Shifting the Boundaries of the Public and the Private : Ellen Pinsent, Women and the Mental Deficiencies Act 1913

Published: Posted on

By  Eleanor O’Donnell

The position of women in society at the beginning of the 20th Century was one of subordination. The separation of the private and public sphere perpetuated this by emphasizing the ideal woman remains at home, whilst the ideal man went out to work in public. ‘During [this] period…[the] separation of the public and private was given legal sanction: married women were not allowed to own property or make contracts in their own name’.[1] It seemed unlikely a woman would become an influential policymaker and directly impact a historical act addressing mental health and special education. This is, however, what Ellen Pinsent accomplished at a time when women had limited autonomy. This essay will explore whether Pinsent strengthened the relationship between women and the law by breaking the division between the public and private, or whether she worsened the position. Through the analysis of her legal influence and exploration of some of the debates at the time, this essay will discuss the effects of Pinsent’s efforts both locally and nationally. It will also critically discuss the impact Pinsent had on the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 (the Act). I will conclude that the outcome of the Act was juridogenic for some women; control of the moral and sexual conduct of lower class women was a greater concern than the care of the “mentally deficient.”

Local Story

Ellen Pinsent lived on Bennett’s Hill, Birmingham.[2] She was married with three children. Although she had limited education, she became a key policymaker in the ‘emerging system of special education’[3] at the beginning of the 20th Century, defying norms and refusing to adhere to the stereotype of the “ideal woman.”


She broke gender barriers when she became Birmingham’s first woman City Councillor as well as the Chairman of the Special Schools Committee (SSC). As Chairman of the SSC, she visited all 56 elementary schools in Birmingham to personally select those who were “mentally defective”—a degrading term implying inferiority used at the time—and, consequently, would be transferred to special schools. This marked the beginning of her role as an influential policymaker. Before this selection process in Birmingham, there were only 66 “feeble-minded” children in three classes, however, this rose to 1281 children at 8 different schools by 1913.[4] It was not only the schooling of these children that concerned her; she was also concerned with their after-care and insisted on permanent institutionalisation for some which, she felt, would ‘ensure permanent care to those individuals who [had] not improved sufficiently to face the struggles and temptations of life with some reasonable chance of success’. [5]


National Story

Ellen’s had a noteworthy national career in special education.[6] She was the only woman appointed to the Royal Commission which, in 1908, published the Radnor Report—the main influence for the Act of 1913. After 1913, she also served as a Commissioner on the Board of Control which was assembled to deal with the after-care of the “mentally deficient.” Her service lead her to become the highest paid female civil servant of her time.[7] This was a great achievement for a woman; however, arguably she may have held this position to meet a statutory requirement of at least one female on the Board of Control. Furthermore, only one female was employed at a time and, although there were more women employed at lower levels—for example as inspectors, they still received a notably lower wage than their male counterparts. Women were paid between £400–£650 compared to men who received £500–£800.[8] This demonstrates how little had changed in practice with respect to the treatment of women as subordinate in the public sphere. Essentially, women were only employed to important governmental positions because the Act made it mandatory.


Legal Analysis

As previously mentioned, Ellen served on the Royal Commission which directly influenced the Act. The Act outlined a process to identify mental deficiency by giving control to local authorities, making certain individuals ‘subjects to be dealt with’.[9] It established three categories of the “mentally deficiency”; in the degrading language of the time these were idiots, imbeciles and the feeble-minded. The Act permitted the permanent institutionalisation of some “defectives.” This was in line with Ellen’s earlier suggestions that permanent care should be provided for those individuals who have ‘not improved sufficiently to face the struggles and temptations of life with some reasonable chance of success.’[10]


The ‘fashionable science of Eugenics’[11] was inarguably one of the driving factors behind the Act’s support for permanent care. Ellen was also a member of the Eugenic Education Society and was on the general committee of the First International Eugenic Congress.[12] The Eugenics movement was concerned with the reproduction of the working class and singled out ‘abnormally fertile women who gave birth to defective children’ as the most serious threat to society.[13] It is no surprise that the Act included the institutionalisation of the “mentally defective” as this reflected society’s Eugenic values of the time. The reflection of Pinsent’s opinions and suggestions within the Act demonstrate that ‘her local power and authority influenced the national debate concerning mental deficiency’.[14]


The Overlooking of Women

Despite being the pioneer behind the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, Pinsent’s local work which influenced national debate is hardly recognised.[15] It could be claimed that Pinsent’s work is hardly recognised due to the law’s ‘continuing tendency to overlook women’.[16] For examply, in A History of the Mental Health Services,[17] Ellen’s influence on the treatment of the “mentally deficient” is discussed in just one page.  The history of the relationship between women and the law demonstrates this proposition. The old common law of coverture enforced that, once married, women lost all their property and wages to their husbands.[18] As Zaher explained, ‘upon marriage the husband and wife became one—him’.[19]  This is also reflected in the more recent case, Etridge.[20] In the re-written feminist judgment it is noted that the court  ‘did not focus on how equity could assist the wronged women, but upon how it might assist the lender’.[21] This is a prime example of the law continuously overlooking women and, arguably, the reason why Ellen’s achievements in strengthening the relationship between women and the law, are not given adequate acknowledgment.


Class Discrimination

An alternative argument would be that Pinsent only benefitted from her position in government because she was a middle-class woman. This is supported by the fact that ‘a role for middle-class women working with children and the poor had been identified well before Ellen Pinsent took official position’.[22] Subsequently, it can be argued that Ellen and the Act only improved the relationship between women and the law for middle class women. In reality, the relationship between the law and working-class women suffered as the Act aimed to control and discriminate against them.


Ellen believed that the upper classes should care for marginalised children during the socialization process,[23] making the assumption that lower classes were not able to care for and socialise their own children. This is evidenced by the Act’s regulation of working class women’s sexuality. The Board of Control appeared to be more concerned with the “moral deficiency” of individuals than their intellectual ability. In 1921, the Board of Control stated: ‘some [individuals] are intellectually of high grade but their conduct has for so long been antisocial…and their self-control is apparently lacking that they have been labelled as mentally deficient’.[24] This can be linked to Ellen’s support for the Eugenics regime. Wamsley also noted that;


The groundwork for the passing of the act…assisted by a vigorous campaign conducted by the Eugenics Education Society…[meant] it was women who were singled out in parliamentary debates as posing the greatest threat: largely because of the perception that illegitimacy and a rising birth rate amongst the lower classes were both attributable to feeble-minded women.[25]


Sexual control and regulation of working class women therefore became the main motivation of those enforcing the Act. Between 1916 and 1918, Bedfordshire Mental Deficiency Committee considered the “mental deficiency” of 13 males and 22 females. Of the 13 males, only 4 were sent to an institution for “mental deficiency”, whereas 15 of the 22 women where admitted. [26] This shows the disproportionate effects on women compared to men. Furthermore, many of the reasons why those females were sent to the institutions were sexual in nature; they had little to do with cognitive ability. Walmsley gave the example of Enid and Emily. Enid was described as ‘vacant, restless, walked badly unable to talk and an imbecile’ but it was concluded that she should remain at home. On the other hand, Emily was found ‘only clothed in a nightdress, with her leg out the window…smiling to the workmen opposite’ and was sent to an institution.[27] Not only was Emily’s conduct of a sexual nature and condemned as more harmful to society than Enid’s intellectual disability, Emily was from a rescue centre and was most likely from the working class.  The increased concern with the sexual conduct of lower class women determined their fate, illustrating how the Act was more concerned with controlling certain women than caring for them. If the Act was actually concerned with the care of women, how can one explain the inconsistent treatment of Emily and Enid?



In conclusion, Ellen Pinsent did shift the boundaries from the public and private by becoming an influential policymaker in an era characterised by women’s subordination. However, looking at the Act in practice, it can be reasonably concluded that the motive was to marginalise and regulate the conduct of lower class women to prevent the reproduction of “mentally defective” children. Ellen Pinsent and the Mental Deficiency Act strengthened the relationship between upper class women and the law, while marginalising and oppressing women of the lower working classes. This leads one to conclude that Ellen’s feminist achievements were juridogenic and should not be credited as achieving equality for women in the law; they failed to comprehend the intersection between social structures of class and gender.


[1] Jane Lewis, ‘Women in England 1870-1950: Sexual Divisons and Social Change’,(Prentice-Hall 1984).

[2] Fiona Tait,‘Guided Walk:Thinkers and Do-ers:Creating a Great City’(Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage,21 July2016)<>accessed 5 October 2017

[3] Anna Brown,‘Ellen Pinsent:Including the ‘Feebleminded’ in Birmingham,1900-1913(2005)34 History of Education,535.

[4] (n3)538.

[5] Ibid,541.

[6] Ibid,535.

[7] Matthew Thomson,The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain, 1870 – 1959(OUP 1998)84.

[8]  Ibid.

[9] Jan Wamsley, ‘Women and the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913: Citizenship, Sexuality and Regulation’, (2000)28 British Journal of Learning Disabilities65.

[10] (n5).

[11] (n9)66.

[12] (n3)537.

[13] (n9)66.

[14] (n3)537.

[15] (n3)536.

[16] (n3)535.

[17] Kathleen Jones,A History of the Mental Health Services(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1972)187.

[18] Claudia Zaher,‘When a Woman’s Marital Status Determined Her Legal Status: A Research Guide on the Common Law Doctrine of Coverture’(2002)94 Law Library Journal,461.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Royal Bank of Scotland Plc v Etridge (No 2) [2002] 2 AC 773

[21] Hunter et al(eds),Feminist Judgments:From Theory to Practice(Hart Publishing 2010)151.

[22] Patricia Hollis, ‘Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government1865 – 1914’ (Oxford:Clarendon 1987)537.

[23] (n3)432.

[24] (n9)68.

[25] Ibid,66.

[26] (n9)67

[27] Ibid.

Further Reading


  1. Lewis J, ‘Women in England 1870-1950: Sexual Divisons and Social Change
  2. Tait F, ‘Guided Walk: Thinkers and Do-ers: Creating a Great City’ (Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage, 21 July 2016) <> accessed 5 October 2017
  3. Brown A, ‘Ellen Pinsent: Including the ‘Feebleminded’ in Birmingham, 1900-1913 (2005) 34 History of Education
  4. Thomson M, The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain, 1870 – 1959 (OUP 1998).
  5. Wamsley J, ‘Women and the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913: Citizenship, Sexuality and Regulation’, (28) British Journal of Learning Disabilities.
  6. Jones K, A History of the Mental Health Services (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1972)
  7. Zaher C, ‘When a Woman’s Marital Status Determined Her Legal Status: A Research Guide on the Common Law Doctrine of Coverture’ (2002) 94 Law Library Journal.
  8. Royal Bank of Scotland Plc v Etridge (No 2) [2002] 2 AC 773
  9. Hunter et al (eds), Feminist Judgments: From Theory to Practice (Hart Publishing 2010)
  10. Hollis P, ‘Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government 1865 – 1914’ (Oxford : Clarendon 1987)


1 thought on “Shifting the Boundaries of the Public and the Private : Ellen Pinsent, Women and the Mental Deficiencies Act 1913”

  1. I found the article very interesting and it bore out all that I had discovered, and began to understand, about “Mrs Hume Pinsent.” The short video and the internet article from the Birmingham City Council, concerning the renaming of a committee room to the Ellen Pinsent Room, makes no mention of eugenics.

    I would just add an observation that could be of interest. In November 1911 there was to be a women’s conference in Birmingham by the District branch of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. It looks as if Ellen Pinsent had agreed to be the Chair, but reconsidered her decision as she thought that in doing so she might mislead the public as to her attitude on the controversial question of woman suffrage. Mariela Laken Smith, the Chair of the Branch added that Ellen Pinsent had always consistently refused to take either side on the suffrage question, and had absolutely declined repeated invitations from both parties to join their ranks.

Comments are closed.