King’s Inns Leads Commemoration of First Equality Legislation
Pictured above: Dr Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland and Honorary Bencher of King’s Inns, delivering her keynote speech, titled ‘celebrating a centenary of women in law’.
Commemorating the past and embracing the future, King’s Inns hosted a Celebratory Dinner on Saturday 30 November 2019 to launch a ‘Celebrating a Century‘ event series marking 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was enacted on 23 December 1919.
Spearheaded by King’s Inns with support from The Bar of Ireland, the Law Society of Ireland and the Irish Women Lawyers Association, the ‘Celebrating a Century’ event series is designed to mark 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was enacted on 23 December 1919. Over the next year, King’s Inns will recognise the impact this Act has had on society and set the scene for the next generations.
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 enabled women to join the legal, accountancy and veterinary professions, and also take up senior roles within the civil service for the first time. 100 years ago, in December 1919, the first piece of equal opportunities legislation entered the statute book.
Prior to 1919, under the common law, women were not considered to be “persons” for the purposes of entering most professions, or from holding civil or judicial office. This Act removed that disqualification. Over the years, both women and men have used the opportunity presented by this legislation to the full, breaking societal barriers.
Interestingly, many of the first women to enter the above professions for the first time were Irish:
- Aleen Isobel Cust who was an Anglo–Irish veterinary surgeon. On 21st December 1922, she became the first female veterinary surgeon to be recognised by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
- Georgie Frost from Sixmilebridge, County Clare was the first woman to hold public office from central government in the UK when she was appointed Clerk of the Petty Sessions in 1915. Despite her appointment, steps were subsequently taken to remove her from office because she was a woman. She challenged this, ultimately winning her case in the House of Lords. This case was heavily influential in the enactment of the 1919 legislation.
- Mary Dorothea Heron was the first woman to be admitted to the Roll of Solicitors on the 17th April 1923.
- Frances Kyle BL or Fay Kyle as she was known and Averil Deverell BL were the first women called to the Bar in Dublin on the 1st November 1921, both women were also the first two women called to the Bar of Northern Ireland, in 1921 and 1922 respectively.
- Eileen Woodworth was the first woman to be admitted as a student at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in 1920. She qualified in 1925.
On Saturday 30 November 2019, nearly 200 guests were welcomed to King’s Inns Dining Hall. Dr Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland and Honorary Bencher of King’s Inns, was invited as keynote speaker and delivered a powerful, frank and thought–provoking speech on ‘celebrating a centenary of women in law‘. Among other changes in history, Dr McAleese’s speech focused on how opening up of the professions really took off with the arrival of free secondary education in Ireland. You can read her speech in full here.
On the night, King’s Inns welcomed solicitors and barristers practicing in different areas of the industry, both women and men, along with current and former female members of the Supreme Court, other members of the Judiciary, North and South, and some Minsters from the current government. King’s Inns also welcomed members of the veterinary and accountancy professions and senior members of the Civil Service. Two grandsons of Mollie Dillon–Leetch, the third woman called to the Bar in Ireland in 1923, was also in attendance.
Pictured above: Catherine McGuinness, first female appointee to the Circuit Court in 1994; Mary Griffin, Under Treasurer / CEO of King’s Inns; and Dr Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland and Honorary Bencher of King’s Inns.
The Libraries of The Bar of Ireland, the Law Society of Ireland and the King’s Inns, with a contribution from the Veterinary Council of Ireland, designed an exhibition for the night, honouring the remarkable early women entering these professions. King’s Inns also produced a keepsake menu booklet for the evening in which Mary Griffin, Under Treasurer / CEO of King’s Inns, called on guests in her opening remarks to sign it to replicate a similar dinner menu from 1923 found in the King’s Inns archives.
Pictured above: The first three of nine exhibition boards.
In her closing remarks, Mary said;
“King’s Inns has a long history of leaders and tonight is no different. Man or woman, leadership can be lonely, especially when you are trying to bring about change. So as leaders, I would say be fearless, support each other, look out for each other, listen to each other and make it acceptable to make the changes we need. No change is perfect but it will be good enough. It will gather momentum as can be seen from the last 100 years.”
On behalf of King’s Inns, Mary Griffin would like to thank Claire Hanley, food and events partner of King’s Inns and the Employment Bar Association for their generous support in helping to host the Celebratory Dinner. In addition, to The Bar of Ireland, the Law Society of Ireland and the Irish Women Lawyers Association for their commitment and support, and to everyone at King’s Inns in producing a remarkable event that will be remembered and talked about in years to come.
On reflection of the night, Mary said:
“The night provoked thought and discussion on women’s progress in the last 100 years, and it called on all of us to honour our responsibility spark change and to widen the stairway for the next 100 where gender has no role in placing barriers in succeeding in any profession. King’s Inns is excited to be leading this programme of events and look forward to working with the wider society in building and supporting a better work culture for the future”.
The year ahead will be an exciting time as King’s Inns continues to celebrate the impact of the legislation on society, acknowledging the contribution of all people to the professions and the public service. As equals, it will be interesting to speculate on what the future might hold over the next hundred years.
Pictured above: Celebrating a Century mark.
Over the next few months, King’s Inns will be releasing other events as part of this celebration and in the words of Frances Kyle “to prepare the way for those who will follow”. Keep an eye out on the King’s Inns website here and on social using the hashtag #celebratingacentury.