Helena Normanton made legal history by becoming the first woman to join an Inn of Court, Middle Temple, on 24 December 1919, the day after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed. I ‘discovered’ Normanton in 2002 when helping the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University with an exhibition. Shamefully, I had never heard of her before then, despite having been called to the bar in 1993.
Antonia Byatt, then director of the Women’s Library, led me into a windowless room where the 18 uncatalogued boxes containing the life of Normanton had been laid out. Normanton’s niece, Elise Cannon, had apologetically donated the material, stipulating that if it was of no use to throw it away. Thankfully the Women’s Library understood the value of Normanton’s life and the material is now available to the public. Byatt urged me not to leave Normanton in those boxes and encouraged me write her life, and so that is how my unashamed ‘love affair’ with Normanton began.
Normanton is seen by many to be the ‘first’ and the ‘pioneer’ of women’s entry into the legal profession, but of course as you have seen in previous articles, women such as Bertha Cave and Gwyneth Bebb had been campaigning to join the legal profession since the 1870s, using a variety of strategies to gain admission: petitioning, lobbying and confronting the legal profession ‘head on’ by applying for membership. Normanton’s precedent was reliant on those women who paved the way for her success.
Normanton’s success was remarkable on many levels: she had no legal female role model to follow and was from a working-class, non-legal family. Born in east London in 1882 to parents far from the Victorian ideal, she trained as a teacher (one of the few professions open to women who wanted to be financially independent). She had good reason to strive for financial independence. Her parents had separated shortly after the birth of her younger sister, Ethel (Cannon’s mother), and although Normanton maintained they were hoping to reconcile, her father died in an apparent suicide. Normanton’s mother took on various employment working as a milliner, publican and finally boarding house-keeper to support her daughters.
Normanton’s success was remarkable on many levels: she had no legal female role model to follow and was from a working-class, non-legal family
Normanton’s ambition stemmed from a visit to a solicitor’s office regarding a mortgage in 1894 in which she believed her mother experienced sex discrimination. According to Normanton’s 1932 book Everyday Law for Women her mother failed to understand some legal advice and Normanton was asked to explain it. When she did this the solicitor exclaimed that she was ‘quite the little lawyer’ and so she resolved from that moment that she would be a lawyer when she grew up.
The rest of her story is history. She was the first woman to make use of the 1919 act and the first woman to join an institution of the legal profession after a fierce two-year campaign. Middle Temple had initially rejected her application in February 1918, so she appealed and was again rejected in January 1919. However, she continued to lobby and pressure, never giving up on her ambition. In November, when it became clear that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill would become law, she wrote to Middle Temple and asked to be admitted. They again refused, replying that nothing could be done until the bill actually became law. The bar needed to be pushed because they were terrified of change and competition – if they allowed women, then why not men from all classes? The bar was an elite profession, determined to protect its way of life.
However, when it became clear that the bill would receive royal assent, Middle Temple relented and contacted Normanton, inviting her to join them ‘without delay’; but warning they would be closed on Christmas Eve. However her archives show that they must have opened especially for Normanton as her student card was dated 24 December 1919.
Normanton remained in practice until she retired in 1951, but she had to work hard to do so, for example by writing true crime books and magazine articles to supplement her income. She also tried to help many people, including those she had defended who ended up in prison or other women trying to enter the bar. She worked tirelessly to improve divorce law, making it more equal for all, something we still have not achieved. Although she never became a judge (something she desperately
wanted to be), she did become a King’s Counsel – one of the two first women KCs in England and Wales in 1949. She achieved many other firsts, for example becoming the first woman to appear in the High Court and the first woman to appear at the Old Bailey.
Normanton died in 1957 and her ashes were placed with her husband in Ovingdean churchyard, Sussex. We should remember her as an incredibly resilient woman who pushed for change and equality.
Dr Judith Bourne is a senior lecturer – law at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London