A new platform: female MPs and the quest for equal citizenship, by Abbie Tibbott

This Women’s History Month, it is important to remember some of the pioneers that stood on a very crucial platform, often against all odds. The collection of women that were successfully elected to UK Parliament in the 1920s represented women’s issues on a national stage. In this blog, we will uncover the 1927 deputation organised by Nancy Astor MP and her colleagues, in what was one of the last hurdles to jump in the fight for female citizenship.

The fight for equal voting rights was not started by female MPs, but they took up the flag for Britain at a time of economic upheaval, changing relations with Ireland and several short-lived governments. The 1924 Conservative Cabinet attempted to repeatedly stall and de-prioritise the need for women’s full emancipation, but the tide was turning by 1927. In the past decade, female MPs had banded together, and made meaningful advances regarding so-called women’s issues. Margaret Wintringham MP worked with Nancy Astor on the women’s police, pensions for orphans and widows, as well as equal guardianship, principles of which were adopted into the Equal Guardianship Act 1925, enshrining the mother’s equal right to her children. Astor introduced the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1923, the first Private Member’s Bill by a woman to be passed. This important piece of legislation restricted the sale of alcohol to persons ages 18 and above, and still exists today. Although it is clear that female MPs were being directed towards women’s issues because of their gender, that did not mean those causes were unimportant.

Photograph of the front of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, 1928, from: https://unireadinghistory.com/

The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed in 1928, just in time for the 1929 general election in which the Conservative government lost their majority. This fear had been a major factor in the unwillingness of the Conservative Cabinet to introduce or support a second franchise bill, as they were concerned that new legislation would enfranchise the stereotypical Labour voter – a young, single, working class woman.

Before the act was passed and a garden party planned at Cliveden, there was significant pressure placed on the Cabinet by female MPs in the form of a deputation, attended by the Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks. Jicks, as he was known, had previously blurted out, in full view of the House of Commons, that the Cabinet intended to introduce a bill. Astor replied:

‘Does the right hon. Gentlemen mean equal votes at 21?’

Jicks, then, might not have been the Cabinet’s favourite man to attend such a deputation, as the meeting cleverly brought together female politicians and influential groups from the Women’s Movement that had been gaining momentum. Evolved from the suffrage movement, these women had renewed their efforts to get legislation passed through the Commons, and female politicians were their vessel. Jicks was not a staunch opposer of equal franchise by 1927, but Winston Churchill remained unmoveable. Historians have the benefit of hindsight, but it would be really interesting to see what would have happened if the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been sent to that deputation!

Image of Nancy Astor giving speech, surrounded by members of the public, from: https://research.reading.ac.uk/astor100/nancy-astor/

The deputation was a long meeting, introduced by Astor. Several leaders from women’s organisations spoke, imploring Jicks to make meaningful changes for women in Cabinet. Unlike elected members of the Commons, the Cabinet was handpicked by the current Prime Minister, and Stanley Baldwin appointed Churchill to sit in the seat of the Treasury, but that does not mean that Churchill’s personal politics were reduced to that of the economy alone. Despite being married, Churchill maintained the view that there was no need to extend women’s voting rights, a view shared by many male members of his party. His attendance at a deputation like this would have garnered an entirely different reaction, and although she was unafraid of Churchill, Nancy would have surely been grateful for the tentative ally that was Jicks.

Interestingly, Cabinet Papers detail that it was actually the Prime Minister, Baldwin, that was supposed to attend the deputation, but sent the Home Secretary instead. Whatever Baldwin’s reasoning, he was careful to send a politician in his place that was not openly hostile. By this point, Baldwin recognised the inevitability of a second suffrage bill, and it was important for the Cabinet to make sustained progress towards introducing one before the next general election.

Deputations, protests, marches and conferences all give people the ability to express their opinion, meet like-minded parties and move against a force they do not agree with. Whilst the campaign for extended voting rights for women may not have mirrored the civil disobedience of the previous decade, both forms of protest do matter. Whilst spending ten years campaigning for equal franchise, female MPs used their gender to influence legislation that impacted the lives of women in Britain. Much of our history of gender and feminism of this period focuses negatively on the violence of certain individuals that wanted votes for women, and neglects to see the wider impact of concentrated cross-party activity that improved welfare, childcare and safety for women in everyday life.

As a century has passed, it is always worth considering how far women’s equality has come, as well as looking forward to where it must go. Women remain a minority in Parliament but have achieved multiple Cabinet positions in the last hundred years. Just like the deputation in 1927 that brought politicians and community organisations together, meaningful progress is vital for the protection of underrepresented groups in our society in the modern day.

Abbie Tibbott is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, specialising in conservatism, citizenship and democracy in 1920s Britain, with a focus on women and unemployment.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

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