This website supports Celebrating the Centenary of Women Lawyers: an exhibition celebrating 100 years since the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and the first women lawyers. I have subsequently included details of my research on the opening of the legal profession to women for my PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London.  

The exhibition was displayed at:

SD(R)A 1919
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act received Royal Assent, and became law, on 23 December 1919.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 removed all legal barriers to women, including married women, working as lawyers.  It meant that in England and Wales women wishing to become solicitors could apply to the Law Society and women wishing to become barristers could apply to one of the four Inns of Court (Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, Inner Temple or Gray’s Inn) without fear of rejection based solely on the ground of their sex.  This exhibition, in collaboration with First 100 Years and Royal Holloway, University of London, celebrates the achievements of the first women lawyers and commemorates the anniversary of this landmark legislation.

First 100 Years is a ground-breaking history project, supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, charting the history of women in law since 1919.  To find out more about the project please click here.

Are men lawyers afraid of woman's brains?
The Daily Sketch, 11 December 1913, Cutting from Scrapbooks of Lucy Frances Nettlefold, Women’s Library collection at LSE Library, London

The exhibition tells the story of women like Bertha Cave who, when her application to Gray’s Inn was refused, sought (unsuccessfully) to appeal that decision; and Gwyneth Bebb, whose application to be admitted to the Law Society ended up in the Court of Appeal. ‘In point of intelligence and education and competency’, the Court of Appeal acknowledged that Miss Bebb was ‘probably, far better than’ many male candidates but, because she was a woman, in 1913 she could not be admitted to the Law Society ( Bebb v The Law Society [1914] 1 Ch 286).

Mary Elaine Sykes IPH (HIGH RES)
Mary Elaine Sykes, one of the first women to qualify as a solicitor in England [Image © Huddersfield Library Local Studies]

The exhibition explains how it was that after a long struggle women were finally admitted to the legal profession and profiles some of the earliest female lawyers including Mary Sykes, a Royal Holloway College alumna and one of the first women solicitors, and Helena Normanton, the first woman to be admitted to any of the four Inns of Court and one of the first women to be appointed King’s (now Queen’s) counsel.  

Although the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act allowed women to become lawyers the struggle for equality did not end there and the exhibition highlights many of the inequalities and prejudices faced by the earliest female lawyers in England and Wales.

Today, one third of all practising barristers and approximately half of all practising solicitors are women.  More than half of judges under 40 are female and over the course of the last five years more women than men have been admitted to the profession.  This is remarkable considering that 100 years ago women were barred from the profession altogether.  Of course, inequalities remain but, by taking the opportunity afforded by the forthcoming anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 to consider what has been achieved in the last 100 years, we can hope to look forward to greater equality in the next 100 years.

Katie Broomfield

Royal Holloway, University of London

June 2017

The exhibition was very kindly sponsored by 3 Dr Johnson’s Buildings and 5 Paper Buildings.