I love The Guardian‘s use of archival material on its website; one of the many stories from its archive that I’ve enjoyed looks back at the first woman jurors at the Central Criminal Court – formerly the Old Bailey.
Only 30 years prior to The Guardian’s story, a joke made the rounds of the press that mocked women’s ability to be objective jurors:
A SYMPATHETIC JURY
First Female Juror (some years hence): “There seems to be no doubt that the prisoner, Mr Handlecash, stole 100,000 from the company that employed him. Was he indulgent to his wife?
Second Female Juror: “Yes, indeed. He gave her everything she wanted.”
Third Female Juror: “She had just a lovely time – trips to Europe, Worth’s dresses, opera box, everything.”
Verdict: We, the jury in the case of Mr Handlecash, find that the prisoner was an over-indulgent husband, who should be reprimanded by the court, the company to pay the costs.
(Shields Daily Gazette, 23 January 1892)
Yet within a few years of female jurors appearing in court, the papers were stating that the opposite case was true; that an outcry had previously been raised over women jurors “as they were callous and unsympathetic and especially prone to severity in the case of male offenders”.
In one case at the Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions in 1926, it was recorded that “one of the ladies of the jury” had insisted on a male thief being dealt with leniently because he was surely a first offender. She had to be disabused of that by the judge, who pointed out that the thief had a 16 year history of offences, and several prior convictions, before pleading guilty in this particular case. (Western Daily Press, 1 July 1926)
Other contemporaries had argued that women shouldn’t be in the jury box because juries were a place for “calm, cold, analytical reasoning, and not for unfortunate displays of uncontrolled emotion”. (Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 November 1926) The Gloucester woman may have been regarded in this light, looking at a man and believing that he could not have committed any prior offence because of his face, or his looks, or his demeanour.
It was clear that having women on juries prompted a wide range of feelings – women were too emotional or not emotional enough; prone to agree with female testimony and disagree with male. One report about the first female jurors in London noted that out of four women sworn in, two had asked to be excused:
“The first said that she had an aged mother of 83 whom she was unable to leave, and the Judge at once accepted her excuse. The second said she had a tobacconist’s business, and had no assistant to look after it while she was away. She was released.”
The other two women were keen to serve; and perhaps this one case suggests that many women wanted to be a part of the process, and only sought to escape it when they had caring or business responsibilities that had to come first. However, this was not always the case. On the second jury sworn in at the Central Criminal Court was one woman who sought to excuse herself:
“I have not the time, and I am so awfully nervous that I don’t think I am suitable.”
The Common Serjeant: I don’t think I can accept that excuse, or I should get no ladies at all.”
“I am sure there are numbers who would enjoy it,” rejoined the lady quickly.
“Who are more strong-minded than yourself?” asked the Judge.
“Yes,” said the lady. She was excused.
(Western Daily Press, 12 January 1921)
This dialogue shows that some men regarded women as fundamentally unsuited to jury work due to their ‘nervousness’ and emotion; but women themselves recognised that they were all different, and that for every one who was reluctant to serve, another would greatly enjoy the opportunity.