I previously posted about F E Smith’s attitude to women and mentioned his opposition to women sitting in the House of Lords. In the early 1920s, as Lord Birkenhead, he was Lord Chancellor when a woman called Lady Rhondda tried to take a seat in the House of Lords.
A remarkable woman for many reasons, Lady Rhondda was a hereditary peer in her own right, inheriting the title from her father D A Thomas who had no sons. If she’d been a man, she would have taken her seat in the House of Lords when he died. Because she was a woman, she couldn’t. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 stated that ‘A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function.’ You might have thought that would include sitting in the House of Lords, but Lord Birkenhead disagreed most fiercely. When the Lords Committee for Privileges initially found in her favour, he first got it referred back to them with some very technical arguments, then quashed the arguments in committee.
It was situations such as this that have led historians to argue that the impact of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was limited, as in many cases it enabled the removal of sex disqualifications without forcing authorities to do so. It was a government replacement for a much more radical private members’ bill, and as such disappointed many people at the time and since. My research into its Parliamentary passage shows this negativity overshadows the efforts of many MPs and peers to make it work, and the significant advances it made.
It didn’t, however, help Lady Rhonnda. In the year of her death, the Life Peerages Act 1958 allowed women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time as life peers, and female hereditary peers in Lady Rhondda’s position had to wait until 1963. You can read more about the Rhondda Case here.
I often find people have no idea when women were allowed to sit in the Lords, and are usually horrified to learn it was as recently as 1958!