Perspectives on the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919

Historian Martin Pugh has extensively surveyed the political process and impact between the Representation of the People Act 1918 (allowing women over the age of 30 the right to vote) and the Equality of Franchise Act of 1928.  He argued that the “Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 rapidly proved to be a broken reed in the face of the resurrection of obstacles such as the bar on married women and further protective legislation”.[1]  Meta Zimmeck in her research of women in the civil service, says the Act was a “dead letter”.[2]  Ray Strachey, British feminist political and writer born Rachel Constelloe, is equally pessimistic, arguing that the individual Act fell short of feminist demands, despite feminists of this time considering the total legislation passed as exceeding expectations.[3]

Some feminists remained optimistic that this legislation would eventually ‘bear fruit’ but they did not assume that legal advancement would signify the end of inequality.  Eleanor Rathbone (independent British MP and campaigner of women’s rights), for example, noted that “progress has been rapid when it depended on political action and slow when it depended on changes in heart and habits”.[4]  Millicent Fawcett writes that 1919 was “not a bad harvest for one session when we remember the 12 years’ work necessary to get the midwives Bill 1902, or the 32 years of hard labour before the Nurses Registration bill”.[5]  With this in mind, although the Act was disappointing for feminists, with the removal of the equal franchise and the marriage bar, presented in Labour’s earlier Woman’s Emancipation Bill, overall feminist groups were pragmatic about working with the Act.

Historian Mari Takayanagi who has researched the relationship between Parliament and women in the early twentieth century, is aware of this pragmatic optimism, arguing that at the time the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was a significant achievement, given that it was only a year after women were given limited franchise, only a few years since suffragettes had been barracking Parliament, and at a time when the country was facing political and social issues as a result of the Great War.[6]

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act did, at least in theory, achieve something.  Women’s employment opportunities were increased, they could earn their own living and experience some form, albeit limited, of equality before the law.  However, the removal of legislative discrimination does not equal substantive equality[7] and the concept of a ‘professional’ was and is, to some extent today, profoundly gendered, especially at the bar.  In her comparative study of the First Woman Lawyers, Mary Jane Mossman argues that although women succeeded in becoming lawyers in Britain in the early twentieth century they did not effectively challenge the gender premises of the law and the legal profession.[8]

Looking at the legal profession today, I cannot help but think the traditional, male-dominated attitudes still persist in the law.  Women do not face the same challenge of admission, to the contrary, women numerically dominate law schools and legal professions today but they still face sexism, challenges with regards to progression and tough choices in family life.  It seems that a lot may have happened and the problem of inequality solved but in practice not much has changed.  Women in the law still face the same challenges as their pioneering predecessors despite equal rights before the law because institutional attitudes have not changed.

Eleanor Rathbone was right.  The law, as was the case with the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, can be changed fairly quickly and simply but altering the attitudes of society requires not just time but a fundamental shift of character, belief, culture and thought.  Undoubtedly attitudes have changed to some extent towards women in the law but the fact that challenges still persist in this regard raises the question of how far we have really come.

[1] Martin Pugh, Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914-1959 (Hampshire: London, 1992), p.90.

[2] Meta Zimmeck, “Strategies and strategems for the employment of women in the British civil service, 1919-1939”, p.901-924 in Historical Journal, 27(4), 1984, p.909.

[3] Ray Strachey (ed.) Our Freedom and its Results by Five Women (London: Leonard & Virginia Woolf, 1936).

[4] Joanne Workman, “Wading Through the Mire: An Historiographical Study of the British Women’s Movement Between the Wars”, University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, 2, 2001.

[5] Millicent Fawcett, The woman’s victory – and after: personal reminiscences, 1911-1918 (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1920), pp.163-164.

[6] Mari Takayanagi, Parliament and Women, c.1900-1945 (electronic theses, King’s Research Portal: https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/ 2012).

[7] Julia Brophy and Carol Smart, ‘Chapter 1 Locating law: a discussion of the place of law in feminist politics’, Women-In-Law (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul plc, 1985).

[8] Mary Jane Mossman, The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, Law and the Legal Profession (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2006).

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