23 December 2019 will be the 100th anniversary of the coming into law of the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act – 23 December 1919 is when the Act got Royal Assent.
Section 1 of the Act (as originally drafted) says:
“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 from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or from admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise), and a person shall not be exempted by sex or marriage from the liability to serve as a juror …”.
It can easily be seen from the words quoted that until 1919 there were very widespread prohibitions indeed on jobs that women were allowed to do.
Those prohibitions stemmed from a large number of other Acts which forbade women carrying out certain roles and which were all repealed by the 1919 Act.
Concerning in particular solicitors – Section 2 of the Act says:
“A woman shall be entitled to be admitted and enrolled as a solicitor after serving under articles for three years only if either she has taken such a university degree as would have so entitled her had she been a man, or if she has been admitted to and passed the final examination and kept, under the conditions required of women by the university, the period of residence necessary for a man to obtain a degree at any university which did not at the time the examination was passed admit women to degrees”.
The restrictions on what women could do in those days it can be seen from the above extended also to the area of education. Translating the above words – the – to modern eyes – farcical situation was that a woman could go to a university and study there and pass the examinations needed to get a university degree but not be allowed to be given a degree simply because … of being a woman.
It seems that there was a sort of double whammy: in the first place as a woman you were not entitled to be a solicitor. And in the second place even if you somehow wanted to challenge that –which would have been a waste of your time in fact – on the basis that you had a university degree you couldn’t –because you weren’t allowed to have a university degree even if you had done all the work that would have got you a degree if you were a man.
On 31 December 1919 Ada Summers was the first woman to be sworn in as a justice of the peace now that this was allowed to happen because of the Act. It was not until December of 1922 however that the first female solicitor was appointed.
The Act is very short but also very wide-ranging. Before it came into force there were as well as the repealed Acts of Parliament mentioned above very many “common law” restrictions on what women could do. (Common law is law derived from decisions in court and tribunals over time. It relies very heavily on precedent – previously decided such cases).
This new Act simply swept away very large areas of the pre-existing common law and so made profound changes in society.
It had also been the case that even where – in limited areas – a woman was allowed to do a job normally done by a man that right immediately disappeared if the woman got married. After this law was passed marriage no longer prohibited woman from acting as magistrates or jurors or entering professions.
People who bang on about the red tape caused by equal rights legislation and “political correctness gone mad” and so on as well as often being rather boring may sometimes be forgetting how things used to be.
Or to put it another way how bad things used to be.
Anyway: here’s to the 100th anniversary of an Act most people have probably never heard of but which represented a massive step forward for the rights of women.
Blog by Adrian Dalton, Partner