The History of Women’s Rights: What has the Magna Carta Done for Us?

Anne Jacqui radio

Professor Anne Lawrence and Dr Jacqui Turner being interviewed for BBC World Service, 3 August 2018

Professor Anne Lawrence and Dr Jacqui Turner recently spoke to Dan Damon on the BBC World Service about Magna Carta and its implications for women’s rights. Here they reflect on some of the key points of that interview. You can listen to the interview on the BBC iplayer – their section starts at 16:55 of the recording.

What connects Magna Carta to feminism today? We have an answer – and it is a book published in 1632.  The book is called The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights and its title can claim to be the first time the phrase ‘women’s rights’ was used in print!  In the search for these hoped-for rights, its author surveyed English law from Magna Carta to the reign of Elizabeth I, as well as consulting the Bible. The results were disappointing, and in places the  author’s tone is almost shocked; yet the belief that ‘women’s rights’ should be there to be found in English law, and that Magna Carta was the place to start, remains a landmark. Even better, the University of Reading has a copy of this book in the Lady Stenton Library, part of the university’s Special Collections.

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A Garden Party I would like to have attended… Cliveden 18th July 1928. #OTD from the Nancy Astor Archive

by Rachel Newton, UROP student

Rachel 1This summer, I have a research internship working with Dr Jacqui Turner on a University Research Opportunity Programme (UROP) within the History Department and in collaboration with Special Collections here at the University of Reading.  We are preparing a digital exhibition curating material from the Nancy Astor archive to tell the story of the political career and legacy of Nancy Astor, the first sitting female MP in Britain.  While researching, I came across these fascinating and timely documents relating to a garden party that Astor held at her country home Cliveden House to celebrate the passing of the Equal franchise Act of 1928, the garden party was organised by NUSEC and heralded the opportunity to meet Millicent Fawcett.

90 years ago, today, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) held a Garden Party at Cliveden House (the home of Lord and Lady Astor) in celebration of the passing of the Equal Franchise act of 1928. This act gave equal voting rights to men AND women over the age of 21. It was a significant development from the 1918 Representation of the People Act that gave some women the vote for the first time, but on restricted terms. Thus, this was a huge achievement and an important occasion that deserved a celebration!

Rachel 2

Attendees were welcomed to the great house and were provided with train times to make travelling more convenient – look at how regular the trains were! On arriving at the party, they could expect “attractions”, outlined in the source below; activities such as Hoopla” “Coconut Shies” and an “American tennis tournament” – what a treat! “Character Reading” might also have been illuminating considering the inspiring and determined group of women who attended.

Rachel 3

Even more exciting was the opportunity to meet Dame Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS and avid campaigner for women’s rights more broadly. She was an honoured guest at such a celebration. The letter below is her acceptance, even though she had lost the RSVP address, she described it as a “treat day”.

Rachel 4

Unfortunately, Lady Astor could not be present herself as she was in Plymouth on constituency duty. However, the party was a great success and her offering of Cliveden for the occasion is an example of her ongoing support for the equal franchise. Astor’s work and support for the suffrage movement often goes unnoticed. She acted as a conduit between the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) and other women’s organisations and an, often reluctant, Conservative Party. She often held meetings for various women’s groups at her London home, 4 St James’s Square, where she would also invite senior politicians and influencers. This often provided a unique opportunity for campaigners to interact with influential people (most often men) helping establish communications that may otherwise have been difficult to facilitate.

It is not the only example of Astor supporting causes directly related to women and through this UROP I have been able to discover many instances where she devoted herself to the development of women’s rights. Let’s remember she was MP for Plymouth Sutton for 26 years- an incredible achievement for a female MP during the interwar period.  Through this project, with Dr Jacqui Turner and postgraduate researcher Melanie Khuddro, we are researching and curating a digital exhibition to prepare for the centenary celebrations surrounding Astor’s election in 1919, and these documents are just a taster of what’s to come. Make sure you keep an eye out for ASTOR100 celebrations!!



  • MS1416 Nancy Astor Papers, Special Collections, University of Reading.
  • NUSEC Garden Party Leaflet 1928, MS1416/1/1/264
  • Letter regarding details of the Garden Party, from K Hancock General Secretary of NUSEC to Miss Goddard, MS1416/1/1/264.
  • Letter from Dame M. Fawcett, 25/05/1928, MS1416/1/1/264.


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Tweeting from the Grave: Sickness and Survival in the 17th Century

by Dr Hannah Newton [i]DSC_4480

My favourite thing about being a historian is reading other people’s diaries. I began to realise this at the tender age of eight, when our teacher asked us to write a series of diary entries from the perspective of someone during the Great Plague. It seems that I’ve never really grown up: over the next nine days, I will be tweeting as 17th-century mum, Alice Thornton (1626-1707), whose young daughter Nally fell dangerously sick 351 years ago.

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Postgraduate Teacher Training Live Q&A

Calling our amazing history students!  Have you ever considered a career in teaching, but have some questions about whether it’s the right career for you?

This Friday at 11am, the University’s Institute of Education (IoE) are holding a Postgraduate Teacher Training Live Q&A over on their Facebook page.

Programme Directors from Primary and Secondary teacher training programmes, Admissions and a current PGCE student will be ready to answer your questions.  So if you have ever thought about a career in teaching nd want to know more about it, make sure to make the most of this opportunity.

The IoE are ranked 3rd in the UK for Education (The Guardian University League Table 2018), with internationally renowned and award-winning academics. In 2016 they were ranked 7th for Initial Teacher Training with 92% overall satisfaction in Education and 95% satisfaction with academic support in Education, and partnerships with over 300 schools enable the IoE to train the next generation of outstanding teachers.

For more information about the IoE, who are based on the London Road campus,visit their university webpages (and you can also find them on Twitter too!)

IoE Secondary teaching science small (002)

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Reading Welcomes the Summer (in the manner of c. 1218!)

by Prof Anne Lawrence

The manuscript in this image (below), now British Library Ms. Harley 978, was once owned by Reading Abbey, and contains an eclectic mixture of texts, including the poems of a twelfth-century author and performer now known as Marie de France.  There are also poems by Walter Map, a cleric and commentator who is best known for his satire on the beliefs and behaviour of the great and the good in the court of King Henry II (in which he preserved some of the earliest stories concerning vampires – but that is a tale for a winter’s night, not a summer’s day).

BL. MS Harley 978 fol. 11v

British Library, Ms. Harley 978, fol. 11v, via British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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