An unlikely pioneer

 

Lady Gregory, Constance Markievicz, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Kathleen Lynn - the history of Irish women is an ever-growing list of impressive pioneers in the arts, politics, medicine and more. As historians dig deeper into the reaches of the past, new names emerge to join the ranks and inspire younger generations.

One such new name is that of Clarewoman Georgina (Georgie) Frost who, after a bizarre legal battle, became the first woman to hold public office from central government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland 80 years ago today. Frost fought her case as far as the House of Lords.

Her triumph came largely thanks to the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which allowed women to enter the legal professions and hold public office (her pending case is thought to have been influential in getting the Act passed). "It was a pure case of a woman standing up for her rights. She was a fine, independent, outgoing lady," recalls Patrick Waldron, whose grandmother was Georgie's first cousin. "She wore tweed skirts and went to rugby internationals. She had flair." Frost was the subject of an impassioned speech by barrister Twinkle Egan at a conference on European Woman and the Law at Munich last year. Although Georgie may not have quite thought of herself as a suffragette, to women like Twinkle, and also Ivana Bacik, another barrister who attended the conference, Georgie is a significant foremother in an area that was for so long a men-only enclave.

"She was from an ordinary family, and she pushed the boat out for all women," says Egan. "It is a crime of silence against women that the decision given in her favour was never officially reported in any Law Reports and merely appears in the House of Lords' weekly notes." Happily, that is rectified in this month's issue of the Irish Law Reports.

Egan and Bacik are also planning a conference on women and the law for next November. Subtitled From Pioneers to Presidents, and supported by the Bar Council, the Law Society and the British Council, it will be attended by Baroness Helena Kennedy. "We'd like to focus on early women in the law," says Bacik, "women like Miss Averill Deverell whose painting hangs in the Law Library, and who was the first woman to practise at the Bar in Ireland." Egan adds: "We will honour Georgie Frost too." Georgie Frost was born in 1879 in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, one of five siblings. Her mother died when she was eight. Her father was clerk of the petty sessions for both Sixmilebridge and nearby Newmarket-on-Fergus. Before him, her maternal grandfather had the job, which corresponded to the duties of a District Court clerk today. It seemed natural enough for the job to pass into the hands of the next generation. The only problem was that the hands in question were Georgie's, and Georgie was a woman.

"She had been assisting her father for six years before he retired in 1915 at the age of 73," says Egan. "Then all these telegrams arrived from Dublin Castle saying `Frost, get back to your post. No woman can hold this position.' " In spite of the telegrams, the local magistrates unanimously elected Georgie Frost to replace her father. When the Lord Lieutenant objected to this, the magistrates gave her a temporary contract of a year, to allow her to fight her case. Two appeals were made (the first was reported as "Frost v The King") by her high-powered legal team before Georgie went on to tackle the House of Lords.

Georgie had a relatively short time to enjoy her victory before the abolition of her job by the Irish Free State government in 1923. Those years were marked by local upheaval, with Georgie held up at gunpoint by the IRA; the petty sessions court house in Newmarket-on-Fergus destroyed; and a raid on the local RIC barracks (after the IRA made off with ammunition, the local sergeant cut his throat, ashamed of his own dereliction of duty; later he was actually prosecuted for attempted suicide). She got a pension - £4 a month - and lived an active life until she died in 1939 aged 59.