Suffrage Stories: The First Women General Election Candidates, 1918: Edith How Martyn

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 twelfth:

Edith How Martyn, wearing her WFL ‘Holloway’ brooch

Mrs Edith How Martyn, who stood as an Independent candidate (Women’s Parliamentary League) for the Hendon constituency in Middlesex. Unlike many of the women candidates, she did live close to her constituency, in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Edith How Martyn (1875-1954)  was a lecturer in Mathematics at Westfield College, London,  and a member of the Independent Labour party when she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1906, one of its first London members. She soon gave up her teaching post to devote herself full time to the suffrage movement and in October 1906 was one of the women arrested in the Lobby of the House of Commons, receiving a two-month prison sentence.

In 1907, with Mrs Charlotte Despard, Edith How Martyn broke away from the WSPU to found the Women’s Freedom League. She believed in passive resistance but not in violent militancy. She was honorary secretary of the WFL from October 1907 until 1911 and was then head of the WFL’s Political and Militant department until 1912, when she resigned, ostensibly through illness, but very disappointed with the results achieved by the League.

At one of her first Hendon  election meetings the chair was taken by Miss Councillor E.C. Growse and Alison Neilans, a very active member of the WFL spoke from the platform, mentioning that Edith How Martyn had great experience in political movements, and had taken honors at London University in political science and public administration. Mrs How Martyn mentioned that She stood for sane reform in all directions, and would support any measure which would tend to bring about better conditions of life. She trusted the people of this country did not intend to return in many respects to the kind of life that was tolerated before the war. They had tolerated poverty, disease, ill-health, unequal conditions of income, sweated work and slums. During the war it was realised we had a greater responsibility towards our fellow creatures. She might say, almost without reservation, that she was heartily in support of the Coalition programme, and so long as the Coalition Government carried out that programme, she would be a loyal and hearty supporter of it. But if it departed from the programme or did not attempt to carry it out, then the members of the House of Commons should vote against the Government.

She was in favour of a League of Nations and suggested that the claims of the widows and orphans in the war could be voiced in Parliament just as well by women as by men. She was in favour of everyone having a fair chance in life and more equality between the sexes. Especially did they want the diplomatic profession and the Foreign Office open to women.

She believed Germany and her Allies should make full reparation for all the crimes they had committed.

She was in favour of just as much Free Trade as they could get.

She was in favour of the reform of the House of Lords. One of the first reforms would be to put a few women there; and then the House should be made a more useful Second Chamber than it was now.

Ireland should have Home Rule as quickly as possible, but she did not believe in forcing it upon Ulster by means of machine guns or bayonets. She hoped in time to see separate Parliaments for Ireland, Scotland and Wales – and perhaps two English Home Rule Parliaments – one for the South and one for the North – and then an Imperial Parliament.

She was in favour of the nationalisation of land.

Although it might not be brought about in the next Parliament, some practical steps might be taken in the way of giving more powers to local authorities.

In the 20 December issue of the Hendon and Finchley Times Mrs How Martyn commented ‘Saturday was doubly noteworthy for women, as not only could they vote but could vote for a woman candidate. It was a satisfaction and delight to see women pouring to into the polling stations to use their newly-acquired rights of citizenship.’ She said that she did not really expect to win, although she might have had success in a straight fight with either of the two other candidates. In the event she polled 2067 votes, coming last behind the Unionist (14,431 votes) and Labour (3159 votes). One woman who did turn out to vote for her was Mrs Alice Singer, who, before the War, had been treasurer of the Hendon and Golders Green WSPU. On 14 December 1918 Alice wrote in her diary:   I recorded in favour of Mrs Edith How-Martyn for the new constituency of Hendon. 

Edith How Martyn did not stand again for Parliament, but in 1919 became the first woman member of the Middlesex County Council and was its first woman chairman. She was also actively involved in the birth-control movement and became honorary direction of the Birth Control Information Centre. In 1926 she was founder and first president of the Suffragette Fellowship, which aimed to perpetuate the ‘suffragette spirit’. At the outbreak of the Second World War she emigrated with her husband to Australia.


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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