‘She is an Outsider in Public Life’: women parliamentary candidates, 1918-1923

Ahead of tonight’s Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, we hear from Lisa Berry-Waite, a Leverhulme-funded PhD candidate at the University of Exeter.  She spoke at our previous session on 28 May about her research into the parliamentary election campaigns of women candidates in Britain between 1918 and 1931. Her paper focused on the under-explored source of women’s parliamentary election addresses between 1918 and 1923.

In 1918 the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed, which enabled women aged 21 and over to stand in parliamentary elections. Just three weeks after the Act passed, the 1918 General Election took place, which saw the Conservatives and Lloyd George’s Liberals unite to fight the election under the coalition banner. Seventeen women stood for election, but only Constance Markievicz was successful. Along with other Sinn Fein candidates, she refused to take her seat over the issue of Irish independence. Nonetheless, women’s efforts in 1918 cannot be written off as a failure as they paved the way for Nancy Astor, who in 1919 became the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. Although women candidates were seen as outsiders and parliamentary elections remained an inherently masculine space, the first women candidates helped reshape British democracy.

Margery Corbett Ashby’s 1918 Election Address, By permission of Bristol University Library, Special Collections

After the First World War, Britain’s reconstruction and the peace settlement dominated the 1918 General Election. Domestic issues were increasingly becoming part of public life, providing women with the opportunity to enter politics. In 1918, women candidates argued that the ‘woman’s point of view’ was needed in Parliament and emphasised their ‘special knowledge’ on matters concerning women and children. Ray Strachey, the Independent candidate for Brentford & Chiswick noted: ‘The predominant questions of the future … are social questions, and in their settlement the knowledge and experience of women are particularly needed’. Furthermore, women emphasised their domestic and maternal role: Margery Corbett Ashby, the Liberal candidate for Birmingham Ladywood, included an image of herself with her son on the front of her election address. This demonstrates how women candidates utilised their gender to justify their candidature by arguing they could offer something men could not.

There was an expectation that women should focus on stereotypical female concerns such as education, housing, the welfare of children and international peace, and not intrude on a man’s sphere of influence. Christabel Pankhurst, who stood for the newly formed Women’s Party in Smethwick, argued: ‘As a Woman Member of Parliament, I shall, if elected, give special attention to the Housing Question, because, as every woman knows, a good home is the foundation of all well being’. Thus, there was, and arguably still is, a distinct female language of politics. Women’s political language and commitment to such issues were influenced by their gendered life experiences.

As the country entered the 1920s, women continued to carve out a gendered space for themselves. Lina Mary Scott-Gatty, the Liberal candidate for Huntingdonshire noted in her election address in 1922: ‘I make no apology for being a woman; I believe political life needs the high influence of woman bringing in a new point to public affairs’. Nonetheless, the idea of the ‘woman’s point of view’ did not feature as frequently; Britain saw an increase in party women standing, and a decline of the independents. Therefore, the role of class and party ties became more apparent after 1918, particularly on decisive issues such as tariff reform in 1923, emphasising that women candidates were not a homogeneous group.

Working class women began to stand in greater numbers; unsurprisingly, it was the Labour Party for which they became candidates. Margaret Bondfield first entered politics through the trade union movement and was elected to Parliament in 1923, after standing unsuccessfully in 1920 and 1922. Her working class background was evident in her 1922 election address, in which she championed workers’ rights and stated, ‘We have had class government for the last hundred years – let us have this time a Government by the people for the People’. With the emergence of working class women such as Bondfield, a new type of parliamentary female candidate emerged, although it must be said that middle and upper class women stood for Labour as well.

The 1923 General Election was seen as a success for women candidates, particularly by the press, as eight women were elected in total. The Aberdeen Press and Journal wrote that ‘for the first time in the history of the country all parties in the State have able and capable women among their representatives in Parliament’.

Focusing on women’s parliamentary election addresses between 1918-31, a source under-explored by historians, my PhD analyses how these women navigated their way into the masculine domain of politics, how they presented themselves to the electorate, the issues they focused on and the political promises they made to voters. Studying both successful and unsuccessful women is crucial in understanding the changing nature of electoral politics after the First World War and the political language utilised by women candidates in this period.


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