Passport to Reform: Helena Florence Normanton

Passport to Reform: Helena Florence Normanton, ‘The Pioneering Barrister’


Born on 14 December 1882, Helena Florence Normanton was a Suffragist, writer, barrister, and activist for much of the early-20th century.

According to the DNB, Normanton

  • “combined a teaching career with a developing interest in the position of women, becoming a prolific writer and public speaker on feminist issues”;
  • “Described by her niece Elsie Cannon as a ‘suffragette—though not of the ultra-militant kind’, she was active in the campaign to extend the franchise to women”;
  • In 1914: “she published a pamphlet entitled Sex Differentiation in Salary arguing for equal pay for equal work”;
  • “Pamphlets advertising public meetings organized by the Women’s Freedom League throughout 1919 list Helena Normanton as a speaker and she was also an ardent and practical supporter of the Indian National Congress and editor of its London-based organ India (1918–20)”.

After developing the “ambition of becoming a barrister at the age of twelve during a visit to a lawyer with her mother,” and “[d]espite the many barriers Helena forged a successful legal career that included some notable ‘firsts’” — earning her the epithet of the ‘Pioneering Barrister’:

  • Her first application to be admitted to the Middle Temple, in 1918, was presented immediately after the enfranchisement of women became law but was unanimously refused. Undeterred, and supported by the Women’s Freedom League, she lodged a petition against the benchers’ decision at the House of Lords. However, before the date fixed for its hearing, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill (1919) was introduced which allowed women entry to the legal profession; the press attributed its enactment in large part to her campaign. On Christmas eve 1919, within forty-eight hours of the passing of the new act, she made a second application to the Middle Temple, and was successful.[…] She was called to the bar on 17 November 1922, a few months after Ivy Williams had become the first woman to do so.”
  • After getting married in 1921, “her application to retain her maiden name after her marriage attracted considerable public interest. Helena deplored the loss of a woman’s identity on marriage and its disadvantageous legal results. While she believed in the respectability of retaining the title Mrs she also wished to maintain continuity of identity in her professional career. She was the first married British woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name (1924) and also fought for the right of women who married foreigners to retain their British nationality.”
  • “She was the first woman to obtain a divorce for a client and to lead the prosecution in a murder trial (May 1948).
  • “She was the first female counsel in cases in the High Court of Justice (1922), the Old Bailey (1924), and the London sessions (1926).
  • “In a breach of promise case she obtained for her client the highest damages in such a case obtained by a woman up to that date—£1250 and costs.
  • “In 1925 she became the first woman to conduct a case in the United States, appearing in the test case in which a married woman’s right to retain her maiden name was confirmed.
  • “In 1949, with Rose Heilbron, she became the first female king’s counsel in England and Wales.”

Even after her legal career came to a close “[a]fter the Second World War she remained active in feminist circles as a member of the Six Point Group and the Council of Professional Women. Her irrepressible activism continued and, maintaining her long standing pacifist beliefs, in 1953, aged seventy, she marched in a women’s demonstration against the atom bomb” [DNB].

Normanton — born the same year as Virginia Woolf — died in 1957 at the age of 74, and was buried with her husband in Sussex.

[Passport image via DNB; portraits (1921) and (1949) by Elliott & Fry, via National Portrait Gallery]

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