Early women MPs: Margaret Wintringham and Parliament

In September 1921, Margaret Wintringham (1879-1955) was elected to the House of Commons as the first ever Liberal woman MP.  Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, discusses Wintringham, her election, and the issues she supported in Parliament.

Margaret Wintringham was born in Keighley, Yorkshire in 1879. She was a teacher by background, and headmistress at a school in Grimsby before marrying Tom Wintringham, a timber merchant, in 1903.  

Wintringham was a suffragist, a non-militant supporter of votes for women. She was active in the Women’s Liberal Association and worked in support of many other social and political campaigns and organisations. She was an early woman Justice of the Peace, and a long-time supporter of Womens Institutes.  

Margaret Wintringham (c) NPG

‘The Silent Woman Candidate’

Her husband was elected independent Liberal MP for Louth in June 1920, but collapsed and died in the House of Commons while reading a newspaper in the smoking room on 8 August 1921, aged 53.  His widow agreed to stand in his place. As she was in mourning, she chose not to speak in public or give any issues throughout the election campaign.  The press dubbed her the ‘SILENT WOMAN CANDIDATE’. 

However, women flocked to work on her behalf. Cross-party organisations including the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, the Women’s Freedom League, and the National Council of Women all supported her candidacy. 

Newspapers acknowledged her ability, charm of manner, and high record of public service. They speculated on possible sex prejudice against a woman candidate by the predominantly agricultural and farming electorate. It was also thought that the presence of a Labour candidate (standing in Louth for the first time) would split the progressive vote and allow the Conservative in. 

To everyone’s surprise, Wintringham won the election by 791 votes. The headline in The Times was ‘LOUTH RENOUNCES SEX PREJUDICE.’ Women were said to have voted in unexpectedly large numbers. Wintringham described it as a victory for Liberalism. Conservative MP Nancy Astor sent a telegram of congratulations:  

‘Rejoicing over your victory. Shall welcome you in the House of Commons.’  

image credit: The Women’s Library at LSE

Wintringham and Astor 

Wintringham developed a close friendship with Nancy Astor, the only other woman MP. They shared a common interest in causes affecting women’s lives and gender equality, such as housing improvements, widows’ and orphans’ pensions, and equal franchise.  

Because they were from different political parties, it was all the more powerful when Wintringham and Astor were able to work together. In a booklet titled ‘The Need for more Women Members of Parliament’, campaigner Edith How-Martyn wrote that: 

‘Mrs Wintringham’s advent to the House was a tremendous asset to Lady Astor and to the women’s cause… When the women members differ those who feared a woman’s party are silenced, and when they vote in the same lobby it is on questions which, like the retention of the Women Police, have the great mass of the thoughtful women of the country behind them.’ 

image credit: University of Reading, Special Collections

Women police had been recruited to some police forces during the First World War, but were disbanded in many places afterwards. Astor and Wintringham lobbied and spoke in Parliament in support of women police on many occasions.  

Wintringham on parliamentary committees

As one of only two women among 650 MPs, Wintringham was also in demand for committee work. She sat on various standing committees to discuss and agree the detail of bills going through Parliament. These bills included the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Bill 1923, where she successfully introduced an amendment to include a woman as an Oxford commissioner; and the Agricultural Wages Bill 1924 where she argued that the definition of a worker should include both men and women, and that women should be represented on local committees. 

She sat on a select committee to consider the issue of British women losing their nationality on marriage to a foreign national. Although this was not resolved (and would not be until 1948), Wintringham helped keep the subject under discussion. 

Pensions for widows and orphans

Other issues she championed did enjoy legislative success, for example widows’ pensions and equal guardianship. The lack of pensions for widows, apart from war widows, had become important in the wake of the influenza pandemic which followed the First World War. Many women lost their breadwinner husbands to long-term illness, injury or influenza, and were not entitled to any pension even if their husbands had served in the war. They were often left with children to care for, no income and the only resort being to the poor law, a source of great stigma. 

Wintringham, herself the only widow with a voice in Parliament, argued that that a widow’s pension should be a right for all, and not only to be awarded to women who were destitute, saying in the House of Commons 1924:  

I want this principle of pensions for widows established on the principle of an honourable allowance. We do not want it to be regarded in the light of a dole. 

After many years of campaigning, the Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act was finally passed in 1925. Although not as generous or comprehensive as she and others had argued for, it did establish the principle that the state should support widows for the first time. 

Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1925/15&16G5c70

Guardianship of infants

Equal Guardianship was perhaps Wintringham’s most significant Parliamentary achievement. Before 1925, fathers were the legal guardians of children, which could lead to great hardship for mothers denied custody. Women’s organisations campaigned over decades to change this.  

Wintringham sat on a joint select committee on this subject in 1922-23 and then introduced a Private Members’ Bill in 1924. She said at its introduction in the Commons: 

I realise I am addressing men chiefly, and I want them for a few minutes, in considering the position of the law as it stands at present, to take a mental somersault. I want them to view it from the standpoint of the woman who passionately desires the guardianship and the ownership of her own child. 

The principles behind her Bill were agreed by the Labour government in 1924 and the subsequent Conservative government in 1925. As passed, the Equal Guardianship Act 1925 did not go as far as Wintringham would have liked, but it did enshrine into law the principle of equal guardianship between mothers and fathers. The welfare of the child was now the paramount concern of any court in cases of dispute. 

Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1925/15&16G5c45

Wintringham won two general elections in 1922 and 1923, but lost her seat along with most other Liberal MPs in 1924. She was never re-elected but stayed politically active in Lincolnshire, in women’s organisations, and in the Liberal Party. Wintringham died in a nursing home in London in 1955, at the age of 76. She could be proud of her legacy as a Liberal and as one of the very earliest women MPs. 

MT

Further reading:

  • Maggie Andrews & Janis Lomas. Widows: Poverty, Power & Politics (History Press, 2020)
  • Audrey Cartron, ‘Women in the police forces in Britain: 1880-1931‘ (Masters’ thesis, Université Paris Diderot, 2015)
  • Elaine Harrison. ‘Wintringham [née Longbottom], Margaret (1879–1955), politician’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Louise Jackson. Women Police: Gender, Welfare and Surveillance in the 20th Century (Manchester University Press, 2006)
  • Mari Takayanagi. ‘Parliament and Women, c1900-1945’ (PhD thesis, King’s College London 2012).

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