Georgina Frost was both an unremarkable, and yet a quite remarkable woman. She was the daughter of a Petty Sessions clerk from County Clare. She helped out her father in administering two of the courts presided over by the Resident Magistrates of the county before the advent independence in 1922.
Born in 1879, and motherless from the age of eight, Georgina Frost was no Countess Markievicz, nor a Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington. She would be royally shafted by the ‘conservative revolutionaries’ of the Free State government. But, in 1920, she struck her own small blow for Irish women, when her tenacity and perseverance, as well as the justice of her cause, extracted a minor but highly significant concession from the male-dominated establishment.
She was known to one and all as ‘Georgie’, and when her father, Thomas Frost, retired in 1915, as Petty Sessions clerk for Sixmilebridge and Newmarket on Fergus, the County Clare Resident Magistrates sensibly decided that, as she had already been doing the job for a number of years, Georgie was the right person to take over from her Dad. The position was the equivalent of a District Court clerk today
But when their decision was conveyed to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, he objected on the grounds that ‘Georgie’, was actually Georgina. It wasn’t that she couldn’t do the job, clearly she was very good at it. But, according to Wimborne, there were issues of decorum at stake, what was described in a court case ‘the unfitness of certain painful and exacting duties in relation to the finer qualities of women’
Now, undoubtedly Georgie Frost had many fine qualities, but she was keen to retain those qualities, as well as the job, for which she was eminently suited and experienced. So, she sued, and lost. The case was entitled Frost v The King, which has a certain meteorological flavor to it. It was heard in 1919, and the judge agreed with the Lord Lieutenant that court work was not appropriate for such a delicate flower as a woman.
At which point Georgie should have taken her ‘finer qualities’ and gone back to the family kitchen.
But she was made of sterner stuff. Obviously one of her ‘finer qualities’ was a refusal to kow-tow to the authorities, all of whose members happened to be men. She appealed. And lost again. Surely now she would get the message and not pursue her attempt to inflict those ‘painful and exacting duties’ on her feeble feminine frame?
No such luck. Georgie wasn’t having any of it, and appealed to the House of Lords! At this point the British government threw up its hands and cried ‘mercy’. In December 1919, the King signed a new piece of legislation called the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act into law. The first section of the new legislation read as follows:
A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial Office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society.
What that meant in proper English was that Georgina Frost had won. Not that the law had been introduced because the government feared that Georgie might impress their Lordships, and win her second appeal. Perish the thought!
The Lord Lieutenant relented, and the appointment of Miss Georgina Frost as Sixmilebridge Petty Sessions clerk was confirmed, and made retrospective. Her tenure was brief but exciting, and included an IRA raid where she was held at gunpoint.
In 1923 the new Free State government abolished Petty Session courts and Resident Magistrates. Out with the RMs went the clerks. Georgina lost the job which she had fought so hard to secure. Although District Courts replaced the Petty Sessions she didn’t get her job back. Of course, this had nothing whatever to do with the fact that she was a woman. Perish the thought! She was a mere lackey of the British establishment. The one she had taken on and beaten. She did get a pension of four pounds a week, which she enjoyed up to her death in 1939 at the age of fifty-nine.
The unassuming, but obviously steely Georgina Frost, became, retrospectively, the first woman to hold paid public office in the UK, ninety-seven years ago, on this day.