‘Helena Normanton should be to women lawyers what Neil Armstrong is to astronauts.’
Brighton Museum’s current exhibition 100 First Women Portraits, by Anita Corbin, highlights contemporary women who are the first in their respective field. Our accompanying blog series, Pioneering Women of Sussex explores women from the past who were local ‘firsts’. Today we are looking at Helena Normanton (1882 – 1957) First Woman to practise as a Barrister in England.
A few minutes walk uphill from Western Road on the Brighton/Hove border brings you to a modest – and completely unheralded – house on Clifton Place. At the turn of the twentieth century this was a lodging house. It was also the home of a woman who was to make great strides in the field of Law. Helena Normanton was the first woman to practise as a barrister in England.
Despite this giant leap for women in a profession that, until then, had been closed to them, Helena Normanton didn’t have a promising start in life. Born in London, she was only four when her father was found dead in a railway tunnel, forcing her mother to bring her and her younger sister to Brighton where they ran the lodging house on Clifton Place and also worked in a grocery shop. Despite gaining a scholarship to York Place Science School, the forerunner to the local Varndean School for Girls, she had to leave after just four years’ schooling when her mother died, so she could keep the family business going and look after her sister. It wasn’t until 1904 that she was able to resume her education, training first as a teacher at the Edge Hill Teachers’ Training College in Liverpool and then gaining qualifications in French from Dijon University and History from London. Perhaps it was because she’d seen the sharp end of the world of work from a young age that she became a fervent supporter of equal pay. In 1914 she produced a pamphlet, ‘Sex Differentiation in Salary’ in which she asked ‘Should women be paid according to their sex or their work?’
With a burgeoning reputation as a charismatic speaker and a teaching career in London and Glasgow, Helena decided to pursue her life’s ambition and try to become a barrister. This was 1918 and she’d nurtured this dream since childhood when she’d seen her mother embarrassed and patronised by a solicitor who had tried to exploit the fact that she was a woman and would know nothing of the law. It was an ambitious plan. Women were excluded from the bar and female barristers non-existent. Sure enough her application to become a student at Middle Temple was rejected. Helena immediately lodged a petition with the House of Lords, but before her case could be heard, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed, allowing Helena to become the first woman to be admitted as a student to the Bar.
The first woman to be called to the bar was Oxford academic Ivy Williams, who went on to teach rather than practise, but Helena joined her as the second just a couple of months afterwards. Helena’s subsequent career was studded with ‘firsts’ – the first female counsel in the High Court of Justice and the Old Bailey, the first woman to obtain a divorce for her client, the first to lead the prosecution in a murder trial, and, together with Rose Heilbron, among the first two women in England to be appointed as King’s Counsel in 1949. Her appointment never ceased to make waves, especially since she – controversially for the time – chose to keep her maiden name after she got married.
Notoriety followed her again when, in 1924, preparing for a trip to the USA, she became the first married woman to be granted a passport in her maiden name. As expected from a woman who was making such bold raids into male territory, Helena wasn’t an armchair supporter of women’s rights. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and was part of the group of women who, disenchanted with the leadership of the Pankhursts, broke away to form the Women’s Freedom League in 1907.
During her life, she took every opportunity to fight for equality, campaigning for women’s rights to vote and for married women to be able to hang on to their money and property instead of it being subsumed into their husband’s upon marriage. In 1938, with Vera Brittain, Edith Summerskill and Helen Nutting, she co-founded the controversial Married Women’s Association with the aim of promoting financial equality during marriage, giving mothers and children a legal right to a share of the family home, securing equal guardianship rights for both parents, and extending the National Insurance Act to give equal provision for women. Equality of pay was to remain a thorn in her side; despite her successful legal career, Helena constantly had to supplement her income by letting out rooms in her house and writing for newspapers and magazines to make ends meet. A pacifist, she supported the campaign of the Women’s Peace Council for a negotiated peace during the First World War and was an early member of CND, demonstrating in later life against nuclear weapons.
Helena Normanton never forgot her adopted hometown. She was the first benefactor to donate funds for the establishment of the University of Sussex, making the first donation to the Sussex University Appeal in 1956, writing at the time, ‘I make this gift in gratitude for all that Brighton did to educate me when I was left an orphan’. She later bequeathed the capital of her trust to the foundation of the University upon her death in 1957. According to ‘First Hundred Years’, a history project supported by the Law Society and Bar Council, charting women’s history in law, ‘Normanton should be to women lawyers what Neil Armstrong is to astronauts.’ The strides she made from the small house in Clifton Place are awe inspiring.
Helena Normanton is buried in St Wulfran’s church yard at Ovingdean, near Brighton.
Women are continuing to become ‘firsts’ in law. Featured in the 100 First Women Portraits exhibition (on display until 7 June), is Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss GBE PC, First Woman to become Lord Justice of Appeal in 1988, the first woman to do so in 112 years. Until 1994 she was also the highest ranking female judge in the UK and became a high court judge, making her the first woman to head a high court division. She remains one on the tiny number of senior judges without a university degree.
Also featured is Lady Brenda Hale, the Rt Hon.Baroness Hale of Richmond DBE PC FBA, as the first woman appointed to the Law Commission, the first female Law Lord in history (2004) and the first woman appointed as President of the Supreme Court (2017)
Written by Louise Peskett