To mark Women’s History Month 2023, guest blogger Henry Miller, Associate Professor (Research) at Durham University, explores how women continued to utilise petitioning as a medium for political activity even after they won the vote.
There is a long tradition of women appealing to Parliament through petitions dating back to at least the late medieval period. In the nineteenth century, petitions to the House of Commons enabled the mass mobilisation of women on issues ranging from slavery through to the Contagious Diseases Acts as well as regarding individual grievances. In the early twentieth century, constitutional and militant campaigners for women’s suffrage repeatedly petitioned male authorities, including Parliament, 10 Downing Street, and Buckingham Palace.
The relationship between women petitioners and Parliament changed thereafter. This was firstly due to franchise reforms. Women aged 30 or above were granted the vote in 1918 and, the voting age was lowered to the same as men (21 years) in 1928. As a result women, were less dependent on petitions as they could now participate through the ballot box, standing for election, and parliamentary careers. Secondly, there was a general shift away from petitioning Parliament from the early twentieth century, to a broader range of authorities, although these petitions were rarely formally recorded.
Yet while UK women had more options for participation open to them, and the volume of petitions to Parliament declined compared to their Victorian heyday, petitioning was still a useful tool. This explains why it remained a widespread and popular form of political activity. For example, the European Values Surveys for 1981, 1990, and 1998 indicated that a majority of British women respondents had signed petitions; this suggests that aside from voting, petitioning was the only form of participation to engage a majority of British women. While Britons increasingly petitioned a range of authorities, Parliament remained a key site for petitions from women.
Reflecting contemporary gender stereotypes, petitions in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s often mobilised women as housewives on issues related to consumption and the cost of living. One Manchester canvasser for the 1938 Liberal party cost of living petition to the Commons observed that ‘I knew that every housewife of my acquaintance was eager to sign’. Ten years later a petition signed by 530,000 ‘housewives’ from Britain and Northern Ireland was presented in the Commons complaining about meat rationing. In 1953, the Labour MP Jean Mann directed the attention of the House to a petition from 2 million women complaining about the increase in food prices.
As well as petitions from women as consumers or housewives, women petitioned Parliament to claim rights as citizens, including newer social rights associated with the emerging welfare state. For example, in 1944, Edith Summerskill MP presented a petition signed by 77,000 that called for better provision for wives in the social insurance scheme outlined in the Beveridge Report. In particular, the petition called for family allowances to be paid directly to mothers, the recognition of work at home, and wives to have a legal right for a share of family income. The first of these demands was made again in a 1973 petition to the Commons organised by the Child Poverty Action Group and the Women’s Liberation Workshop that was signed by 300,000 and presented by Barbara Castle. As these two examples show, petitions regarding issues of specific interest for women often benefited from the advocacy and encouragement of women MPs.
Mass petitions to Parliament continued to be used in broad campaigns for gender equality. The best example is perhaps the 1954 equal pay petition. This called for equal pay in the public services between men and women. The petition was delivered with great fanfare by three women MPs (Summerskill, Castle, and Irene Ward) and a former MP, Thelma Cazalet-Keir. As a private circular commented ‘one of the main values of such a petition, in addition for demonstrating the volume of support for equal pay, lies in the opportunity it affords of bringing the question before large numbers of individual citizens, and for educating public opinion’.
Because petitions had to be formally presented by MPs, they remained a useful way of gaining the support of parliamentarians for campaigns in defence of local public services, particularly those that were important to women. Thus petitions against the threatened closure of maternity services at Bearsted Memorial Hospital in Hampton and Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in west London were presented by local MPs in 1969 and 1971 respectively. In 1972, branches of the Women’s Institute in Liskeard organised a petition to the Commons calling for the reinstatement of a maternity unit at the local hospital.
Finally, women used petitions to Parliament to raise international as well as domestic issues. While women’s peace petitions were often directed to international authorities such as the League of Nations or, later, the United Nations, they were sent to Parliament on occasion. In 1929, for example, Albert Law, the Labour MP for Bolton, presented a petition from 17,800 women voters from his constituency calling for the House to work for world peace.
As this blog has shown petitioning Parliament continued to be a popular medium for political participation and expression by women, even if it was now part of a much broader spectrum of political activity than previously.
Dr. Henry Miller is Associate Professor (Research) in the Department of History, Durham University.
This blog is informed by research conducted for the Petitioning and People Power in Twentieth-Century Britain project, funded (grant number AH/T003847/1) by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which are both part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).