This blog looks at how the History of Parliament has been involved behind the scenes with the Voice and Vote exhibition which opened in Westminster Hall last week. Dr. Philip Salmon and Dr. Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons project share their contributions to the reconstructions of the ‘ventilator’ and the ‘cage’, where women could listen to parliamentary debates in the nineteenth century, while Dr. Emma Peplow highlights the ways in which our Oral History project has shed light on the experience of female MPs in the twentieth century.
The Voice and Vote exhibition, which runs until 6 October, has been organised by the UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project, led by Melanie Unwin and Mari Takayanagi. Marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it looks at the campaign for votes for women, as well as the role women have played in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The exhibition contains works of art and objects ranging from the bolt clippers used to remove suffragettes who chained themselves to statues in Parliament to the suit worn by Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat. It also reconstructs some of the spaces where women have taken part in parliamentary life over the past two centuries – as spectators in the 19th century, and as MPs and peers in the 20th century and beyond.
The ventilator: Dr. Philip Salmon
The ventilator contraption in the attic above the old House of Commons has become a potent symbol of the way women were politically marginalised in the early 19th century. In operation until 1834, when the old Commons was completely destroyed by fire, women used the holes it contained for drawing out foul air to peer down into the chamber below. Diary entries reveal the tactics used to gain access to the attic, usually with the contrivance of the doorkeepers, and the extent to which women were often able to hear proceedings with remarkable clarity.
Based on the findings of a workshop in Parliament that we and other project partners – including academic colleagues from the University of Warwick and the University of York – attended last year, and the discovery of new evidence showing how the ventilator looked, the exhibition recreates the experience of listening to debates in this symbolic female space. The historic speeches you can hear were carefully selected for their special contemporary interest to women. They include William Wilberforce speaking against the slave trade, an angry exchange about the Tory government’s connivance in helping the king defame and try to divorce Queen Caroline, and a passionate call by Thomas Fowell Buxton for a ban on the ‘barbarous’ practice of sati (burning widows) in India.
As well as researching how the MPs sounded as speakers and where they sat, it was necessary to try and gauge the number of MPs present and the atmosphere in the chamber, using a wide range of contemporary sources. Some debates were also extremely long and were rewritten in a way that retained their linguistic authenticity. The speech made by the Radical MP Henry Hunt when presenting the earliest known petition for women’s votes, during a debate on the ‘Great’ reform bill, was modified in this way, along with the eloquent appeal made by the leading Irish agitator Daniel O’Connell for an immediate end to colonial slavery. Pointing out that 1.5 million people had signed petitions against the government’s phased approach, O’Connell berated those who claimed they had been ‘mostly signed by silly girls and old maids’, protesting that they were ‘not only guilty of bad taste but also of insulting the entire female population’.
The cage: Dr. Kathryn Rix
The ‘cage’ was the nickname given by women to the Ladies’ Gallery in the new House of Commons designed by Charles Barry. Its metal grilles obstructed women’s view of proceedings and its stuffy atmosphere led the suffragist Millicent Fawcett to describe it as ‘a grand place for getting headaches’. Visitors to the exhibition can listen to extracts from five debates, recorded by actors for this reconstruction. My contribution was to select these debates, compiling scripts using Hansard, as well as providing background information on the MPs involved and the atmosphere in the chamber during each debate.
I wanted to provide a broad chronological spread of speeches, from the beginnings of parliamentary discussion of women’s suffrage in the 1860s to the debates leading up to the 1918 Representation of the People Act. The earliest debate comes from 20 May 1867, when John Stuart Mill attempted to include women’s suffrage in the Second Reform Act. The response from Edward Karslake reflected the overwhelming consensus in opposition to Mill. The second extract, with Russell Gurney moving the second reading of the 1870 married women’s property bill, provides a reminder that the suffrage campaign was one aspect of a wider movement for women’s rights. The third debate marked another failed attempt to enfranchise women, when William Woodall tried in 1884 to add a female suffrage clause to the Third Reform Act. His opponents included the Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone.
Another Liberal prime minister, H. H. Asquith, features in the fourth extract, on the 1912 Conciliation Bill, a compromise measure to enfranchise a limited number of women. The second reading was moved by James Agg-Gardner, a Conservative backbencher who remembered this speech as ‘a formidable prospect, especially for one who had but rarely addressed the Commons’. I also chose a less well-known figure for the final debate, from 22 May 1917. Sir Joseph Walton, long-serving Liberal MP for Barnsley, endorsed women’s suffrage and looked ahead to the post-war situation, when he hoped for equal political rights and equal pay for men and women.
The chamber: Dr. Emma Peplow
The Voice and Vote exhibition ends with women’s experiences in Parliament in the 20th century up to the present day. Although the first woman took her seat in Parliament in 1919 (Nancy Astor – although she was not the first elected), until 1997 women were still a very small minority of MPs and Parliament remained an overwhelmingly male environment.
Former women MPs have shared their memories of being one of this minority with us in our oral history project interviews (see our blogs on women in Parliament in the 1970s/80s and the 1990s). Together with the exhibition’s curators, we chose a number of extracts from our oral history archive that reveal women’s experiences both in getting elected to the Commons and within the chamber once they were at Westminster.
Many of our interviewees faced sexism when putting themselves forward to be candidates, as selection panels traditionally considered MPs to be male. In this clip Labour’s Hilary Armstrong remembers the support she did get from a local women’s committee at one (ultimately unsuccessful for Armstrong) selection meeting during the 1980s:
Having made it to Parliament, for many the experience was quite a shock. In this clip Diana Maddock (Liberal Democrat) who caused an upset with her by-election win in 1993, describes how she explained to Liberal Democrat party members what Parliament was like:
Despite many (although not all) sharing experiences of sexism with our oral history project, they – and the exhibition – also reflect these women’s real achievements once they were at Westminster and able to both influence and introduce legislation. In her interview the Conservative MP Marion Roe discusses her private member’s bill to ban what was then called ‘female circumcision’, which we now know as Female Genital Mutilation or FGM:
You can listen to all the extracts from our oral history project at the end of the exhibition, sitting on the benches, next to the final wall which includes the names of all women MPs to date – a fitting place to hear about their experiences.
For details of how to book a free exhibition ticket, see here.
PS, KR, EP