Category: 1900-1949

Constance Markievicz

Constance Markievicz

On 28 December 1918 the first woman MP was elected to the House of Commons. She was an Irishwoman, a nationalist, a revolutionary & a suffragette: Constance Markievicz, ‘the Rebel Countess’. Of 1,623 candidates in the election, only 17 were women & only one, Markievicz, succeeded. However, she never took her seat. She was one of 72 Sinn Féin MPs who all followed an abstentionist policy, not recognising the validity of Westminster’s jurisdiction in Ireland.


The full version of this landmark is written by

Learn More

Karl McDonald, ‘Countess Markievicz: The Violent Republican Feminist Who Was UK’s First Female MP’ (iNews The Essential Daily Briefing, 8 January 2018)

Elizabeth Lane

Elizabeth Lane

Elizabeth Lane represents a woman’s distinctive contribution to ‘justice’, or rather (in view of the statistics) mostly the lack of it, which still persists 50 years after she was the first woman on the High Court Bench

Judith Bourne and Frances Burton

Elizabeth Lane (1905-1988) was the first woman to be appointed as a County Court Judge (in 1962) and as a High Court judge (in 1965) in England and Wales. Her first official appointment came in 1948 as a member of the Home Office Committee of Enquiry into the use of Depositions in Criminal Cases. 12 years later, in 1960, she was appointed Queen’s Counsel – the third woman Silk in England & Wales alongside Helena Normanton and Rose Heilbron. In 1961 she was appointed Commissioner of the Crown at Manchester, the equivalent of today’s Deputy High Court Judges, and the Recorder of Derby.  In 1971, she chaired a committee on the working of the Abortion Act.

We know very little about Lane, save what she tells us in her autobiography. This could be because she feared accusations of self-publicising (a disciplinary offence for barristers). Her autobiography relates that she did not intend to be a pioneer of any sort, putting her success at the Bar down to good health and stamina, a capacity for hard work, a good temper, her ability to conceal her true feelings, not becoming emotionally involved, a pleasing voice, and good luck.

The full version of this landmark was written by Judith Bourne and Frances Burton.


Learn More

Joshua Rozenberg, ‘Blazing a Trail: Women and the Judiciary’ (The Law Society Gazette, 1 November 2012)


Family Allowances Act 1945

Family Allowances Act 1945

The case for family allowance was closely linked to Eleanor Rathbone’s feminism. She believed that payment of an endowment to mothers would increase women’s independence, and recognise the economic value of the work of child rearing. Evidence from the 1970s showed how many women relied on family allowance to give a measure of financial independence or indeed to allow them any money of their own at all.

Lucy Vickers

The Family Allowances Act 1945 introduced the first systematic payment of welfare support to women for the support of children. It provided payment of an allowance for the second and subsequent children in any family under the age of 16 while in education or serving an apprenticeship.

Portrait of Eleanor Rathbone from Parliament gallery
Eleanor Rathbone by Julian Barrow from Parliament © Parliamentary Copyright

The Act had three distinctive features which were understood to be key to its effectiveness: (1) It was non-means tested, (2) it was paid direct to the mother and (3) payment was not linked to family size.

It has since been replaced by Child Benefit, which has recently become means tested and paid only in respect of two children per family.

The architect of the Act was Eleanor Rathbone MP, one of the first women MPs. She campaigned for family allowances throughout her career and the introduction of the Act is generally attributed to her.

The full version of this landmark is written by Lucy Vickers.


Learn More

Parliament, ‘Eleanor Rathbone: A Most Independent Member’ (Living Heritage: Women and the Vote

Remembering Eleanor Rathbone

Education Act 1944

Education Act 1944

Black and white photo of Ellen Wilkinson working with documents
Ellen Wilkinson by Elliott & Fry from © National Portrait Gallery, London [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0(]

The Education Act 1944 represented a hard won victory for women teachers, laid the groundwork for future campaigns on equal pay, maternity leave and childcare, and had significant consequences for the education of girls [who]… were able to complete their education and gradually populate the workplace, universities and professions in greater numbers than ever before
Harriet Samuels

The Education Act 1944 restructured the education system in England and Wales. It raised the school leaving age from 14, and provided for free full time education for children between 5 and 15 years of age. It also abolished the marriage bar, that had permitted a prohibition on the employment of married women teachers, setting a precedent for other employers and occasioned a spirited, but ultimately unsuccessful struggle for equal pay for women.

Although the Education Act 1944 was steered through Parliament by RAB Butler, a Conservative Minister, it was implemented by Labour’s first woman Education Minister, Ellen Wilkinson.

The full version of this landmark was written by Harriet Samuels.

Learn More

BBC News, ‘The Jarrow Crusade’

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Education Act of 1944’

BBC News, ‘Rab Butler’s 1944 Act Brings Free Secondary Education for All’

Katherine Williams, ‘Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist’ (LSE British Politics and Policy, 21 February 2017)

Parliament, ‘The Education Act of 1944’ (Living Heritage: Going to School

Parliament, ‘Ellen Wilkinson’ (Living Heritage: People and Parliament Transforming Society

Frances Moran

Frances Moran

The significance of what Frances Moran achieved cannot be understated. As a pioneering professor in a university and a profession that were particularly resistant to the inclusion of women, she ‘dominated Irish legal education’ at time when women at any level in the legal profession were rare.

Emma Hutchinson

The life of Frances Moran was one of firsts. Appointed Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), in 1925, she was the first woman law professor in Ireland, predating her UK counterpart by 45 years. She was also the first woman to hold a Dublin University chair in any subject. In 1924 she was only the fourth woman to be called to the Irish Bar and, in 1941, she became the first woman Senior Counsel in Ireland.

The full version of this landmark is written by Emma Hutchinson.

Learn more

A timeline of the History of Women in Trinity

DPP v Jonathan Cape and Leopold Hill (1928)

DPP v Jonathan Cape and Leopold Hill (1928)

In offering a brief moment of visibility to relationships between “sexual inverts”, the Well trial would have a legal and cultural impact extending for decades. The notion of pseudo-inversion proved particularly dangerous. While Hall had hoped that the innate nature of congenital inversion would make it a cause for sympathy, courts judging lesbian women saw themselves as protecting pseudo-lesbians who might choose heterosexual relationships if not corrupted. These notions of corruption fed into such diverse legal areas as the sentencing of women in the criminal courts and custody debates in the family courts.
Caroline Derry

Black and white portrait photo of Radclyffe Hall and her dog
Radclyffe Hall (NPG x136620) via [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain Mark 1.0(]

In November 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was found to be criminally obscene: liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’ those likely to read it. What makes the case significant is that the ‘obscenity’ of the book resided in its subject-matter, lesbianism. For the Chief Magistrate, its harm lay not in graphic sexual depictions of ‘sexual inversion’ (there were none), but in its plea for tolerance of ‘inverts’.

This was not the first mention of lesbianism in the legal context, although overt discussion was a rare and recent phenomenon. However, the 1928 trial marked a high point of legal and social visibility, with discussion extending beyond the courtroom into daily newspapers. The specific version of lesbian relationships described in the book, with its reliance on sexological discourses, would thus colour public perceptions within and beyond the legal system for much of the twentieth century.

The Well was not published in paperback in Britain until the 1950s. By the 1970s, it was both recognized as a milestone and criticised for the way in which it treated the subject. It has been described as ‘the lesbian novel, a title familiar to most readers of fiction, either a bible or a horror story for any lesbian who reads at all.’ (Jane Rule ‘Radclyffe Hall’ (1975), reproduced in Doan and Prosser, Palatable Poison, pp 77-88 at p 78).

The full version of this landmark is written by Caroline Derry.


Learn More

The Guardian News and Media Ltd., ‘Lesbian Novel Was ‘Danger to Nation’ ‘

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Obscene Publications Act’

Edwards v A-G of Canada (1930)

Edwards v A-G of Canada (1930)

Statue of Nellie McClung holding Women Are Persons paper
The Famous Five, Nellie McClung statue by Douglas Sprott [CC BY-NC 2.0(]
Parliament first granted some women a vote in some elections in 1869. It took a further 60 years before women were granted the vote on the same basis as men. Similarly, the argument that women were persons, just as much as men, were first made in the courts in 1868, and once again it took a further 60 years for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Edwards v Attorney General of Canada to agree.

Edwards is the last of the so-called ‘persons’ cases. In these women argued, that they, like men, were persons and therefore entitled to the same rights as men. In Edwards the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council agreed.

‘During those sixty years various women’s campaign groups protested; lobbied politicians to introduce legislation; brought legal challenges and organised themselves to fight for greater equality … The persons cases demonstrate how women needed to adopt all three forms of action’.

Sarah Mercer

Black and white photo of Unveiling Plaque to Valiant Five with five women and one man in front of the plaque
Unveiling Plaque to Valiant Five by Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King by Eugene M Finn (11 June 1938, no. 3535150) from Library and Archives Canada

The full version of this landmark was written by Sarah Mercer.


Learn More

Famou5 Foundation, ‘The Famous Five: The Women’

First Women in Canadian Politics

Historica Canada, ‘Persons Case’

Margaret Kidd

Margaret Kidd

Allowing women to become advocates was an essential step in changing the nature of both the arguments being put before Courts, and the decisions made by them. Kidd’s practice centred on family law, where she was appreciated by her contemporaries as adding a new dimension to old problems.
Catriona Cairns

Black and white photo of Margaret Kidd in her wig and gown
Margaret Kidd from The Sphere (13 Mar 1926), image copyright to the British Newspaper Archives

Margaret Henderson Kidd’s (1900-1989) life was a series of firsts: first woman member of the Faculty of Advocates (the Scottish Bar) in July 1923, first woman advocate (barrister) to appear before the House of Lords and a parliamentary select committee, first woman King’s Counsel in the United Kingdom, and the first woman member of the Scottish judiciary (as sheriff-principal).

She was a remarkable woman. Typically for her generation, Margaret Kidd denied having faced any discrimination at work during her career while at the same time remarking that ‘if I’d been a man I might have built up a bigger practice.’

Kidd followed Madge Easton Anderson, the first woman in the United Kingdom to qualify as a solicitor in December 1920, Ivy Williams, the first woman called to the Bar in England and Wales in May 1922, and Helena Normanton, the first woman to practice at the Bar in England and Wales. Frances Kyle was the first woman called to the Bar in Ireland, in November 1921 and Averil Deverell was the first woman to practise at the Irish Bar.

The full version of this landmark is written by Catriona Cairns.


Learn More

Stewart McRobert, ‘A Bar Removed’ (The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland, 20 October 2014)


The Foundation of the Association of Women Solicitors

The Foundation of the Association of Women Solicitors

Colour photo of three women in business suits

The history of the Association of Women Solicitors should serve as an inspiration and a warning. An impressively a small cohort of women solicitors had succeeded in founding an organisation to support each other, had maintained it through economic recessions and war … But its subsequent gradual demise demonstrates how an organisation can all but disappear through a laudable desire for expansion coupled with an unrealistic reliance on income which was not self-generated.
Elizabeth Cruickshank

The Association of Women Solicitors (AWS) was the first organisation in England and Wales whose purpose was to represent women in the legal profession. Initially it was an informal grouping of a small number of women articled clerks (trainee solicitors), no more than six or seven, who came together on an unrecorded date in either 1920 or 1921 for mutual support and companionship. They called themselves ‘the 1919 Club’ in recognition of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which would enable them to sit the Law Society’s examinations and to be admitted as solicitors.

For several decades this became the only, if very tenuous, contact some women solicitors had with other women legal practitioners. Over the years, AWS volunteers provided Mentoring Scheme, the Maternity Helpline and the Law Reform Committee as well as a returner course (a intensive week-long residential experience for women returning to the profession), and LINK (a magazine) was disseminated free to all AWS members.

In 2013, the AWS was absorbed into the new Women Lawyers Division of the Law Society. However, several groups of women solicitors have formed regional groups, some, such as Bristol and Merseyside adopting the Women’s Lawyers Division name and others, such as Surrey and London, continuing to style themselves as AWS.

The full version of this landmark is written by Elizabeth Cruickshank.


Learn More

Elizabeth Cruickshank, ‘Carrie Morrison’ (100 First Hundred Years, 8 September 2015)

The Law Society, ‘National Association of Women Solicitors Takes an Historical Step on the Future of Representation for Women Solicitors’ (13 December 2012)

Matrimonial Causes Act 1923

Matrimonial Causes Act 1923

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923 established the principle of equality in divorce and marked a significant success for post-war feminist campaigning groups.
Penny Russell

Prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1923, women in England and Wales found it harder than men to get a divorce. This was because the grounds for men and women petitioners were different: under section 27 of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, a husband divorcing his wife could obtain a divorce on the basis of his wife’s adultery alone, whereas a wife could not: her husband’s adultery had to be aggravated by incest, bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality, cruelty or desertion of two years.

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923 removed this double standard and equalised the grounds for divorce enabling a wife to obtain a divorce on the basis of her husband’s adultery alone.

Black and white photo of a person removing a wedding bandThis equalising measure was brought about by the clear-sighted and prompt actions of the post-war, all woman, feminist campaign group, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC).

The full version of this landmark is written by Penny Russell.


Learn More

Harold L. Smith, The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign, 1866-1928 (2nd edn, Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group, 2007)

Parliament, ‘Changes in Divorce: The 20th Century’ (Living Heritage: Relationships

Parliament, ‘Divorce Since 1900’ 

Find out more about the Women’s Legal Landmarks Project

Project leaders, Rosemary Auchmuty and Erika Rackley, talk to Elizabeth Woodcraft about the aims, methodology and ambitions for the Project for PodAcademy

Get involved

The landmarks that appear on this website were chosen by participants in the Women’s Legal Landmarks Project.

If you think a key positive legal landmark for women is missing and you’d like to write about it – then get in touch.

Search the Landmarks

Follow us on Twitter