The famous Harold Wilson misquote that a week is a long time in politics was an understatement last week, half an hour was a long time in politics. On Wednesday afternoon I had a coffee with a friend and returned to a new prime minister and the frenzy that surrounded Theresa May first as a woman and second as a politician about to take up the highest office in the land. Sadly, the political debate on the short campaign for leader of the Conservative Party and PM remained thoroughly gendered with Andrea Leadsom falling on her sword after a torrid weekend of questions about motherhood. According to Leadsom, press questioning on the matter was persistent until she gave them the sound bite that they ran with. We know that a male politician would never have been pressed so consistently over parenting and it is unlikely that his response would necessitate his resignation from any political contest. Leadsom’s forced resignation after an alleged ‘back ops’ smear campaign highlights yet again the media obsession with gender issues when women are involved. So is this anything new? Ask Theresa May, Andrea Leadsom, Angela Eagle or other female MPs if they have faced discrimination in the House and the answer is invariably no. Is this then just a media issue, feeding a society still often riven with different expectations of women in power? Is it ever enough to be a good MP or are women consistently required to be a good female MP too and therefore more liable to be tripped up over questions of marriage, motherhood and kitten heels? Is it enough to represent your constituency and your party or are you invariably seen as a representative for all women? It is interesting how little the questions have changed or how the media have reacted since the first women took their seats in parliament almost a century ago when Nancy Astor entered Parliament as the MP for all women.
The first woman took her seat in Parliament against a maelstrom of press comment that more than equalled the media attention given to Theresa May. Press comment was intrusive, invariably hostile and focused on her marital status and dress. Nancy Astor was elected to parliament for Plymouth Sutton at a by-election in November 1919 replacing her husband who had previously been MP (Waldorf Astor had been parliamentary private secretary to Lloyd George and was a progressive Conservative). She stood as a Unionist candidate though many in the party had reservations, including the Unionist Party Chairman, Sir George Younger, who felt that ‘the worst of it is, the woman is sure to get in’. She did get in and on 1 December 1919 when she stood at the bar in the House of Commons, Astor’s words as she took the oath was the first time a female voice had been heard in the Chamber. The Chamber was not full but the Manchester Guardian reported that the proceedings generated a ‘flutter of altogether pleasant excitement’ though the Times reported a ‘tremendous breach in Parliamentary tradition.’
Astor found her position lonely with many men openly hostile and refusing to acknowledge her presence. She avoided arousing press comment on her clothing by adopting a uniform of a dark coat and skirt, white blouse and tudor or tricorn hat. Her obituary in the Times listed one of her achievements as she ‘set the style for her feminine colleagues in years to come’. Astor faced a culture of insidious sexism and outright resentment as she spent almost 2 years as the only woman in the House of Commons.
Women trickled into the House despite a predominantly male press and political environment. But the earliest female MP’s faced questions about their marital status, political experience and suitability to sit in the House of Commons. Nancy Astor replaced her husband when he was elevated to the House of Lords following his father’s death. Astor’s tenure in parliament was only ever intended to be temporary while Waldorf Astor found a means of returning to the Commons. The second MP, elected almost 2 years later, Margaret Wintringham, was a Liberal, a widow and had also been elected to her husband’s seat. A great deal was made of Wintringham’s arrival as a ‘mother’, much to Astor’s chagrin as she announced that she was the mother of five! Did Wintringham look more motherly? It was certainly considered a virtue.
The women developed a strong, supportive bond. Both had been active in public life, Astor as a society hostesses and both as supporters of their husband’s political careers and as a constant presence in their husband’s campaigns. Many of the women that followed had a similar experience and came from similar family backgrounds, often representing their spouse. For much of her early career Nancy did find herself directed by Waldorf. Archival evidence shows that Waldorf drafted and heavily edited her early speeches, annotating them with speaking notes on where and when to moderate her voice. Brian Harrison has argued that these women candidates who came from families active in public life adjusted more easily to public life as it was assumed that they were representing a man.
For early female politicians the Astor partnership appeared successful and accessible, although Astor’s entrance did not facilitate a tidal wave of Conservative female MPs. The third female MP, Conservative Mabel Philipson (Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1923), had no experience of the political sphere. She also took her husband’s seat while he faced fraud charges; she was a music hall and comedy actress but Philipson appealed to a Conservative electorate and directly campaigned on her marital status:
“If you vote for me you will get tuppence for a penny, because you will be getting me and my husband as your representative. No other candidate can offer you as much. I belong to the tried old firm of Astor and Company.”
Her reassurances were to a wider society that did not consider women in public life the norm and she used circumstantial similarities to Astor. Sykes argued that her agenda was to epitomise, by association, the immense popularity Nancy had generated, implying that her popularity was derived from a political husband and a wealthy background. However, early female MP’s despite their conservatism (with a small c) challenged the notion of public women and signified seed change in British democracy.
By comparison Socialist and Labour women who entered Parliament in the later 1920s were married to their cause. Most were from working class backgrounds, unmarried and ideologically motivated. At first glance, there is a vast gap between the classes, backgrounds and motivations of the MPs as all battled with society’s expectation that women should not be present in public life.
Wealthy, married women could afford staff to manage a family during their political careers; working class women had no such affordable luxury. Labour female MPs tended to be unmarried at the time of their election; the role of wife and mother would have proved a hindrance to their political careers and the cause.
Jennie Lee stated that ‘marriage would never be allowed to get in the way of her ambition’ as she understood that ‘careers and marriage… could not run in tandem without some change in the understanding of what being a wife meant.’ Lee was elected in 1929 and served for 41 years until 1970 when she moved up to the Lords in her own right. Despite her anti-marriage assertions and determination to not become a wife, her initial reservations were overcome when she married Aneurin Bevan, her Labour Party colleague in 1934. They agreed to remain childless in the knowledge that her career would not be compromised. Later, she allowed her career to take a back seat to that of Nye’s later in their marriage as she believed firmly that Nye’s furtherance of his career and his work was of greater importance to the cause of socialism than her own.
Of other early female MP’s Margaret Bondfield remained unmarried; Ellen Wilkinson claimed to be ‘more interested in politics that in love affairs’ as ‘mere boys’ seemed very uninteresting creatures to the solemn priestess of politics. Eleanor Rathbone focused on bringing a feminist equality to mothers and working women. Bondfield, Wilkinson and Rathbone’s single, childless status may have been necessary in maintaining a political career but they encountered a barrage of anti-feminist public opinion due to their indecorous single status. They lacked the respectability that a husband’s presence would bring, a popular opinion upheld by some in the House and by a majority of the public who conformed to images played out in increasingly popular women’s magazines.
The debate over married women and the vote had been rife in the suffrage movement for decades before Astor took her seat in parliament. The depiction of public female figures from early suffrage onwards was masculine When I googled Theresa May this morning the first option presented to me, sadly, was ‘Theresa May husband’. I was also sad at the outrageous representation of Theresa May as Cruella Deville by the Scottish nationalist newspaper, The National, freely shared on social media by male and female political figures alike.
What is The National really trying to say here? The media continues to question women’s ‘special’ feminine qualities as wives and mothers, women who do not openly exhibit these are questioned and pilloried; women who do utilise them often meet Leadsom’s fate: damned if you, damned if you don’t.
With special thanks to Shira Kilgallon
** Jacqui Turner can be heard on The Long View, BBC Radio 4 which will be broadcast on Monday discussing the Astors and the Clintons with Professor Gary Gerslte. **