21 November 2018 marked 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.
This is the fourth:
Mrs Carruthers (Miss Violet Markham), who stood as an Independent Liberal candidate for Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. She married in 1915 but continued to use her maiden name for her public work.
Violet Markham (1872-1959), daughter of an industrialist and grand-daughter of Sir Joseph Paxton, was an independently wealthy social reformer who, in the years before the First World War, was a leader of the anti-women’s suffrage campaign. However, her views modified during the War and in 1918 she stood as an Asquithian Liberal in Mansfield, where her brother, Sir Arthur Markham, had before his death in 1916, been the MP. It was ironic that Mansfield, which had had a very active suffrage society since the 1890s, should have been contested by a woman candidate who, until very recently, had been so vehemently anti-suffrage.
In her election manifesto Violet Markham declared:
- I am proud to feel that the Mansfield Liberals are willing in this contest to give me the same measure of political independence as they accorded to my dear brother. My Radical and Democratic convictions have only been strengthened by the experience of the war. The war has proved in the end a splendid vindication of democracy. I have come forward, therefore, as an Independent Liberal, giving a general support to the Coalition Government in carrying out the Peace on the basis of President Wilson’s fourteen points; but not bound by pledges, and with a free hand to deal with the issues of Reconstruction as they arise on any other matters of Government policy. I am a warm supporter of the ideal of the League of Nations.
- I remain a convinced Free Trader, but recognise that the abnormal situation created by the war calls for certain modifications in its practice. I am prepared to consider the question of the protection of Key Industries, which ought to be viewed as part of the nation’s system of defence. Industries to which this protection is accorded should, however, be controlled by the State and their profits devoted to national purposes, not to private gain. Cases of dumping would, I think, be a suitable subject for investigation by one of the Standing Committees of Enquiry, which I hope to see set up by the League of Nations.
- As Liberals, we deeply deplore that the war has added yet another chapter entailing much mutual bitterness to the fatal record of misunderstanding between England and Ireland. I have always been a Home Ruler, and am prepared to support a Home Rule Bill or any measure on which the Irish would themselves agree; but I am not prepared after the experience of the war to coerce N.E. Ulster, for which separate arrangements must be made.
- Measures concerned with Housing, Health, Wages, Land, will, if adequate, receive my warm support. Such measures must deal fearlessly with the vested interests involved, or they will prove of no account.
- In industry we must work for the establishment of a new social order based, not as in the past,, on profit-making and strife, but on the principle of a public service to which all contribute and in which all share.
Violet Markham took third place in the election contest, polling 4000 votes. The Labour candidate took the seat with 8957 votes. The Coalition ‘coupon’ went to a National Democratic candidate who came second. An Independent trailed in fourth place with 878 votes.
Violet Markham never again stood as a parliamentary candidate, but was one of the first women to be appointed a justice of the peace, and in 1924 was elected a town councillor in Chesterfield, her home town, becoming mayor in 1927. By 1937 she was deputy chairman of the Unemployment Assistance Board and in 1945 was the co-author of a report on the Postwar Organisation of Private Domestic Employment.