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Lifting the Barrier: Gender Equality Legislation 1919

Published Friday, December 13, 2019

This House of Lords Library briefing has been prepared to mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. It provides a summary of the provisions of the Act and an overview of some of the debates had at the time about introducing and implementing gender equality legislation.

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In 1918, the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave most women over the age of 30 the right to vote, and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 allowed women to stand for election to the House of Commons. However, there was still political pressure and calls from women’s rights campaigners for further gender equality legislation.

The first equal opportunities statute enacted by Parliament was the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in December 1919. The Act made it illegal for women to be denied access to a range of professions on the basis of their sex or marriage, including the legal profession and parts of the civil service.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill, as introduced, included a clause to allow women to sit in the House of Lords. This was removed during the bill’s committee stage in the House of Lords. The bill had not sought to introduce equal parliamentary franchise for men and women.

Prior to the introduction of the bill, the Labour opposition had introduced a private member’s bill, the Women’s Emancipation Bill. This sought to: end the restrictions on women holding civil and judicial posts; introduce equal parliamentary franchise for men and women; and allow women to sit and vote in the House of Lords. The bill was defeated in the House of Lords at second reading.

Following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, there were a number of firsts in the 1920s for women, including the first female veterinary surgeon, barrister, jury member, and cabinet minister.

However, the legislation failed to remove a number of barriers that existed for women. For instance, it did not end the marriage bar in certain professions: the practice of requiring women to leave paid employment on getting married and preventing married women from joining a profession. The civil service did not lift this bar until 1946.

Lords Library notes LLN-2019-0154

Author: Sarah Tudor

Topics: Equality, Parliament

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