Ethel Watts: A professional revolutionary
To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, Helen Thornley looks at the life of Ethel Watts – the first woman admitted to the ICAEW by examination after the profession was opened up to women.
Last year, after some pandemic-related delays, a blue plaque commissioned by the ICAEW was finally installed to commemorate the life and work of Mary Harris Smith. Their first female member, she was admitted as a Fellow in May 1920 at the age of 72 after a lifetime campaigning for equal access to the profession for women. This goal was finally achieved with the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.
While Harris Smith clearly deserves recognition, and it is understandable that ICAEW focused their attention on her, I would argue that the second woman admitted to ICAEW – and the first by examination, on the same terms with her male contemporaries – also made a huge difference to the attitudes of the accountancy profession to women.
By the time Ethel Watts retired after 40 years in practice, she had been elected to the influential London and District Branch Committee, sat on the executive committee of CABA (the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association) and, in 1962, represented the ICAEW in New York at the Eighth International Congress of Accountants.
This all marked a major change from the start of her career as an articled clerk in 1920, when the local student body addressed a dinner invitation to 'Miss E Watts Esq', asking her to attend in dinner jacket and black bow tie. They then expressed great relief when she declined the invitation.
Early life and career
The eldest daughter of a police constable from Mile End, Watts was born in 1895 and attended Coburn School for Girls in Bow. This was followed by Bedford College and Royal Holloway, where she obtained a BA in History. For much of her education, she was in receipt of scholarships.
After leaving Royal Holloway in 1917, Watts then disappears from view – perhaps her life disrupted by the Great War – before signing up for her articles in August 1920. Although articled to a firm with offices in Manchester and Aberystwyth, her address is recorded as her family home in Mile End.
Of the 10 women who signed up in the first year after the 1919 Act, a few were articled to fathers or other male members of their family. Watts had no obvious family connections but she clearly had made some important connections as, in later life, she recorded that it was Sir Harry Peat (whose father Sir William Peat is the P in KPMG) who suggested that she should try accountancy as a career.
Watts completed her final exams in November 1923 and was admitted as an associate in February 1924. She then worked for W B Peat & Co. for a year before setting up her own practice near Victoria Street in London, which she ran until her retirement in 1961.
Involvement with ICAEW
For the first 10 years post qualification, Watts focused on establishing her business and family. She married in 1929 and had a son, Richard Watt-Tobin, in 1934.
Also from 1934 is the first evidence in her papers at the Women’s Library at the LSE of her contacting the ICAEW after qualification. Watts had noticed that, more than a decade after sitting her own exams (and unlike any other examining body), the ICAEW was still numbering the few female examination candidates first, and seating them together. Watts was concerned that this partially removed their anonymity, especially given their low numbers, and sought advice from Sir Harry Peat about raising her concerns with the ICAEW. He duly replied with details of who to contact, although somewhat tongue in cheek suggested that if the women were to be mixed up with the men, they should be covered up so their beauty did not distract the male candidates.
By the 1940s, Watts was increasingly involved in the Institute, contributing to (and significantly rewriting) the ICAEW’s contribution to a Government survey of equal pay following the increase in women working in accountancy practices during the war years.
Despite women carrying out more accounting and audit work as a result of the war, the numbers of women qualifying as Chartered Accountants remained low. By 1949, some 30 years after the 1919 Act, there were still only 125 female members out of a membership of around 15,000, with one member saying she felt ‘like a mermaid sitting on a rock’. Watts sought to tackle this isolation by founding the ICAEW Women’s Chartered Accountants Dining society.
Outside the ICAEW
Watts also put her tax and accountancy skills to good use outside of her practice. Believing in equal citizenship, she used her knowledge to support campaigns for equal pay, for the separate taxation of married couples, and to provide advice on financial matters to various women’s organisations. Watts chaired the Fawcett Society from the 1930s and was also active in the Labour Party.
It’s clear too from her correspondence that her ability to articulate an argument was highly regarded. Friends and contacts at various organisations would often send her drafts to review and improve - which she did willingly.
Perhaps surprisingly, Watts didn’t view herself as pioneer. Instead, she viewed those women (and men) who had ‘opened the doors’ as having done the really meaningful work – women like Mary Harris Smith with whom Watts had correspondence, and men like Sir Harry Peat that employed women in a professional capacity.
However, I think her contribution is just as important in its own way. There was very much an attitude in the profession at the time (and arguably beyond) that just because it was no longer legal to exclude women, there were still plenty of ways of introducing obstacles to keep them out by other means. Opening the door is very important, but we still owe a lot to those who took the first steps through it.
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Helen Thornley has a focus on personal and capital taxes. Initially training as an accountant before moving to tax, she worked in practice until her appointment as a technical officer in 2017. She also has an interest in the history of tax.