The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
In the 1920s and 30s, women often struggled to secure safe or target seats because it was feared that they would be unpopular with voters. In part, that is what prevented a whole generation of women reaching their political potential. Barbara Ayrton Gould (1886-1950) tried five times to win a seat for Labour—in 1922, 1924, 1929, 1931 and 1935–but was unsuccessful every time. In 1945, in Labour’s landslide election, Ayrton Gould finally achieved her ambition when she won the seat of Hendon North. Several other female activists were also elected, including Caroline Ganley (1879-1966), who had unsuccessfully contested a seat in 1935, and who, despite long years of political engagement–as a pacifist and campaigner for women’s suffrage–took her seat in the House for the first time at the age of 65. Both Ayrton Gould and Ganley won in London constituencies.
The daughter of physicists, Ayrton Gould was named after 19th century feminist Barbara Bodichon. In 1906, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union alongside her mother and, by 1909, she was a full-time organiser. The WSPU used militant action to demand action on votes for women, and attracted support not just from women, but from men, including Gerald Gould who, in 1907, had helped to found the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. In July 2010 the two married. Ayrton Gould was arrested and remanded in Holloway prison following her involvement in the window-breaking campaigns of 1912. She managed to flee to France, returning only when an amnesty was granted to suffrage campaigners following the outbreak of world war one. On 6 February 1914, disillusioned with the WSPU, she became one of the founding members of the United Suffragists which, according to the newspaper, Votes for Women, was a society “broad enough to include men and women, militants and non-militants.”
In 1918, deeply affected by the war, Ayrton Gould became a member of the National Peace Council and honorary secretary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In the 1920s, she served as chief officer for women within the Labour party and, in 1929, was appointed to Labour’s national executive and served for 20 years, becoming vice-chair in 1939 and chair in 1940. She also pushed for equal pay in the civil service. In Parliament, she spoke on foreign affairs, poverty, rationing and child neglect. In the Second Reading of the National Insurance Bill on 11 February 1946, she said “I saw five men faint from sickness and malnutrition in the first hour of work of a new day. The country cannot afford that. Nor can the country afford to have tuberculosis among children rising at the rate it did in the early thirties.” She lost her seat in the 1950 election. Seven months later, she withdrew as prospective candidate for the constituency because of ill health. She died in October, just eight months after leaving the House of Commons.
Ganley became politically active in opposition to the second Boer war 1899, and in 1906 she joined the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first organised socialist political party. A pacifist and campaigner for women’s suffrage, she left the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies over its support for the first world war but continued to work with other anti-war suffrage groups. Her socialism was influenced by the speakers she heard at meetings of the Garment Workers Union, which she attended with her husband, James William Henry Ganley.
In 1919, Ganley was one of three women elected to Battersea Council. She joined the Co-operative and Labour parties, later becoming the first female president of the London Co-operative Society, and in 1920 became one of the first female magistrates in London. As chair of the local health and child welfare committee, in 1921, she was instrumental in establishing a well-equipped maternity home in Battersea. As Member of Parliament for Battersea South, she maintained an interest in health services, describing the national health service in her maiden speech on 1 May 1946 as a “glorious service to humanity”.
Ganley lost her seat in 1951, by only 494 votes, mainly due to boundary changes. In 1953, she was awarded a CBE and re-elected to Battersea Borough Council, on which she continued to serve until the year before her death.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Images courtesy of Parliamentary Archives
Official Report, 11 February 1946; Vol.419, c.42-43. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1946/feb/11/national-insurance-bill
Gerald Gould: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerald_Gould
Window-smashing campaign: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1912/mar/04/suffragettes-window-smashing
United Suffragists: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Suffragists
Second Reading of the National Health Service Bill: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1946/may/01/national-health-service-bill