IWD: A Reflection on 100 Years of Women and the Law

8 March 2019

It is impossible to let International Women’s Day pass this year (particularly for a female lawyer) without remarking on the fact that this year will mark 100 years since women were permitted to join the legal, and certain other, professions.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 (which came into force on 23 December of that year) set out to “amend the Law with respect to disqualifications on account of sex” .  Section 1 of the Act provided that “a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage” from the exercise of public functions, holding any civil or judicial office or post or from entering or carrying on any civil profession or vocation. 

Only 37 years previously (before the Married Women’s Property Act 1882), a married woman would have had no separate legal identity from her husband and, as such, could not own property or enter into legal contracts (much less draft one).  As William Blackstone summarised the common law position in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765 – 1769), “… the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything”

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 is hailed as a one of the first pieces of equal opportunities legislation.  However, many have a troubled relationship with it.  Women still did not have the same rights to vote as men (that would take almost another 10 years), could not sit in the House of Lords and could be excluded from juries by reason of the nature of the issues and evidence.  

However, the Act saw the first women become barristers and solicitors in 1922 and we now have women in all aspects of the legal profession, even as the president of the UK’s highest court.   On a more mundane level, on a current case that I am working on, I am really proud of the fact that the client’s whole legal team happens to be female.

In an attempt to provide something uplifting on International Women’s Day and inspire us all to “better the balance, better the world”, I thought it was worth noting some of the landmark legal developments for women in the pursuit of gender parity in the last 100 years:

  1. The Law of Property Act 1922
    Women became able to inherit property on the same terms as men.
     
  2. The Equal Franchise Act 1928
    Women achieved equal voting rights with men.  All men and women over the age of 21 were now eligible to vote.
     
  3. The Equal Pay Act 1970
    Employers were required to give equal treatment to men and women in the same employment.  One sex was not to receive more favourable terms and conditions than the other for like or equivalent work.
     
  4. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975
    It became unlawful to discriminate against women (or men) in employment, education, goods, facilities, services and premises.  A person discriminated against a woman if she was treated less favourably than a man or subject to an, essentially, unjustifiable requirement or condition.  This Act was held to prevent banks from requiring women to provide a male guarantor when applying for a credit card or loan (even where she earned more than her father or husband).  Additionally, a Fleet Street wine bar was unable to prevent women from being served at the bar with their male colleagues (see Gill v another v El Vino Co. Ltd [1983] Q.B. 425)
     
  5. The Employment Protection Act 1975
    Maternity leave was introduced and female employees could not be dismissed for being pregnant. 
     
  6. The Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Act 1986
    Women were permitted to retire at the same age as men and restrictions on women’s working hours were removed, allowing them to work factory night shifts.
     
  7. Finance Act 1988
    Independent taxation was introduced. A married couple were assessed for income and capital gains tax as separate persons.
     
  8. The Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations
    Employers with more than 250 staff are required to report salary figures for men and women.  The first reports were due in April 2018. ([Please see our podcast Mind the gap – Kingsley Napley reflect on the gender pay gap for International Women’s Day for more information on this issue)

Whilst we should celebrate this progress, it is striking that many of these developments did not happen that long ago and the same themes seem to come up again and again.  There is also the unfortunate reality that what the law states the position should be seems to be different to what women experience on the ground.

A common gripe about International Women’s Day is “why do we need to go over the same issues again?”. I sincerely hope that in another 100 years we can accept that achieving balance and gender parity is not only better for the professions and businesses, but for society as a whole and we won’t have to.


IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #BalanceforBetter.

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