You might not be aware that it wasn’t until 1920 that women were allowed to be recognised as Chartered Accountants. The very first woman to take that mantle was Mary Harris Smith; this is her story.
Destined to be a great accountant
Mary Harris Smith was born in 1844 in London, and it was apparent from very early in her life that she was a gifted mathematician. Her father, a clerk to a navy agent and a banker, recognised her abilities and encouraged her. At 16, she was studying with a Master of King’s College School, before taking bookkeeping classes.
In 1887, Mary set up her own accountancy firm trading as a M. Harris Smith, Public Accountant. She had huge success and made a good living. It was said that her reputation was such that she was regularly requested to audit the accounts of organisations.
Her first application
While she had success as an accountant and was living comfortably, she yearned for the status and prestige of being a Chartered Accountant. She first applied for membership of the Institute of Chartered Accounts in England and Wales (ICAEW) in 1891, believing herself to be fully qualified to do so.
She was turned away on the basis that women could not be recognised as Chartered Accountants. This decision unsurprisingly rankled her. In 1895, she was quoted saying “require of me what you would require of a man and I will fulfil it.”
The successful application
She made multiple further attempts to become a member, but was turned down each time. Despite her years of accountancy expertise and stellar reputation, it was against the rules. However, thankfully, change was on the horizon.
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in 1919 which made it illegal for ICAEW to refuse to admit accountants based on their sex. Mary applied to ICAEW again and this time she was recognised as the first female Chartered Accountant.
It clearly meant a lot to Mary to be recognised in this way. She was 75 when she was finally admitted as a Chartered Accountant, and she continued working into the late 1920s until her health started to deteriorate.
It was in May 2020 that the City of London chose to honour Mary’s life – it was the 100th anniversary of her being accepted by the ICAEW as a Chartered Accountant. A blue plaque was commissioned to be placed in the City – one of just three plaques (out of 182) that celebrate the life of an individual woman.
The plaque will stand at the corner of Queen Victoria Street and Bucklersbury, which is close to where Mary’s office was situated when she was awarded her Chartered status.
A progressive campaigner
As well as being the first female Chartered Accountant, Mary was a vociferous campaigner for progressive women’s rights and feminism. She was a proud supporter of the famous campaign for women’s suffrage and was also involved in movements such as the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, and the National Union of Women Workers.
Having lived almost her whole life in London, Mary enjoyed retirement in St Leonard’s on Sea in East Sussex, and died there in 1934.
We hope you enjoyed learning about Mary Harris Smith, the world’s first female Chartered Accountant. If you are interested in working with a Chartered Accountant on any issue, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with our experienced team today.