How have historians’ perspectives of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 shaped our understanding of ‘success and failure’ of women’s entry into the legal profession?

This research is still very much in its early stages and I feel it raises more questions than it answers.  In many respects, it is quite a task to provide a comprehensive overview of all historians’ perspectives of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and how they have shaped ‘our’ (a very broad term) understanding of ‘success and failure’.  Due to limited time constraints, I have focused on two historians: Martin Pugh because he has extensively surveyed the rhetoric and activity of the Women’s Movement in Britain since 1914, including the impact of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and raises some important issues such as writing about the ‘other’ and the lure of historical ‘narratives’ and Dr Mari Takayanagi who has researched the relationship between Parliament and women in the early twentieth century; Mari raises key issues in terms of objectivity, audience and identity when researching and writing about the past.  I would reiterate, however, that this analysis is not a comprehensive overview but it does shed some light on our understanding of the role historical narratives can play in shaping individual and collective memories, thus adding to the historiographical record of the First British Women Lawyers.

At the outset, it is noted that the focus of this research is the ‘historiographical’ record or ‘history’ as opposed to the past itself.[1]  While the past is made up of events, it is the historian who interprets and communicates these events, making them comprehensible to a wide audience. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act itself was simply a piece of legislation that was passed by Parliament in 1919, for example, but the impact, significance and meaning of this Act on individuals and collective groups such as women is what historians debate and communicate.  Coming from a ‘public history’ background, the notion of ‘historian’ has widened significantly particularly with developments in technology, commemoration of national events and community projects.[2]  It is not just ‘historians’, those who have had historical training, who write about the past, academics from different disciplines may look at how the past has affected the present, journalists compare and contrast then and now and the public themselves can read, research and write history.  This widening of ‘historians’, to use the term lightly, has its benefits, allowing wider access, communication and exploration of the past but also its limitations: some might question the methodology, rigour and objectivity behind the historical narrative.

Objectivity and subjectivity are familiar terms in the discipline of history.  The common notion is that historians must be objective, manage their subjectivity, and present a balanced argument; although the postmodern idea of taking ‘standpoint’ or ‘standpoint theory’, particularly in feminism, is widely accepted.[3]  Of course, there are issues with both – to claim objectivity is to ignore the social, political and cultural influences and to claim a standpoint can result is a lack of objectivity.  As I found with my research: Women in the Law: Inspired and Inspirations[4], I aimed for both (objectivity and standpoint) but could have been more rigorous or objective in my analysis, communication and presentation.  The idea of as it was and how I wanted it to be, quickly became confused.  In essence, I was telling a ‘story of particular kind’[5], namely that the First Women Lawyers were ‘inspirations’ and therefore ‘successes’ when in fact the picture was more nuanced than that.  The idea that history is or can end up being a ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ is something that fascinates me.  It is also something that has caused much debate among historians.

Postmodern scholars, historians and philosophers such as Hayden White, Paul Ricoeur and Keith Jenkins argue that this notion of ‘telling a story of a particular’ kind or ‘narrative’ is innate to history.[6]  We cannot escape the structures of narrative and language as we understand time, the past and history through this medium.[7]  Hayden White argues that narrative discourse follows language conventions including fictional genres, comedy, tragedy and romance, and tropes, metaphor and irony; he claims that historians create ‘stories’ and situate these within these genres, creating a ‘story of particular kind’.[8]  Paul Ricoeur, according to Arthur Marwick, has gone further, claiming that ‘history is essentially the same as novel-writing’.[9] Arthur Marwick, Professor of History at the Open University, strongly rejects any notion that history is literature or close to storytelling, he contends that,

‘Historians must develop a structure before they begin serious writing…  The structure is devised, and revised, by the historian in order to produce an account, incorporating narrative, analysis and description, different topics and themes [and] different aspects of the past…, which best conveys to the reader what actually was happening… This is not the way novelists work.’[10]

While I agree in part with Marwick’s analysis, namely that historians do not think the same as novelists, I understand Ricoeur’s argument differently.  For me the overarching structures of narrative (muthos, plot and mimesis, imitation, of human action) subtly influence the historical discourse and it is risky to start with an overarching structure, as I did, because the facts can end up being fitted into that structure – standpoint becomes as it was.   Although Marwick clearly notes that the structure of the historical narrative is revised in order to present an account of the past ‘as it was’, to use the Rankean phrase, the issue is that the evidence may point to how the historian thinks it was, as opposed to how it actually was and therefore the overall structure has led the research.  Postmodern historian Keith Jenkins argues that historians cannot know ‘how it was’ in the past even if they surveyed all the evidence and read all the literature because there are various issues with historical evidence; there are also silenced voices and different perspectives of events, not to mention the differing interpretations of historian.[11]  Ankersmit recognises this notion, arguing that the past is accessed through the historian’s belvedere:

‘We get access to the whole landscape, the ‘view’ after having climbed all the steps leading to the top.  The statements of a narration may be seen as instrumental in our attaining a ‘point of view’ but what we ultimately see comprises much more of a reality than what the statements themselves express.  However, we do not see the past from the historian’s belvedere – it is through a masquerade of narrative structures which we ‘see’.[12]

Here Ankersmit suggests that even if the historian aims for objectivity (and perhaps even standpoint) the overarching narratives structures overtake and end up comprising reality, which could present a serious problem, particularly when the public may believe they are accessing a non-fiction genre or a ‘true’ account of the past.

This notion can be is illustrated by Martin Pugh’s book The Pankhursts[13], which according to June Purvis, professor of women’s and gender history, tells a ‘story’ of ‘lesbian love trysts of suffragette leaders’.  In an article published on 25 January 2002 in the Times High Education supplement, Purvis argues that Pugh ‘fails to acknowledge’ that is was ‘common for campaigning suffragettes to share beds when they were put up in other people’s houses’; ‘sleeping with’ did not have the same connotation then as now.[14]  In terms of the story written, she claims that Emmeline Pankhurst is the heroine but also the ‘baddy’ alongside Christabel, and Sylvia and Adela are the ‘goodies’.[15]  Purvis counted 34 errors, including misquotes, howlers, no standard biography; accuses Pugh of a heterosexist viewpoint, bias towards the ‘official voices of men such as the police and politicians’; and a reliance limed narratives including David Mitchell’s The Fighting Pankhursts, which has also been criticised for making too much of lesbianism.

While this is only one viewpoint and others may feel these criticisms unjustified, this example highlights that well-known historians can make more of the facts than what there actually is.  If the historian does not acknowledge their ‘standpoint’ this could be a cause for concern and is most definitely an issue to consider when commemorating and writing the history of the First Women Lawyers of Britain and the Empire.  One of the key issues here is the fact that Martin Pugh’s work is firmly in the public domain, including recently appearing on Amanda Vickery’s BBC documentary Suffragettes Forever!, which could problematize what story the public are being told and indeed who is writing history.

More recently there has been research into writing about the ‘other’.  In the field of oral history, for example, Kim argues that the notion of giving the ‘other’ a voice, in this case women, is itself oppressive and speaking for others is also speaking for ourselves.[16]  Oral history has acknowledged and sought to address the challenge of interpretation through the notion of shared authority[17] but history is still written by the historian.  Postmodern feminist critic, Hélèn Cixous, questions how women can find a voice in a discourse which has not only failed to speak of women but also repressed the possibility of speaking as a women.[18]  While the answers to this question are beyond the remits of this paper, it is an important issue to consider when constructing the historical record of the First Women Lawyers in terms of who will be writing history.

Turning to the main questions: how has our understanding of ‘success and failure’ has been influenced by the perspective of historian, Martin Pugh, he argues 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”.[19]  He draws on various sources, including the reaction of women’s groups at the time, but, overall, gives little coverage to the Act itself, its significance and impact on individuals and women more broadly; he does, however, note that widened employment opportunities for women was a key factor of the Women’s Movement.  One of the First Women Lawyers, Helena Normanton, is mentioned through her attempt to be admitted to Middle Temple prior to the Act, as well as her links to the Women’s Foundation League; yet I would not say she her achievements are presented in a particularly positive light.  Helena is therefore expressly present in the story of women’s employment but she is not present in the sense that we know who she is and her role or achievements.  Perhaps this is because her achievements were not ‘positive’ per se or perhaps she did not have much influence over the Women’s Movement more broadly or perhaps Martin Pugh did not think she was particularly significant in the narrative of the Woman’s Movement?

By contrast, Christabel Pankhurst is frequently mentioned.  Christabel applied for admission as a student at Lincoln’s Inn in 1903 and was ‘summarily’ dismissed on the grounds that there would be no point in admitting her as women were not allowed to practice.[20]  In many respects it is not surprising that Christabel receives more attention than Normanton, she was a key ‘character’ in the Women’s Movement, Pugh has written a biography about her and her family and she is more familiar to the public.  However, what is significant is that Pugh draws attention to the fact that Christabel, ‘has almost certainly thrown away the chance to become Britain’s first women MP by sheer political misjudgement’.[21]  He chooses not mention that Christabel could have become one of the First Women Lawyers or that she, along with Bertha Cave, ‘easily persuaded the assembled lawyers to carry a motion in favour of women being admitted to their profession’ only to be rebuffed by other members of the legal profession who remained strongly opposed to the admission of women.[22]

The fact that Pugh chooses to look at Christabel’s political career instead of her potential legal one, although she chose not to pursue the law, somewhat demotes the legal profession compared to the higher roles in the Civil Service.  Likewise, Helena Normaton’s links with the Women’s Foundation League, which was ‘handicapped by its inability to carve out a distinctive role’[23] almost presents her as somewhat of a ‘failure’ when compared to the ‘successful’ suffragettes.  While this digresses somewhat from how our understanding of ‘success and failure’ of women’s entry into the legal profession has been influenced by Martin Pugh, from his narrative we see a picture emerge of key characters and key events in the Women’s Movement – the First Women Lawyers and Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act were not part of that greater narrative.

By contrast, Dr Mari Takayanagi argues in her PhD thesis, Parliament and Women, that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was introduced only a year after the voting franchise had been extended to a limited number of women and just a few years since suffragettes had been barracking Parliament and at a time when the country was undergoing extraordinary political, social, economic change as a result of the Great War; this legislation was, therefore, a significant achievement for its time.[24]  She almost gives the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act some form of life, sets out in precise detail its origins, contention, reception, impact and significance from its beginning as the Women’s Emancipation Bill to the reactions of women’s organisations.[25]  The reader is given an informed, balanced and objective account of this legislation and, taken as a whole, the significance is clear given the opposition and societal issues of the time.  By contrast to Pugh’s account, I would argue that this thesis could substantially shape our (those who have read Mari’s thesis) understanding of the Act itself but whether it is as well-known in the public domain as Pugh’s I cannot say.  Either way, readers are certainly presented with a more optimistic version of this legislation, its significance, impact and implications compared to that of Pugh’s.  While this reflects different authors perspectives, it also illustrates that historians write for different audiences: Pugh for the public and Mari for an academic audience.  Public history writing does not necessarily limit scholarly rigour but it does carry implications for writing in terms of access and engagement.[26]

While I do not claim and indeed Mari confirms that she did not intend to tell an optimistic ‘story’ of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, she did note that her identities: woman, (moderate) feminist and Parliamentary Archivist to the House of Lords, had some impact on her research and writing.  For example, dominant narratives tended to focus more on the role of the House of Commons, as opposed to the House of Lords so Mari was conscious to accurately include the role of the House of Lords in the women’s history.  While I can only speculate as to whether identities are liberating: providing an insider view and widened access, or limiting: censoring what can said, the idea that historians approach their research with multiple identities, and this is not simply subjectivity or standpoint, is an important factor when constructing the historical record of the First Women Lawyers.  Likewise, the implication of the audience is also important.  French philosopher Jacques Derrida points out readers will bring their own experiences, identity and self-agreement to a text, which will affect meaning.[27]

As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, this research is not conclusive so I cannot come to a conclusion as to how historians’ perspectives of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 have shaped our understanding of ‘success and failure’ of women’s entry into the legal profession.  It cannot be claimed, for example, that Pugh has vastly shaped our understanding of the ‘success and failure’ of women’s entry into the legal profession through his narrative of the Women’s Movement but he does present a rather limited, perhaps indifferent and pessimistic view of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act and disregards the significance of this legislation at the time as well as the impact individuals who benefited from it.  Mari by contrast is more informative about the origins, impact and significance of the Act, and is therefore more optimistic about this legislation and indeed the inter-war legislation more generally.  After reading Mari’s thesis readers could come to the conclusion that women who entered the profession were fairly ‘successful’ given the barriers and conditions that existed at the time.  At the same time, the nature of interpretation is extremely subjective: what one reader takes from a text, another may not.

Moving away from the question as to how readers are influenced by historians’ narratives, I hope that I have highlighted a number of factors to consider when remembering and commemorating the 1919 Act and writing the historical record of the First Women Lawyers in Britain and the Empire.  For me an accurate record cannot be constructed without considering postmodern arguments or the implications of discourse and language structures on the historiographic record, as well as the identities of the ‘historian’ and the implications of the public.  The public may not have the luxury to read widely so it is important that the historical narrative of the First Women Lawyers is accurate, balanced, nuanced but also engaging and enlightening.  How the will First Women Lawyers and women in the law be remember, as successes, failures or something else?

[1] John Arnold, History A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.5.

[2] Jerome de Groot Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture (Oxon: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Sandra Harding, The Feminism Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies (Routledge, London, 2004).

[4] Charlotte Coleman, Women in the Law: Inspired and Inspirations, available:,accssed: 30/6/15.

[5] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History”, New Literary History, 1973, Vol. 4, No. 2: 281-314.

[6] Hans Kellner, “Narrativity in History: Post-Structuralism and Since”, History and Theory, The Representation of Historical Events, 1987, Vol.26, No.4. Belheft 26: 1-29; Alun Munslow, Narrative and History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[7] Kellner, 1987.

[8] White, 1973.

[9] Paul Ricoeur, The Contribution of French Historiography to the Theory of History (Oxford, 1980) in Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

[10] Marwick, 2001, p. 263.

[11] Keith Jenkins, On “What is History?”: From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White. (London: Routledge, 1995).

[12] F. R. Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: A Semantic Analysis of the Historian’s Language (The Hague, 1983); Paul Ricoeur, The Reality of the Historical Past (Milwaukee, 1984); Jenkins, 1995.

[13] Martin Pugh, The Pankhurst (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000).

[14] White, 1973.

[15] June Purvis, ‘Pugh’s book is full of errors’ in Times Higher Education, 27 January 2002.

[16] Soon Nam Kim, “Whose voice is it anyway? Rethinking the oral history method in accounting research on race, ethnicity and gender,” Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 19 (8) (2008): 1346-1369.

[17] Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York, 1990).

[18] Hélène Cixous, “Sorties”, New French Feminism, ed. E. Marks and I. de Courtivron (Amberst, 1980).

[19] Martin Pugh, Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain since 1914, 3rd ed (Palgrave: London, 2015), p.72.

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

[21] Pugh, 2015, p.34.

[22] Mossman, 2006, p. 117; B Castle, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst (London, Penguin Books, 1978), p.43-4.

[23] Pugh, 2015, p.36.

[24] Mari Takayanagi, Parliament and Women, c.1900-1945 (electronic theses, King’s Research Portal: 2012).

[25] Takayanagi, 2012, see Chapter 2.

[26] De Groot, 2009.

[27] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, translated by A. Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).


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