Today, 21 November 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, by which women were for the first time able to stand for election as members of Parliament.
It was only earlier in the year, on 6 February, that some women (over 30 and fulfilling a small property qualification) had at long last been granted the parliamentary vote and now, as the Great War had come to an end, women actually had the prospect of sitting in the House of Commons.
The short bill, passing rapidly through all stages of the parliamentary process with little opposition, granted the right to stand for election to all women over the age of 21, although any woman of that age would have been unable to vote. A curious situation.
With a general election called for 14 December, there was little time for women to organize election campaigns, but in the event 17 women took to the hustings. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll tell you something about each one of these pioneers, taking them alphabetically.
The first is:
Mrs W.C. Anderson (Miss Mary Macarthur) who was standing for the Stourbridge (Worcestershire) constituency as a Labour candidate. With the enabling bill passed so close to the election most political parties had already selected their candidates. However Stourbridge Labour party was one of the few organisations that had taken the chance that women would become eligible to stand for election and had already selected Mary Macarthur as their candidate. She was a heroine in that area, having in 1910 led the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath in their battle for better pay. She was, of course, much better known as Mary Macarthur, but it was her married name that appeared on the ballot paper, doubtless leading to confusion among some voters.
Scots-born Mary Macarthur (1880-1921) had been secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League from 1903 and during the pre-war suffrage years had supported the cause of universal adult suffrage rather than the limited women’s suffrage advocated by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the Women’s Social and Political Union.
In her 1918 Election Address Mary Macarthur promised:
- I will fight for Free Speech – a Free Press – Free Trial – for Social Economic and Political Freedom.
- A Man’s Pay for a Man’s Work. It should be illegal to employ a woman on the same work as a man for less pay. The stand of life must not be lowered by unfair competition.
- A Fair System of Taxation. We shall have a war debt of £7000 million. Those who can best afford it must pay. I am against all taxes on food. The Income Tax limit should be raid and further relief given in respect of family responsibilities. Super Taxes and Death Duties should be increased. I am in favour of a Capital Levy exemption possessions under £100 and pressing lightly on possessions under £5000.
- Public Good Before Public Profit. Land, Railways, Canals, Coal and Iron Mines, Life Assurance, Banking, Electricity, and similar monopolies should be made public property, run for public good and not for private profit. Equitable compensation should be given to existing owners and shareholders.
Although defeated, as were all but one of the women candidates – and, indeed, many leading male Labour politicians, Mary Macarthur polled a very creditable 7835 votes at Stourbridge.
In the remainder of her short life, Mary Macarthur continued to work for the Women’s Trade Union League and campaigned to set up the International Labour Organisation.
A memorial to Mary Macarthur in the form of three holiday homes where ‘tired working women’ could go for a rest, was launched in 1922 and still operates today – now as the Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust.