Suffrage Stories: The First Women General Election Candidates, 1918: Charlotte Despard

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 fifth:

 

Mrs Charlotte Despard, who stood as the Labour candidate for North Battersea, a new constituency, backed by support from the Women’s Freedom League. She had been selected by the Labour party after John Burns withdrew his candidature.

Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) had been the leader of the Women’s Freedom League  since its formation in 1907, when she led a group away from the Women’s Social and Political Union, dissatisfied with the autocratic style of Emmeline and and Christabel Pankhurst’s leadership. Charlotte Despard advocated, within the structure of a democratic organization, civil disobedience that broke no ‘moral law’, and a need for an awareness of the reality of the social and economic ills that could be remedied if women were enfranchised. During the campaign she was imprisoned on a couple of occasions

Mrs Despard was a vegetarian, a Theosophist and a supporter of the Labour party – or  at least she was so long as it was prepared to back women’s suffrage. Thus after 1912, when the Labour party passed a resolution to include women’s suffrage in its programme, the Women’s Freedom League backed Labour party candidates in by-elections.

And so it was that in December 1918 Charlotte Despard was selected as the Labour party candidate for the North Battersea constituency, an area in which she had lived since 1890 and where she ran youth clubs, a welfare clinic, and a soup kitchen. Her election agent was John Archer, who had been the first person of colour to have been elected a mayor in London (for more about him see https://wp.me/p2AEiO-1kg).

Mrs Despard’s Election Address made the following points:

  1. Equal political rights for men and women 
  2. Equal pay for equal work
  3. The child as a most important factor in the State
  4. Children to have first consideration in all food schemes
  5. Boys and girls should go to work at a later age
  6. Rigorous inspection of shops and factories where boys and girls work
  7. Adequate provision for disabled men and women
  8. Abolition of Defence of the Realm Act, especially 40D
  9. Free speech, free press, and liberty of individual action
  10. A League of Free Nations

In the NUWSS paper, Common Cause, Mrs Despard wrote:

As a woman Parliamentary candidate, standing for the cause that is nearest to my heart – the cause of the people, I send a word of greeting and recognition to our fellow-workers of the National Union [of Women’s Suffrage Societies] and the ‘Common Cause’. 

You, my sisters, have for many years through good and ill report, stood for righteousness in public life and for those urgent reforms in our social system through which alone we can hope for social salvation; and your reward has come in these marvellous, unprecedented changes that have come to pass.

Now that the door of opportunity stands open for women, as well as men, it is good to feel that, in organisations such as yours, the training requisite to success in service has been given. I hope the new Parliament will have women amongst its members; and I firmly believe that their influence and help will be of special use to the nation now. On the ruins of the old world of privilege and convention we are building a new world – just, strong, free. Unity if the only firm basis of such a world. Therefore women must be there.

Mrs Despard polled 5634 votes. The Liberal candidate, her only rival, polled 11,231, winning by a comfortable majority. She never stood again for Parliament, subsequently devoting her remarkable energies to the cause of Irish freedom and Irish socialism.

Copyright

All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.
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