Making a stand: Women candidates at the 1918 General Election

Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918
Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1918/8&9G5c47

The centenary of the 1918 general election in December 2018 was marked by some new research into the seventeen women candidates. Our very own Vote 100 volunteer Robin Fell looked into some of the contemporary press coverage for this guest blog post.

The General Election of 1918 was the first opportunity for women not only to vote but also to stand for election to the House of Commons by virtue of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918. Not all women could vote, of course, there were qualifying factors, one of which required a woman to be over the age of 30; yet to qualify as a candidate a woman only had to be over 21. Thus, bizarrely, a woman could stand for election yet not be old enough to vote for herself! However, this didn’t occur in 1918.

It is an irony that the only woman to succeed, out of those who sought election, chose not to take her place on the Green Benches. In accordance with established practice of Sinn Fein candidates, Constance Markievicz was not prepared to take the oath of allegiance to the British Crown. None of the other candidates, who stood in 1918  ever succeeded in subsequent elections – many never even trying again.

Much was, and has been, written about the more prominent candidates in the suffrage movement such as Christabel Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence; but let’s look at some of the contemporary coverage of the rather less well remembered women candidates.

Although the campaign for women’s suffrage continued during the First World War, the more newsworthy and violent manifestations of the suffragette campaign were put on hold for the duration. Thus, the fact that women would be voting and standing for the first time did not dominate the newspapers in the run up to the election. But this new chapter in electoral development towards universal suffrage did not pass totally unreported.

First mention should go to The Common Cause, ‘The organ of the women’s movement for reform, ‘ founded in 1909 to support the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). On 6th December it included an extract from the election address of Emily Frost Phipps who stood in Chelsea in which she declared, ‘Although standing as a non party candidate I heartily support the policy of utterly defeating German militarism, believing that our glorious victory must be consummated by such peace as will for generations prevent a resumption of war.’ A consummation which although devoutly to be wished did not sadly produce issue! The Sunday Mirror of 15th December tells us that she, ‘Organised a band of women helpers who looked after children whilst their mothers voted.’ The Western Times of 31st December informed its readers that Emily Phipps was a native of Devonport who rose from Pupil Teacher to be the headmistress of the Devonport Higher Grade School.

Eunice Murray who sought election in Glasgow Bridgeton is reported in the Daily Record of 7th December as being in receipt of a large number of letters from the ‘Lads in Khaki.’ However this correspondence does not seem to have produced a correspondingly large measure of support at the poll, for the Liverpool Echo of 30th December tells us that she, ‘failed to secure sufficient votes to save her deposit.’  – then the  not inconsiderable sum of £150. The Times, reporting on election day says glowingly of her that she ‘is a solid Scotswoman with a good fund of common sense.’ But the paper rather spoilt things, concluding the piece by saying that, ‘Hers is a candidature to which no one in the constituency attaches any importance!’

Edith How-Martyn, whose name is one of those to be included on the plinth of the recently erected statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, invited the voters of Hendon to elect her as their Member but also failed to persuade sufficient numbers of them to see her deposit returned to her. Through the pages of the Hendon and Finchley Times she informs her would-be constituents on 5th December that she feels, ‘There should not be a one party government but a coalition.’ And on 13th of that month she, ‘Supports Mr. Lloyd George as Prime Minister.’ Although she never achieved her ambition of becoming a Member of Parliament, in 1919 she persuaded enough people to elect her as a member of Middlesex County Council.

The voters of Richmond, Surrey, passed up the opportunity of having as their Member Nora Dacre Fox, although she is not numbered amongst those who paid the price of failure with their deposits. Despite being a most interesting character, described as a feminist, militant suffragette, anti vivisectionist and later a Fascist; she does not seem to have troubled the compositors of the public press during the 1918 election campaign. However, it is worth noting that her Hunger Strike Medal sported three bars and that she paid a return visit to Holloway Prison when she was interned during the second world war.

It was to the good burghers of Stourbridge that Mary Anderson (Mary Macarthur) offered herself for election in the Labour interest. She came a creditable third having attracted nearly a third of the votes cast. She may well have done better, for as the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer of 6th December reports she tried to stand in her maiden name of Macarthur under which she had been campaigning but the Returning Officer, quite correctly under the then rules, refused to accept her nomination form which had to be re submitted giving her correct married name. This was also reported in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph of 5th December in which she is quoted as saying she intended, ‘To take legal action on this point after the election.’ However, there would seem to be no record that she did. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the same date also reported this.

Mary Macarthur originally gave her allegiance, along with other family members, to the Conservative party. In 1901 she became converted to Trade Unionism having attended a meeting about the establishment of an Ayr branch of the Shop Assistants Union. She subsequently became its Scottish President. Under the name of Macarthur she gets several mentions. The Hull Daily Mail of 11th December tells its reader that of the women candidates Mary Macarthur is one of only four who, ‘Are generally held to have a good chance of heading the poll.’

The 13th December edition of The Common Cause published extracts from the women candidates’ messages to voters and records Millicent Mackenzie, who sought election to the University of Wales seat, as saying, ‘Women have won the vote, let them see to it that it is used to forward the highest interests of humanity.’ On 23rd December the Nottingham Journal reports the result under the headline, ‘First Defeat of a Woman Candidate.’

To return to The Common Cause, the extract from the message to the voters of Enfield from Janet McEwan is reported as saying, ‘It is urgently required that women in general should be stirred from their apathy and led to realise the responsibility upon them to record their vote. There are indications that the poll will be a very small one in proportion to the large electorate.Workers and canvassers are almost unobtainable. This seat might be won by a woman if adequate help could be thrown into the division on polling day.’

Unfortunately for McEwan, this appeal to the women voters of Enfield resulted in her coming a poor third and failing by a whisker to secure enough votes to save her deposit. On 6th December a publication entitled The Vote (not to be confused with the Parliamentary publication of that name), ‘The Organ of The Women’s Freedom League’ informs us that the meeting of the local Liberal party in Enfield to introduce Janet McEwan was chaired by none other than the previous candidate, who just happened to be her husband. She is quoted as telling the meeting that she could not, ‘have a chairman who knows me better or who will be kinder to me.’ On 14th December The Daily Mirror reports her as supporting the Prime Minister in, ‘Liberal provision for widows, orphans, wounded, blinded and health broken soldiers; followed by domestic reforms affecting especially women, children and healthy homes.’

In a departure from the usual sparse and occasionally frivolous reporting of women candidates, the Birmingham Gazette’s edition of 10th December reports at length a speech made by Margery Corbett-Ashby the Liberal candidate for Birmingham Ladywood, in which she calls for, amongst other things, an end to demobolized soldiers being conscripted on to a reserve list and the introduction of a national minimum wage. The Common Cause of 13th December reports that, ‘Mrs. Corbett Ashby is making many friends and no enemies in her election campaign and the contest has been a model one, conspicuous by the absence of any unpleasant personalities or party distractions on all sides.’ Although she lost both election and deposit, the winning candidate being Neville Chamberlain, she went on to attend the Versailles Peace conference and advised Germany on the founding of its Woman Police Force.

Although there were several passing references to the candidature of Mrs Violet Carruthers (Violet Markham) in the Liberal interest at Mansfield (mainly in her maiden name of Miss Markham), she came third; most of the press attention she attracted was about her being the first lady appointed to the newly instigated order of The Companion of Honour.

Setting out her stall as the Liberal candidate for Portsmouth, where she achieved second place in the ballot, Alison Garland informed her prospective constituents through the pages of ‘The Common Cause’ of 13th December that having been an ‘ardent worker for the emancipation of women’ she ‘would like to complete her labours by advocating their cause in the House of Commons.’ She pledged to support a coalition government led by Lloyd George and she hoped that the unity of purpose displayed during the war would be preserved in building a new and better Britain. She supported what she described as the ‘full popular control of the liquor traffic’ as she did home rule for Ireland with reasonable safeguards for Ulster and a generous measure of self government for India.

The Hampshire Telegraph, also of 13th December, reports Garland as saying that although she had been offered four constituencies in which to stand, she had chosen Portsmouth South as there were 16,000 women voters many of whom had husbands away in uniform or were widows of men who died at Jutland. The Hampshire Telegraph’s edition of 29th November reports her speech at the Portland Hall in which she stated that whilst much is being talked about reconstruction, the first thing to be done should be to provide for the needs of the men who made reconstruction possible. Our first duty, she said, was to the men who had gone to fight and come back, many, maimed, mentally afflicted or ruined in health. She was before her time on the subject of index linking of pensions, stating that they should not be fixed as an unalterable figure but should rise in line with prices. In an article which if written today would probably attract a strong feminist response, the Hampshire Telegraph of 22nd November 1918 refers to Alison Garland as a ‘Lloyd-George in petticoats’,

As the lesser known of the two Sinn Fein women candidates (the other being the electorally successful Constance Markievicz), Winifred Carney seems to be almost completely invisible in the pages of the contemporary press. The Times of December 2nd 1918 gives a brief mention of the candidature of herself in Belfast and of Markievicz in Dublin. This absence of press attention is surprising, since Winifred Carney, by this time, had already lived an interesting life. She was active in the Gaelic League as well as in suffrage and trade unionist movements. In 1911 she co-founded the Irish textile Workers’ Union, becoming its secretary in 1912. She participated in the Easter Rising and was present in Dublin’s General Post Office – the only woman to be so at the start of the Rising. She joined Constance Markievicz in Aylesbury Goal, refusing to sign an undertaking to refrain from activity of ‘a seditious character’ as a condition of release. The Dundee People’s Journal of 20th July 1918 records the fact that the Irish Master of The Rolls had decided that, ‘a sum of £149 10s found in the possession of Miss Winifred Carney when she was arrested in the General Post Office Dublin during the rising of Easter week 1916 is the property of the Postmaster General.’ Rather surprisingly considering her continuing involvement in the Republican movement – her last period of imprisonment being in 1922 in Armagh prison – she married  a Protestant fellow trade unionist in 1928, who had been a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Their marriage encountered strong disapproval from both their families.

Standing for election in the London constituency of Kennington was Alice Lucas, the only woman to stand in the 1918 general election in the Conservative and Unionist interest. Her candidature arose as a result of the sudden death of her husband who had been the sitting candidate. The Sheffield Telegraph of 21st December 1918 reports that, ‘Polling took place yesterday in the Kennington Division of Lambeth. Where the election was postponed owing to the sudden death of the Unionist candidate Colonel Lucas.’ That there is little press mention of Alice Lucas is not surprising as she was a very late arrival on that electoral scene, yet she polled well. She managed 3573 votes to the successful Liberal’s 4705; her total number of votes  was 63 more than her husband’s total in the previous election.

An article in the Times of 16th December 1918 summarised effectively when it reports under a headline ‘The Polling : Women’s Day’ that,

‘Saturday was beyond question the women’s day. It was the first occasion on which women had been qualified to vote at a Parliamentary election in this country, and there was a very general curiosity what value they set upon their new privilege. Right up to the eve of the poll there was a wide impression that the great majority of women were showing little interest in the election, and that their vote would be disappointingly small. To the general surprise, women polled very well indeed. Although it is obviously impossible to obtain exact statistics, there is no mistaking the evidence upon this point. Reports from the country as well as experience in London are virtually unanimous in pointing to the women’s heavy vote as the feature of the election. Indeed, there is a suggestion here and there that more women may have voted than men.

Whatever the motive which brought women to the polling booths, they demolished at one blow one of the stock arguments of the opponents of women suffrage. This was that women did not want the vote, and would not exercise it if it was given to them. As the experience of other countries which have enfranchised women is that the percentage of those who vote tends to increase with every election, Mrs. Fawcett and other pioneers in this field can fairly claim that the position they defended with such courage and consistency has been amply vindicated.’

Robin Fell

UK Vote 100 Volunteer

Further reading:

Krista Cowman – Getting Selected: a landmark for women’s rights

Elizabeth Crawford – Woman and her Sphere: The First Women General Election Candidates 1918-  a full biography of each of the 17 candidates

Mari Takayanagi – Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required, via local libraries) – Women candidates at the 1918 General Election

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