The relationship between ‘Votes for Women’ and Early Women Lawyers in England and Wales: A glimpse into my PhD research by Laura Noakes
When my friend asked me what I was planning to study for my PhD, I told him I was investigating the relationship between the campaign for women’s suffrage and early women lawyers. He looked at me blankly. I said, “oh, you know—the suffragettes. Think Mary Poppins and the Pankhurst’s and throwing stones at windows.” He thought for a moment and then said, with a very serious expression on his face: “Suffragettes are a kind of Viking, right?”
It was probably at that admittedly hilarious moment that I realised why I thought my research was important. If you weren’t aware, the Suffragettes aren’t a type of Viking. They were women, members of a group dedicated to getting the parliamentary franchise for women. In fact, the Suffragettes were one of a myriad of groups that formed and campaigned for this goal—there were the organisations as diverse as the Actresses Franchise League, the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, and my personal favourite, the Gymnastic Teachers’ Suffrage Society. All used diverse methods to bring attention to their cause, from petitions and demonstrations, to accosting MPs and committing arson, to throwing handbills out of dirigible air balloon at 3,500 ft! 2018 marks the centenary since *some* (believe me, it’s a very important distinction) women gained the parliamentary vote.
But suffrage is only a part of my research. I’m also interested in the slightly more niche topic of early women lawyers. Women couldn’t become either barristers or solicitors until after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed and became law. However, they could study law at university from the 1880s, and some women tried to enter the legal profession prior to the 1919 act. Some also practiced ‘unofficially’— at the borders of the legal profession.
I’m looking at this fascinating connection within the context of four women: Eliza Orme, Christabel Pankhurst, Helena Normanton and Chrystal MacMillan. All played pivotal roles in women entering the legal profession, and were also involved in the suffrage campaign. Their legal education helped to inform and influence suffrage tactics, and in turn their participation in the often misogynistic and sometimes violent campaign for Votes for Women prepared them for the trials and tribulation of their later careers.
Interestingly, two of these four women never officially practised law. Eliza Orme was born in 1848, and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came too late for her to put her legal expertise into practice. However, she was the first woman in England to graduate with a Law degree in 1888. Eliza soon realised that the legal profession was well and truly shut to women, and so, instead of trying to be admitted in the traditional way, she skirted the rules and set up an office as a “devil” in Chancery Lane. A “devil” is sort of like a trainee barrister, and Eliza would have spent her time drafting documents for counsel. Eliza was involved in the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first national group dedicated to getting women the vote. She was also a passionate supporter of the Liberal party, even writing a biography of Sophia Fry, the founder of the Women’s Liberal Federation (WLF). However, cracks between her political ideology and her belief in women’s suffrage began to show when, in 1892, the WLF split over the issue of women’s suffrage. The problem was this: the political leaders of the Liberal party weren’t sold on the idea of women getting the vote. Some in the WLF thought that supporting women’s suffrage should become part of the official policy of the Liberals, whilst others felt that suffrage was too divisive an issue. Eliza fell into the latter group, putting party loyalty above suffrage ideals, and joined the Women’s National Liberal Association in protest. Thus, although Eliza was committed to the principle of women’s suffrage, her activism was somewhat limited, and her legal career was focused on working around the restrictions placed upon her because of her gender. She was involved in legal work till about 1904, and died—having seen the achievement of both suffrage and women lawyers—in 1937.
Christabel Pankhurst also never practised law. She is probably the most well known of the women that I’m looking at, as she was the leading strategist of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and a member of the famous Pankhurst family. However, she also graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Law from what is now the University of Manchester in 1906. She applied to study at Lincolns Inn, one of the four Inns of Court where barristers are called to the Bar, but was refused. She was also honorary secretary of the short lived ‘Committee to Secure the Admission of Women to the Legal Profession’. As such, although Christabel is better known for her suffrage campaign, she was committed to opening the legal profession to women. Christabel’s legal knowledge permeated her work for suffrage. On October the 13th 1908, Christabel was arrested because she handed out leaflets inviting people to “help the suffragettes rush the House of Commons”. She was charged with conduct likely to instigate a breach of the peace. As a law graduate, Christabel defended herself. She cross examined Cabinet ministers who had witnessed the rush, including Herbert Gladstone and Lloyd George, the latter a trained lawyer. Christabel managed to persuade Gladstone, who was clearly uncomfortable, to admit he that he hadn’t felt endangered by the rush, and also that some of his past speeches could have been interpreted as a similar incitement to violence. In her closing speech. Christabel argued that the case suggested that the independence of the judiciary was in doubt, invoking the famous legal document, the Magna Carta. Although she was found guilty, Christabel directly linked her legal knowledge to her campaign for the vote, and used her legal expertise to frustrate and challenge the Court, and Members of Parliament. For Christabel, who never formally qualified, her activism in the suffrage campaign was a priority. However, she used her legal knowledge to further this activism.
Unlike Christabel and Eliza, Chrystal Macmillan did practice as a Barrister after the 1919 Act. Chrystal was a suffragist, not a suffragette. The suffragists used peaceful, constitutional means of campaigning for the vote, in contrast to the WSPU’s more militant strategies. She was the first female Science graduate of the University of Edinburgh, and it was this pioneering activity that led to her first Law related excursion. Graduates from the University were entitled to vote for an MP who would represent that University Seat in Parliament. Chrystal, and four other female graduates, therefore argued that this entitled them to the vote. This was an attempt by Chrystal, and by the suffrage campaigners at large, to circumvent Parliament’s unwillingness for women’s suffrage by asking the Court to give women the vote. Suffrage societies raised money so that Chrystal could take her case all the way to the House of Lords, then the highest Court in the Country. She was the first woman to argue her case in front of the House, however they held that the word ‘persons’ did not include women in the relevant statue. Yes, you read that right—women were not considered persons. After the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, Chrystal did enter the legal profession. She joined Middle Temple as a student barrister, was called to the Bar in 1924, and joined the Western Circuit in 1926 — she even founded the Open Door Council, an organisation that aimed to remove the legal restrictions on women. As such, Chrystal Macmillan combined her activism with her career, using both to further her feminist aims.
Helena Normanton’s suffrage campaigning differed from both Chrystal and Christabel’s—she was a member of the Women’s Freedom League. The WFL was a militant suffrage group that was formed in 1907 in a spilt from the WSPU. The main difference between the two groups was that the WSPU was autocratic, and the WFL democratic. Helena applied to join Middle Temple before the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, but was refused, and immediately on the Act receiving Royal Assent, she reapplied. Helena wasn’t the first woman called to the bar—Academic Ivy Williams beat her—but she was the first woman to practise, she was the first woman to obtain a divorce for her a client, the first woman to prosecute a murder case, and was appointed King’s Counsel in 1949. She was a campaigner for women’s right beyond the vote and making the law accessible for women, even writing a book on the subject—Everyday Law for Women. Helena was a prominent suffrage campaigner, and achieved many ‘firsts’ in terms of women in the Law.
So, why does this all matter? Why these women? Well all four of them were actively involved in the campaign for women’s votes. However, this involvement was diverse—Christabel was the autocratic leader of the suffragettes, Chrystal a constitutional suffragist, Helena was involved in the militant, but democratic Women’s Freedom League, and Eliza was first and foremost committed to the Liberal party. Despite this, they all received a legal education, and all of them utilised this education in their career, and in their suffrage activities. Christabel invoked complex legal concepts in defence of herself and suffragette militancy. Chrystal used her legal reasoning to argue for parliamentary votes for women in the House of Lords. Helena’s feminism extended beyond the vote—she campaigned for women’s rights in reforming divorce law and in keeping her maiden name professionally and on her passport. Eliza worked hard at the periphery of the legal industry, establishing an office on Chancery Lane, and in her political alignment furthered the cause of women, and in particular women’s work.
The reason why I’m so interested in the relationship between the suffrage campaign and early women lawyers, is because I think there is a unique and interesting dynamic between the fight for women to gain parliamentary representation, and the fight to be a legal representative in a court of law. Both invoke concepts of citizenship and of legal rights, and the legislation that allowed the entry of women into the legal profession and the right to vote were passed relatively close to each other—and it is these aspects that inspire the crux of my research. The next time I’m asked what is a suffragette is (NOT a Viking, FYI), and how they fit into my PhD research, I’ll direct the questioner to this article, in the hope that they’ll read it and find these four remarkable women as fascinating as I do!