Chrystal MacMillan and Elsie Bowerman: First Women Barristers' Negotiation of Professional and Political Identities

Noakes, Laura (2021). Chrystal MacMillan and Elsie Bowerman: First Women Barristers' Negotiation of Professional and Political Identities. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis examines the relationship between first-wave feminist political activism and the professional identities of early women lawyers through a detailed contextual consideration of two women: Elsie Bowerman and Chrystal Macmillan. Bowerman was a keen member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She was Christabel Pankhurst’s election agent for the 1918 general election and founded the Women’s Guild of Empire (WGE) with fellow suffragette Flora Drummond. Bowerman was called to the Bar in 1924 and practised until 1938. Chrystal Macmillan was a leading member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the first woman to plead her case in the House of Lords, and a successful barrister whose feminist politics extended beyond the granting of suffrage to women. Much of her post-World War One activism focused on opposing the practice of assigning married women their husband’s identity.

I argue that there were complex and multifaceted connections between these women’s activism, legal practice and the law, which originated during the fight for women’s votes. I will examine in depth the effect these connections had on their legal aspirations and their involvement with politics after 1918. In doing so my thesis calls attention to the complications encountered by both women within the legal profession as women and feminists, and also reveals their long-term dedication to facilitating legal change through their activism.

This research illuminates the multiple links between Bowerman and Macmillan’s roles as barristers and political activists, by exploring how complex societal expectations of women’s behaviour interacted with their wish to challenge gendered inequality. Consequently, it complicates our understanding of women entering the professions, feminist activism, and the relationship between law and politics during the late-19th and 20th centuries.

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