Guilty women?

Julie V Gottlieb describes how Britain's female 'pacifist' voters were vilified for supporting Neville Chamberlain's disastrous appeasement policy

A woman at a floral tribute to Neville Chamberlain at a florist in Ludgate Circus, London, 1938. In the wake of the Munich agreement, the prime minister was understood to be a hero of women everywhere. (Photo by Harry Todd/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Did British men and women react in the same way to the imminence of the Second World War? How did women feel about the Munich agreement, the notorious false dawn of ‘peace in our time’ struck between Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier and Chamberlain on 29 September 1938, which permitted the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland and promised to avert war?

From the moment the ink dried in the wind on Chamberlain’s copy of the agreement as he alighted at Heston airport, historians have debated, and often in excruciating detail, the wisdom, morality and realpolitik of appeasement. However, they have tended to pay secondary attention to the public’s feelings about foreign policy, and almost entirely ignored women’s side of the story.

The Equal Franchise Act of 1928 gave women the right to vote on the same terms as men. Now that they had the vote, women’s political power and influence was a matter of concern, coinciding in the 1930s with the deepening anxieties about the potential and increasing probability of another world war. As veteran suffragist and the staunchest of anti-appeasement MPs Eleanor Rathbone noted on the 21st anniversary of women’s partial enfranchisement, and on the brink of conflict, women’s suffrage meant that everyone had “a share in choosing their rulers, and also a share in responsibility for that choice”. What’s more, equal suffrage was only a decade old by the time women were considering their roles as full citizens in another People’s War.

Indeed, there were striking gender differentials in public opinion about war preparedness, Britain’s involvement in another conflict, and support for the architect of appeasement, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

From the gripping weeks in September when Chamberlain flew to visit Hitler, through the months that followed the doomed Munich agreement, in the main British women were at least perceived to be the greater champions of appeasement. Public opinion polls, very much in their infancy in the late 1930s, found that “women are the best friends of Mr Chamberlain’s policy,” with those “in favour of Mr Chamberlain’s policy: men 21 per cent; women 27 per cent”.

Mass Observation made an extensive study of public feeling during the tense autumn weeks, concluding that “at every stage in the crisis the women have proven the conservative, peace-at-anyprice and pro-Chamberlain element”. The prime minister himself counted on disproportionate support from women, both from the nation at large and from within his family circle – his most trusted political confidantes were his two unmarried sisters, Ida and Hilda.

Chamberlain placed great store in the piles of ‘Crisis Letters’ he and his wife received from women from across the class spectrum and all corners of the empire, rather naively regarding these missives as indicators of public opinion as a whole. Correspondents expressed their instinctive pacifism as mothers,and their relief and gratitude for Chamberlain the peacemaker. Typical examples came from Mrs Helen Alison who felt it her “duty as a mother to show my appreciation to you for what you have accomplished in averting what was certain disaster to our country”. Meanwhile, EA Russell spoke for herself and other mothers describing the “agony of suspense” of the crisis, and prayed that the prime minister “have the health and endurance to accomplish your Christian work – so that our children can live in security”.

Chamberlain’s wife, Anne, enjoyed her husband’s reflected glory and on 1 October 1938, “arms outstretched to greet the wife of the man who has made peace, women in Downing-street sob their thankfulness as Mrs Chamberlain left No 10 for her daily walk in St James’s Park”.

That appeasement was regarded as a ‘woman’s peace’was also reflected in the sentiments expressed by diplomats. Dino Grandi, Italian ambassador in London, wrote in a personal note to Chamberlain on 16 September how he had “broken the evil spell and millions of mothers in Europe and in the world over are blessing you to-day”. Similarly, the night Munich was signed, Nevile Henderson wrote from the British embassy in Berlin: “Millions of women will tonight throughout the world be blessing you your courage and energy.” Chamberlain was understood to be the hero of women everywhere.

Many anti-appeasers identified a simple equation and direct causality, namely that the emancipation of women had facilitated the ignominious policy of appeasement, and, more broadly, sown the seeds of national decline. This was summed up by the MP Harold Nicolson, who confessed in his diary less than a fortnight after the Munich agreement: “Go up to Leicester. Bertie Jarvis says I have put the women’s vote against me by abusing Munich. I expect that the historians of our decline and fall will say that we were done the moment we gave the women the vote.”

Many of the newspapers certainly agreed, and a common strand in the coverage of the unusually high number of by-elections that took place after Munich was that women would vote as a bloc for the pro-appeasement government candidates. Covering the Oxford City by-election in November, journalists speculated that Lindsay, the anti-appeasement candidate, faced an uphill struggle as “a large proportion of women were still obsessed by gratitude to Mr Chamberlain for momentarily averting war”. In Dartford, Labour’s anti-appeasement candidate Mrs Adamson was still worried about “the extra women’s vote” in favour of the pro-appeasement candidate.

The focus on women voters as a bloc was due, of course, to the addition of 4,750,000 women to the electorate with the Equal Franchise Act (July 1928). As it happens, Lindsay lost the by-election whereas Adamson won, and there is no evidence to prove the surmise that women voted in much larger numbers for pro-appeasement candidates. Nor does it help that ballot papers are not pink and blue!

What was happening instead was that British women, as a collective, and women voters, as a presumed bloc, were being set up as the fall guys – the fall girls – for the failure of appeasement. It was perhaps too easy for the men in power to blame the women who continued to have negligible political power despite suffrage (during the inter-war years only 36 women were elected MPs), and to scapegoat women for politicians’ own lack of foresight. Indeed, this search for scapegoats produced one of the most misogynist texts of the war years.

Evil works

Only a year after the publication of ‘Cato’s’ indictment of the ‘Men of Munich’ in Guilty Men (1940), political journalist and Allied propagandist Richard Baxter provided something of an unofficial sequel in Guilty Women (two printings in 1941). This little-known booklet marvelled at the public ignorance about the evil work that women could do at the levels of diplomacy and in the sphere of foreign relations, and the menace they posed as fifth columnists capable of infiltrating the British elite. While much of Baxter’s evidence would not stand the test of time and the careful scrutiny of the historian, it is still significant that a dissident voice emerged in British anti-fascist propaganda that raised the question of British women’s part in appeasing the dictators.

Baxter’s mission was to expose the proverbial female power behind the throne, and he claimed that “possibly never in the history of Europe has the influence of women been so marked, both openly and sub rosa, in political life as during the past ten years. Few realise that much of the suffering now being endured is due to that influence.”

In addition to a handful of fifth columnists who made good copy for a paranoid writer, Baxter was also deeply suspicious of the well-intentioned female political activist whom he regarded as easily deceived by the overtures to peace directed at her by conniving and intriguingly attractive foreign men. He mocked the “heroines making dramatic sacrifices for a cause which they hold to be dear”. He described two distinct types: “Those who were consciously guilty and those who did not realise until almost too late that they were being used as the tools of the Nazis. The ‘unconsciously guilty’ women in this country by far outnumbered those who were conscious of their guilt. They were supporters of the policy of appeasement, disarmament, and no more war.”

Who were these guilty women? There were, of course, some notable women who had influence with the makers of foreign policy. The demonised Cliveden Set – so-dubbed in 1936 by Claud Cockburn, leftist publisher of The Week, to describe the pro-Nazi members of the Tory establishment who frequently met at the Astor’s Cliveden estate – had the opinionated and prejudiced Nancy Astor, MP for Plymouth Sutton as one of its main protagonists.

The well-connected but politically naïve Emerald Cunard was rumoured to be responsible for infecting the then Prince of Wales and his mistress Wallis Simpson with pro-Nazism. Lord and Lady Londonderry were renowned for entertaining Joachim von Ribbentrop when he was German ambassador in London. For Edith Londonderry, the Munich agreement represented the wisdom of her generation against the superficiality and contradictions of the postwar generation all “marching along, armed to the teeth in the cause of peace!”

Just as ominously, Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and Lord Halifax, British foreign secretary, actually shared a mistress and confidante in these years, Alexandra (Baba) Metcalfe, the wife of ‘Fruity’ Metcalfe, Edward VIII’s equerry, as well as Mosley’s sister-in-law.

The women of the Chamberlain family corresponded with the prime minister on almost a daily basis, reinforcing his determination to preserve the peace at high cost. Furthermore, it is striking how many well-placed titled ladies were in attendance and shared a table with Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the Nazi women’s leader. This took place as late as March 1939 – demonstrating the lengths women would go to foster friendly international relations.

Baxter would have been thinking about these women as well as pro-appeasement absolute pacifists – affiliated to the Peace Pledge Union and an array of other pacifist organisations – such as the lay preacher Dr Maude Royden, the internationalist Helena Swanwick, the actress Sybil Thorndike, and the writer Vera Brittain. Such women’s pacifist vision blurred uncomfortably with that of anti-war Nazi-sympathising women on the far right active in Mosley’s British Union, the Anglo-German Fellowship, the Link and the Right Club.

But were these women guilty? If so, what were they guilty of? And were they any more culpable than their male counterparts for wanting to spare their offspring another world war? Women were a convenient target for critics of appeasement because – unable to define the ‘woman’s point of view’ or the ‘women’s bloc’ – they resorted to using ‘women’ as the short answer for all that they struggled to explain.

In 1938 women were portrayed as the ‘Munich Mums’, holding men back from doing what was right, decisive and honourable. Fast forward seven decades and, as the 2010 general election approached, commentators were bemoaning the undue influence of a mother’s social networking site on the ‘Mumsnet election’. Perhaps things haven’t changed as much in the intervening years as we might think.

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Julie V Gottlieb is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Sheffield and the author of Feminine Fascism (IB Tauris, 2000). She is working on her new book Guilty Women: Gender and Appeasement in Britain.