After Oxford, Gwyneth tried to access legal training but was denied, on the Alice‑in‑Wonderland grounds that women were not officially defined as ‘persons’ and only persons could be lawyers. This absurdity was impossible to maintain after World War I. By then hundreds of women like Gwyneth had helped Britain achieve victory, having taken men’s places on the home front or run military hospitals abroad.
When it passed in 1919, The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act stated that no-one should be excluded by gender or marriage from the exercise of any public function, ‘or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society.’ So – though it took an Act of Parliament to do it – the gates of the Establishment slowly creaked open, at last. In January 1920 Gwyneth started reading for the Bar, while also juggling married life, brand new baby, and a full-time job. Life was hard, but ever optimistic, she looked forward to a brighter future.
Perhaps Gwyneth was naïve. Stodgy arguments against women in professions persisted. ‘Gentlemen’ would never stoop to taking orders from them: it was thought to be degrading and flew in the face of nature. Old-school doctors warned that thinking too much withered the womb and women continued to be refused high-calibre posts on the grounds of being… ‘plain’. And don’t forget the perennial claim that they couldn’t possibly work in a man’s world, as there were no ladies’ bathrooms. In short, the Establishment refused to change.
So despite the Act of Parliament, progress was slow. Many medical schools closed their doors to women from the 1920s until the 1940s, arguing that women doctors were a) hysterical and b) flooding the market. Legal chambers declined them as pupils. Architects comforted themselves with the well-known fact that women were congenitally feeble (it’s alright lads: ladies can’t climb ladders). Engineering workshops refused them apprenticeships and the Church – well, the Church was the Church. We all know that the first women Anglican priests were not ordained until 1994. Some of the professions – including teaching – instituted a marriage bar in blatant contravention of the Act, which meant that before World War II, women faced a stark choice between working, or becoming a wife and mother.