Women pioneers in parliament

As Theresa May gets to grips with life in 10 Downing Street, Julie V Gottlieb traces the trials and tribulations of Britain's first female MPs

Viscountess Nancy Astor on her election campaign in 1919. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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One striking aspect of British political life in the aftermath of the EU referendum is the prominence of women in the political sphere. Women are in, or have challenged for, leadership positions at all points of the political spectrum. Within three weeks of polling day, the Conservative party had appointed its second female prime minister, Theresa May. Angela Eagle briefly threw her hat into the ring for the leadership of the Labour party. Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood head the SNP and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales respectively. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton is the favourite to win November’s US presidential election – and become the most powerful person in the world.

Some who have mused about this feminisation of politics have suggested that it was evidence of women coming to the rescue – cleaning up a man-made mess, their ‘safe pairs of hands’ healing wounds inflicted by what was a testosterone-fuelled referendum campaign. This line of argument alludes to women’s innate diplomacy, pacifism and motherly conciliation (though playing upon this latter quality hardly did Angela Leadsom’s bid to become leader of the Conservative party any favours).

But women’s rise to positions of leadership isn’t as historically unprecedented as you might imagine. In fact, the story of women’s politicisation – and the accompanying reaction – began early in the 20th century, in the aftermath of war and the suffrage movement.

Suffragists and suffragettes had done much to place votes for women on the agenda, but it was only in February 1918, as the First World War entered its closing stages, that partial women’s suffrage was achieved. The Representation of the People Act 1918 granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification, and to all men over the age of 21 (the equal franchise was granted in 1928). The vote was the reward for women’s war service and patriotism, though due recognition should be paid to the leaders of the suffrage movement.

For all that, the move provoked a deluge of criticism. Many Britons were appalled by the prospect of women outnumbering men at the polls. Others assumed that women’s home-bound priorities would emasculate national and, in particular, foreign policy.

Women in the house

Concerns were also raised about the activities of an influential and sensationalised minority of feminists, dubbed the ‘Peacettes’, who advocated a negotiated peace. In 1917 William Burdett-Coutts MP argued that women’s suffrage “would not be in the interests of the State from the point of view of its international position… So far as war was possible and might be necessary for the safety of the nation woman could never be a complete unit of responsibility in the national life.”

The International Congress of Women at The Hague in 1915 would be the birthplace of the numerically small but influential Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Though the WILPF would never become a mass movement, feminist internationalism and the development of the role of women as the world’s natural pacifists motivated women’s political engagement across party lines between the wars. As feminist pacifist Evelyn Sharp put it: “Most people still think of the women’s vote as being concerned only with their home interests and their industrial interests,” yet “women are humanly as much concerned with keeping the world at peace as men are,” and “home politics and foreign politics overlap, and what affects the one must to some extent affect the other.”

Though some 8.5 million women now had the vote, it was not until November 1918 that the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act passed, granting women the right to stand for parliament. Herbert Asquith summed up the prevailing attitude to this legislation: “Having extended the franchise to women, parliament could not logically debar them from membership of the House of Commons. They had swallowed the camel, and ought not to strain at the gnat.”

When a general election was called for 14 December 1918, it gave women precious little time to mount a campaign for election. Of the 17 who took up the challenge, only Sinn Fein’s Countess Markievicz was victorious (though she didn’t take her seat in parliament). For the other 16 women candidates – among them Christabel Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, who founded the Women’s Party and stood as its candidate in Smethwick – the day would end in defeat.

When a female MP finally did enter parliament – after winning a by-election for Plymouth-Sutton in 1919 – she wasn’t a iconoclastic star of the suffrage movement but an American-born Conservative viscountess and product of the social elite. Nancy Astor was a complex figure, reactionary and prejudiced on many issues. But she defined herself as a natural-born feminist. “I find women honest, practical, disinterested and sometimes really gifted with vision,” she said.

Astor readily accepted her role as the voice for women. In her maiden speech she declared: “I do not want you to look on your lady member as a fanatic or lunatic. I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves.”

Post-suffrage progress

The mainstream parties reorganised and modernised for this post-suffrage age of mass democracy, acutely aware that women’s votes would be decisive. All three had previously mobilised women: the Conservatives’ mixed-sex Primrose League (from 1883) had been followed by the Women’s Liberal Federation (from 1886) and the Women’s Labour League in 1906. In 1919 the Tories established the Women’s Unionist Associations (later the Women’s Conservative Association), while Labour created the Women’s Section.

Though all three women’s party organisations were highly effective, and provided women with forums in which to express their concerns, sex segregation assured women’s inevitable marginalisation within the parties as a whole. Men remained very firmly in their positions as the power brokers and leaders.

Between 1918 and 1939, 36 women became MPs. Their rarity brought them celebrity. The feminist-leaning Conservative Thelma Cazalet-Keir, an MP from 1931, recalled that “when I entered the House there was still something slightly freakish about a woman MP, and I frequently saw male colleagues point me out to their friends as though I were a sort of giant panda”.

They may have been few in number but women were soon making their voices heard in parliament – and not, as many of the sceptics might have expected, solely on domestic issues. They made telling interventions in defence and foreign policy debates, especially during the crisis-ridden 1930s. Labour’s Ellen Wilkinson, the Conservative renegade Duchess of Atholl and the Independent Eleanor Rathbone made up a formidable female phalanx in defence of the victims of fascism across Europe.

They achieved all this despite the fact that parliament made little allowances for the competing pressures on their time. A disproportionate number of early women MPs were childless, and many unmarried –  a fact that inspired the label Britain’s ‘spinster MPs’. Many fulfilled the role of ‘social mother’ rather than the biological one. Rathbone never married and had no children, but she was the greatest champion of married women and the introduction of family allowances.

Nor did the paltry number of women parliamentarians alleviate the (mostly) male anxieties that women’s suffrage would spell disaster for Great Britain. Women would mother the nation, infantilise and emasculate the country, and create a nanny (or governess) state in their own feminine image – such were the fears, illustrated well by the cartoons of WK Haselden in the Daily Mirror.

The debates leading up to equal franchise in 1928, known as the ‘Flapper’s Vote’ (after the name given to a new breed of women determined to flout society’s conventions), were permeated by fears that men would be engulfed by a generation of frivolous young socialites poised to undermine the decorum of parliament and the gravity of politics.

Variations of these same themes continued in the 1930s and beyond during the debate about appeasement with Hitler’s Germany. Harold Nicolson, National Labour MP and anti-appeaser, was sure that women were responsible for the nation’s self-immobilisation, in the form of the Munich Agreement. “I expect that the historians of our decline and fall will say that we were done the moment we gave the women the vote,” he intoned.

Nicolson probably never envisioned that, within 80 years, not one but two women would have climbed to the very top of Britain’s political ladder. Neither Margaret Thatcher nor Theresa May fulfil narrow gender stereotypes. They are very different women from one another and from many other women of their time – and, in many ways, have little in common with the politics of feminism. Yet, in their achievements, we hear echoes of the feminist aspirations – and the fears of feminisation – that were first aired almost a century ago.

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Julie V Gottlieb is reader in modern history at the University of Sheffield. Her latest book is ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy, and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).