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Councillors and Campaigners

Councillors and campaigners

A great demonstration took place in Manchester in the autumn of 1908. Prime Minister Asquith prompted it by suggesting that women would only gain the parliamentary vote if they could show that the great majority of women desired it. At the head of the procession was Margaret Ashton, a campaigner for suffrage through the Women’s Liberal Federation for many years. The timing of that particular weekend of activity is fascinating, for just a few days later Margaret was elected to Manchester City Council to represent Withington.  She was not the first suffrage campaigner to take up a place on a powerful borough council. Activist Edith Sutton was elected to Reading a year previous. She was to join Labour in the early 1920s, overlapping with one of my heroines there, Phoebe Cusden.

Women who were ratepayers could be elected to city and County councils from 1907, well before they gained the Parliamentary vote. Election to District councils happened before that.  Women has also been elected as Poor Law Guardians, Margaret and Edith amongst them.

Celebrating the well-publicised suffrage events of 1913 and that incident with a horse in particular is important, but it does give us a rather partial picture. Women who wanted the vote didn’t just demonstrate. Some of them were working women with very little time for anything else, but others were very busy and dedicated volunteers in public life and developed that role in local government. They were there, at the heart of local political activity as Labour was born, limited in numbers but more significant in impact than is often recognised.

The franchise reforms of 1918 didn’t just give some women a Parliamentary vote. They also ensured more women could vote in local elections and stand as candidates. In some Labour areas small numbers of women were prominent from the outset and many of them combined their work as councillors with a commitment to wider suffrage. Ada Salter had first taken a seat on Bermondsey borough council in 1907. When she regained that seat in 1919 she had as companions Ada Broughton, previously active in the suffrage movement in the North-East; and Jessie Stephen, active in both suffrage and Trades union spheres. Slightly later on Manchester city council Hannah Mitchell developed her suffrage work, ILP activity and work as a Poor Law Guardian into effective local representation that focused on women and families.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Labour women gained a good level of representation in London, more mixed in our towns and cities and started to take up places on County Councils, many coming from a background that included suffrage activism. Early women politicians joined Labour because they were active in their communities. For them socialism was a wider vision than one that focused just on the workplace and means of production.

Well before the highlights of 1945 Labour women councillors were active in education and welfare reform.  The challenges they faced and the campaigns they won are far too obscure in our political history – Agnes Dawson, giving up her career as a teacher to join the LCC and persuading them in 1935 that women teachers should not be dismissed on marriage, or Bessie Braddock, campaigning against the catholic Labour lobby in Liverpool for the right to contraception and safe childbirth.

Why does this matter? I could spend a long time trying to dissect academic theory but for me there are some central issues:

  • If we look at the biographies of the individual everyday women involved in suffrage and in local politics we get a much broader picture than we do by only looking at events of national significance.
  • Women were not just angry protestors. The same individuals were taking a lead in developing better homes, schools and welfare in a very practical focused local politics.
  • Both the campaign for suffrage and the election of women to local office took place at the time Labour was developing as a national party. Is it time to reassess the relationship between those events – and perhaps even learn from them?

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