An alternative First World War hero

With commemorations of the First World War under way it seems fitting to remember a remarkable pacifist, barrister and feminist, Chrystal Macmillan.

Celia Pilkington and Harini Iyengar explain.

Born in 1872, the only daughter of an Edinburgh tea merchant, Chrystal Macmillan was called to the Bar of Middle Temple in 1924 and became one of the first female barristers in this country. A dedicated campaigner for women’s suffrage across the world, she pursued exclusively legal and non-violent means to achieve her political goals in peacetime and in wartime. Her friend and fellow suffragist Cicely Hamilton said of her that “she was the right kind of lawyer, one who held that Law should be synonymous with Justice. Her chief aim in life – one might call it her passion – was to give every woman of every class and nation the essential protection of justice. She was herself a great and very just human being. She could not budge an inch on matters of principle but she never lost her temper and never bore a grudge in defeat.”

Her first battle for justice came whilst working at the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage. As the first female science graduate of Edinburgh University, she was an ideal choice to become secretary of the Women Graduates of the Scottish Universities. She brought a provocative test case seeking to establish the right of women university graduates who were members of University General Councils to vote for the Member of Parliament for that university even though they were denied the franchise in ordinary constituencies. A literal construction of the relevant statutes, she argued, enfranchised women graduates, because they were “persons”. The high profile case made history as Macmillan became the first woman ever to argue a case before the House of Lords, albeit with a Scottish barrister present (Nairn v University Courts of St Andrews and Edinburgh [1909] AC147). The Glasgow Herald reported her debut as follows: “Dressed... in a dark red costume and hat with ermine furs, [she] spoke for three hours with complete self-possession and great skill in exposition.”

She lost the case. Predictably, their Lordships held that “person” must be interpreted narrowly to mean only a male person. Since the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889, which had allowed women to take degrees, had been enacted after the Representation of the People (Scotland) Act 1868, which had restricted the franchise to men, it could not amend it by implication. Extending the vote to women was a matter for Parliament, not judicial interpretation, because, “If it was intended to make a vast constitutional change in favour of women graduates, one would expect to find plain language and express statement.”

Following this case, Macmillan moved to London where she was elected to the executive of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In 1913 she became Secretary of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance and held the post until 1920.

War broke out in 1914 and Macmillan resigned on principle from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which took a pro-war stance. Macmillan plunged into the humanitarian work of relieving the sufferings caused by the War. She was on the first boat that crossed the North Sea to take a food convoy to Flushing after the fall of Antwerp. Then she played a leading role in organising an International Congress of Women at The Hague in 1915 which sought to bring peace by enlisting the aid of neutral states. Twelve national deputations sent a total of over 1,100 women to seek a peaceful end to the war. Britain planned to send 180 women at a time when the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was still split over whether or not to support the war effort. Only two of these women managed to cross the Channel. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had closed the North Sea to all shipping and cancelled the ferry service. But he couldn’t cancel the conference. Nor could he thwart Macmillan’s travel plans. She was already in Antwerp and had no difficulty reaching the Hague.

Delegates were asked to endorse two principles: “that international disputes should be settled by pacific means and that the Parliamentary franchise should be extended to women”. In all, 20 resolutions were passed under the following headings: Women and the Peace Settlement Conference, Action Toward Peace, Principles of Permanent Peace, International Cooperation, the Education of Children and Action to be taken. They defined the principles of permanent peace and proposed the formation of a Society of Nations supported by a permanent International Court of Justice. These innovations later developed into the League of Nations and, after World War II, the United Nations itself.

Macmillan was asked to join an all-female group that presented the peace proposals to the heads of neutral states in the hope of halting the First World War. She visited America to meet President Wilson, who echoed nine of the women’s proposals in his famous Fourteen Points. After the war, the women held a second International Congress in Zurich in May 1919. With wisdom and foresight, they issued a strong condemnation of the harsh terms that were being planned for Germany by the Treaty of Versailles which was to be signed in the following month. Regrettably, their concerns were ignored by the men in power, and so the scene was set for the Second World War.

Once she was called to the Bar in 1924, Macmillan joined the Western Circuit and became only the second woman to be elected to its Bar mess. She co-founded the Open Door Council, which pressed for equal economic opportunities for women, and for the removal of “protective legislation” which prevented women from entering better paid manual jobs such as mining. She remained President of the Open Door Council until her death.

She stood as the Liberal Candidate for Edinburgh North in 1935, coming third in a seat where the Unionist gained two-thirds of the vote. She died in 1937 aged 65 and left legacies to the Open Door Council and to the Association or Moral and Social Hygiene, with which she had worked to combat the trafficking of female sex workers.

Edinburgh University honours her memory through the Chrystal Macmillan Building in the School of Social and Political Studies. A millennium plaque was erected at the King’s Buildings in the Science Department which commemorates her as a suffragist, as a founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and as the first woman science graduate of the university.

Every year Middle Temple awards a prize in her name to the woman with the highest score in the Bar Finals.

Contributor Celia Pilkington, Inner Temple Archivist.

Contributor Harini Iyengar, Steering Group Member of the Temple Women’s Forum.

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