Early women barristers and the negotiation of professional and political identity

Noakes, Laura (2023). Early women barristers and the negotiation of professional and political identity. Women's History Review, 32(6) pp. 863–878.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09612025.2022.2138202


This article examines the relationship between first-wave feminist political activism and the professional identities of early women lawyers through 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 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. This article illuminates the multiple links between Bowerman and Macmillan’s roles as barristers and political activists, by exploring the ways in which 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-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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