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 fourteenth:
Christabel Pankhurst, 1918
Miss Christabel Pankhurst, who stood as the Women’s Party candidate at Smethwick, the only woman to be given the Coalition government’s ‘coupon’.
Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) had been one of the leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union as it campaigned for votes for women before the First World War. During the war she had worked alongside her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, and with Flora Drummond and Annie Kenney, to aid Lloyd George’s war efforts. She was vehemently anti-Asquith, attacking him in the pages of Britannia (the successor to The Suffragette) as pro-German.
In 1917 the Pankhursts relaunched the WSPU as The Women’s Party, the programme of which was based on ‘equality of rights and responsibilities in the social and political life of the nation’. During 1917 and 1918 the Women’s Party campaigned in the industrial heartlands, particularly in South Wales, advocating industrial peace and warning against the dangers of Bolshevism.
When Christabel Pankhurst stood for parliament at Smethwick in 1918 her platform was to:
secure a lasting peace based on obtaining material guarantees against future German aggression
to improve the social conditions of the working classes by a levelling up in society
by industrial salvation and wealth production
to crusade against Bolshevism and ‘shirkers’
Christabel began her two-week campaign in Smethwick at the end of November 1918. At a meeting her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, explained that Smethwick had been chosen because it was a new constituency – with no sitting member to be aggrieved when the Women’s Party won the seat. As a reward for fighting what Lloyd George termed ‘the Bolshevist and Pacifist element’ Christabel was given a coveted ‘coupon’ of coalition endorsement – and praised the chivalry of the Unionist candidate, who also had a ‘coupon’ but who withdrew to give her a clear run.
Voting took place on 14 December but it was a further two weeks before the results were announced and, in the meantime, Christabel gave her final speech of the campaign on 17 December – not in Smethwick but in London. Her last words, reported in what turned out to be the final edition of Britannia – were –
‘I would not change places with any other MP, because it is like a little bit of the heart of England, is this Smethwick. You have there an intensely patriotic people, a highly progressive people, including a body of working people who have not forgotten that they are citizens as well as workers…It is now for us to rouse ourselves and prepare ourselves for a year more full of duty and of high endeavour than we have ever known since we were born.’
But it was not to be. Christabel was defeated, polling 8614 votes to the Labour candidate’s 9389. She never repeated the experience, nor again became involved in politics, eventually moving to the USA and devoting herself to Second Adventism.