Visible Women

England’s first female barrister was a tireless advocate for women’s rights

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. Helena Normanton was the first woman to practise at the bar in England and a champion of gender equality who achieved a staggering list of ‘firsts’. This is her story.  

Helena Normanton dedicated her life to campaigning for female equality, within the legal profession and the world at large, and was the first woman to practise as a barrister in England.

Born in London in 1882, Normanton was raised by a single working mother, which fuelled her urge to campaign for working women’s rights. She studied teacher training in Liverpool, graduating in 1905, and went on to lecture in history at various universities, during which time she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and became an active protester in the fight for women’s rights. In 1914, she authored the radical pamphlet Sex Differentiation In Salary, which argued that women should have equal pay for equal work.

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In 1918, Normanton applied to study law at the Middle Temple. She was refused on the grounds of her gender, but was later accepted after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which made it illegal to bar women from the legal profession. She caused another stir in 1921 when she married Gavin Bowman Clark but decided to keep her maiden name.

She was called to the bar in 1922, making her only the second woman to do so, after Ivy Williams, who was called a few months earlier but never practised. 

Why was she a trailblazer?

Normanton’s storming law career saw her achieve many firsts. She was the first woman to lead the prosecution in a murder trial, the first to conduct a trial in America and the first to represent cases at the High Court and the Old Bailey.

In 1919, she took pleasure in signing the lease on her house in her own name rather than her husband’s, and in 1924 she was the first married woman to hold a passport in her maiden name (she then used the passport to travel to the US to mentor a group of women campaigning for the same right).

Of this she said, in 1954, “Anne Boleyn did not change her name even though she married the King. He at least had the decency to leave her with her own name even though he took her head.”

What influence has she left behind today?

Normanton devoted her life to campaigning for women’s rights – especially working women’s rights – alongside her career as a high-profile barrister.

She deplored women’s loss of rights and identity once they were married and also advocated for divorce reform. She fought for equality for women within the legal profession, mentoring female students and accepting them into her chambers.

A passionate public speaker and a famous feminist activist, she taught right up until the Fifties, when she campaigned for divorced women to receive the novel concept of alimony.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Illustration: Bijou Karman bijoukarman.com. Image: Getty Images