The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 by Dr Mari Takayanagi

In our latest blog we hear from Dr Mari Takayanagi, one of our keynote speakers from our 2019 conference. In this fascinating blog, Dr. Takayanagi examines one of the most important pieces of early twentieth century social legislation: The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act.

On 23 December 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed. This Act of Parliament allowed women to enter many professions for the first time, including the legal profession. This year marks its the centenary, and I was honoured to give the opening keynote lecture on the Act at the Women’s History Network annual conference in September 2019 at the LSE Library, the home of the Women’s Library. Moreover, the whole conference marked the Act as it was on the theme of women and the professions, with many great papers on women in law, accountancy, engineering, surveying, nursing and more – one of many centenary celebrations this year, of which more below.

What was the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919?

The Act begins:

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 post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation.

The effect of this was to enable women to enter some professions such as law and accountancy, for the first time, and to be jurors and magistrates. It went some way to allowing women to enter the higher ranks of the civil service. It allowed women to be admitted to incorporated professional societies, and confirmed that universities had the power to admit women to degrees.

There were plenty of things the Act did not do. Despite its initial words, it didn’t actually remove the marriage bar, the practice of requiring women to resign from employment on marriage in occupations such as the civil service and teaching. There were provisos which meant the Act didn’t allow women into all parts of the civil service; regulations were made, in particular barring women from the foreign and diplomatic service. Judges had the discretionary right to remove women from juries. The Act said nothing on equal pay, a long target of suffrage campaigners. It didn’t encompass politics – it did not equalise the franchise. More generally, the Act was an enabling one: it allowed the appointment and holding of posts. It did not affect the employer’s ability to dismiss women, or compel them to give a woman a job. Nor did the Act contain enforcement mechanisms, and when women such as Lady Rhondda did attempt to use the law, they met with very limited success.

Despite its shortcomings, the 1919 Act had a real effect for many women. Ada Summers became the first woman Justice of the Peace within a week of the Act, and women magistrates were appointed across the country. Helena Normanton became the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court within hours of the Act and the first woman to practice as a barrister in England and Wales in 1922. In accountancy, Mary Harris Smith became the first woman Chartered Accountant, having previously been refused admission in 1891. In veterinary medicine, Aleen Cust was finally recognised by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1922, having completed her training in 1897. The enabling power of the Act was also felt in other institutions for many years to come, when women did come calling. Although feminist groups campaigned for more radical reform, as the annual report of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship stated, ‘half a loaf was better than no bread’. And writing in 1938, Virginia Woolf referred to 1919 as ‘the sacred year’ because of the Act which unbarred the professions.

Centenary celebrations

Although the Act was largely forgotten for many years, lawyers and legal historians in particular have remembered it in the run up to 2019, and have been celebrating the Act in its centenary year.  These are some of the projects I have been particularly involved in.

First Women Lawyers Symposia

I started the year giving a public lecture on the Act in January 2019 for Judith Bourne‘s First Women Lawyers project. This project has encouraged new research on early women lawyers in Great Britain and the Empire, many of whom were previously unknown. The research has been discussed and disseminated through annual symposia since 2015. A selection of articles will be published in a forthcoming special issue of Women’s History Review.

Women’s Legal Landmarks

I finished the year speaking on the Act in December 2019 for an ‘In Conversation’ event for Rosemary Auchmuty and Erika Rackley’s Women’s Legal Landmarks project. This was the culmination of a five-year collaborative project, resulting in essays on 93 landmarks. The book, Women’s Legal Landmarks, was published in early 2019 – a fantastic achievement.

First 100 Years Project

First 100 Years is the brainchild of Dana Denis-Smith, a lawyer.  I have been a Champion of this project since 2015, and its achievements include a book by Lucinda Chapman and Katie Broomfield; a podcast series; an annual conference; an online archive of video interviews; a touring exhibition; specially commissioned artworks and music, and much more! As it is rooted in the legal profession, its value lies particularly in its reach to women lawyers and the general public, who would not readily encounter academic outputs.

Guy Fox History Project

The Guy Fox History Project, which produces educational resources for children, celebrated the centenary with, ‘History Rocks! Women in the Law’. I was very pleased to help in a small way with this lovely book, illustrated by children following workshops and visits where they learned all about the 1919 Act.


A century on, is the celebration of the 1919 Act actually justified?  As my PhD thesis explores, the Act was a government replacement for a more radical private members’ bill, and as such it was a compromise. However, the Act really was a significant advance on the previous situation. A barrier was removed. Women were allowed to become accountants, vets, barristers, solicitors, magistrates, jurors. This is powerful and inspiring, as the centenary celebrations demonstrate. One hundred years on, it is right that we remember what happened in Parliament a century ago and celebrate it accordingly.

Image credit: Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1919/9&10G5c71

Dr Mari Takayanagi is Senior Archivist at the UK Parliamentary Archives, where she has worked since 2000 in various roles including public services, outreach, preservation and access. She has a first-class Honours degree in Modern History from the University of Oxford, an MA in Archives and Records Management from University College London, and a PhD in History from King’s College London (2012). Her doctoral thesis under the supervision of Professor Pat Thane was on ‘Parliament and Women c.1900-1945’, and her research examined legislation affecting women’s lives and gender equality after the First World War, the role of women in Parliamentary Select and Standing Committees in the interwar period, and women staff in Parliament in the early 20th century. She was co-curator and joint project manager for ‘Voice and Vote’, Parliament’s Vote 100 Exhibition Project, celebrating the centenary of the vote for some women and all men with a major public exhibition in Parliament during the summer of 2018.