by Elizabeth Howe
In November 1922, Helena Normanton became the second woman in the United Kingdom to be admitted to The Bar. Although the first woman called was Ivy Williams, Helena Normanton went on to become the first woman to actually practise.
Helena Normanton’s early life is fairly unknown. She was born in London in 1882 and was accepted on a scholarship to York Place Science School in Brighton in 1896, having moved there after the death of her father when she was three. In 1900 she was a pupil teacher within the school, but was forced to leave when her mother also died and she was needed to help look after her younger sister and live with her aunt. In 1903 she began studying at the Edge Hill Teachers' Training College in Liverpool, where there is currently a Halls of Residence named in her honour. Legal historians have no real idea why she made such a radical change of location, yet another mystery of Normanton’s early life.
It is during this time that Normanton seemed to develop her passion for women’s rights, a passion that would be evident throughout her extensive legal career. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) under Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. However, in a short space of time she began to feel that the WSPU was a flawed organisation in which the leaders made decisions without consulting the members, and a small number of wealthy women seemed to hold sway over the majority. In 1907 she and seventy other members of the WSPU split off in order to create the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WFL did not differ too far from the WSPU in its tactics as it became a militant organisation and over one hundred of its members were sent to prison for demonstrations or refusal to pay taxes. Only in the matter of destruction of commercial and private property and violence did the WFL criticise the WSPU as it was strongly opposed to these methods. As well as this, unlike the WSPU and the suffragists, Normanton and the WFL remained staunchly pacifist and refused to support the war from 1914-18.
Prior to Normanton’s legal career she was becoming an eminent champion for women's rights. In 1914 she published a paper in which she argued for equal pay for equal work. As the “First 100 Years” website states: “It is testament to her radicalism that the debate she first addressed a century ago is today still as pertinent as ever.”. The following year she published another essay arguing that the refusal to grant women suffrage was in direct contradiction with the Magna Carta and its declaration that they would not delay any rights given to the people of England. Despite this clear interest in women’s rights, it is unknown for what reason exactly she decided to enter the legal profession.
Normanton’s first application to the bar was when she applied to Middle Temple in 1918 whereupon she was immediately rejected on the grounds that she was a woman. In response to this she lodged a petition with the House of Lords in order for her case to be heard. Her tenacity was ultimately rewarded when the Sex Disqualification Act came into force in 1919 and she immediately reapplied to Middle Temple. This time she was accepted and went on to study there until 1922 when she was called to The Bar. During these years she had married accountant Gavin Bowman-Clark and retained her maiden name in order to preserve her professional identity. This attracted considerable public interest when in 1924 she applied for a passport with her maiden name and was ultimately accepted, making her the first British married woman to own a passport without her married name on it. Although Normanton sought to retain the right to be addressed as Mrs, she did not want to incur the legal disadvantages and loss of personal identity that would accompany the loss of her maiden name. In 1924 she became the first woman to act as counsel in the Old Bailey, the following year she was the first woman to conduct a trial in America in order to enable American women to retain their maiden names after marriage. In 1948 she became the first woman to act as prosecution in a murder trial in the UK. Finally, in 1949, along with one other woman she became the first female King’s Council.
Despite these many accolades, the article she had written in 1914 acted as a prophecy for her life. Due to her low earnings and unequal pay, she was forced to take lodgers at her house in Bloomsbury and work as a freelance journalist. This set back did not appear to stop her from continuing to fight against the system throughout her life as she constantly battled issues such as equal pay and marital rights. In 1934 she attended the annual meeting of the National Council of Women and demanded that changes must be made in matrimonial law, making her an instant enemy of the Mother’s Union. In 1938, Normanton became one of the co-founders of the Married Women’s Association, through which she fought for equal rights in a marriage between men and women. These actions gained her notoriety at the time, and yet by the 21st century she has become almost entirely forgotten as such an influential female figure within the British Legal system. She died in 1957 and is buried in Ovingdean, Sussex alongside her husband.