detail and the ramifications of discrimination in the workplace and throughout the professions. These are issues which continue to be worked out today.

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