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Women in politics & government: top 10 archive collections

8th April 2019 in Archives Centre, Our Collections

The Churchill Archives Centre currently looks after the personal papers of three women MPs — Mary Agnes Hamilton, Florence Horsbrugh, and Baroness Thatcher. But records of women’s political work, as suffrage campaigners, civil servants, and ‘incorporated wives’, can be found in a number of the Archives Centre’s some 600 collections. Election campaign and pressure group materials, correspondence with ministers and members of the general public, government committee minutes and policy papers, private diaries, speeches and interviews, press cuttings, ephemera, and photographs document over a century of women’s participation in the political process and their experiences at Whitehall and Westminster — and illuminate ongoing struggles for gender equality in British political and cultural life.

Part of a series exploring women’s personal papers in the Churchill Archives Centre’s collections, these lists are not exhaustive and provide a very subjective window onto some of our personal highlights. Please get in touch with the team if you have any questions about the collections the Archives Centre holds relating to women’s history, or if you would like to make an appointment to consult any of these collections in the reading room.


10 Margaret Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven (1926-2013)

Margaret Thatcher at a dinner with Ronald Reagan

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Thatcher Papers THCR 8/2/33.

An obvious entry at Number Ten in our chart [perhaps too obvious? — Ed.], Thatcher worked as a research chemist and a barrister before being elected Conservative MP for Finchley in 1959. She went on to become the UK’s first woman Prime Minister, and remains one of the most newsworthy individuals on the planet. Her [personal papers for 1989 link: ] were released to the public for the first time in March 2019. Like her or loathe her, the Thatcher Papers are vital to understanding political, economic, social, and cultural change in late-twentieth century Britain.


9 Sir William Bull MP (1863-1931)

A solicitor and Unionist MP for Hammersmith between 1900 and 1929, William Bull was one of a small group of politicians who campaigned in favour of the extension of the franchise before the First World War. As well as private correspondence with leading suffragettes including Christabel Pankhurst, his diaries give a fascinating insight into the social world of an Edwardian women’s suffrage supporter.


8 The Churchill Papers

Winston Churchill’s personal papers (catalogue references beginning CHAR and CHUR) include correspondence on the suffrage movement and with women politicians; election campaign material from women candidates; and official papers from committees on women’s work during the First and Second World Wars. The archive can be a valuable source for social historians, as it contains several large series of files of correspondence with members of the general public living in Churchill’s constituencies in north-east London (Epping and Woodford) from the 1930s to the 1950s — including Sylvia Pankhurst.


Find useful essays and further links to resources on gender history curated by Paul Addison and Lucy Noakes at www.churchillarchive.com (via subscription).

7 Neil Kinnock (b. 1942)

Kinnock’s papers from his time as Leader of the Opposition, from 1983 to 1992, document the ways in which the Labour Party attempted to counter Margaret Thatcher’s record on women’s issues, and also include files on the plans to set up the first Ministry for Women. The archive also contains correspondence between Kinnock and his chief of staff, Charles Clarke, on gender; and from women MPs and shadow ministers including Margaret Beckett, Jo Richardson, Harriet Harman, and Diane Abbott.


6 Pamela Powell (1926-2017)

The daughter of an officer in the Indian Army, Pamela spent the first few years of her life in British India. In 1944, having eschewed university for secretarial college in order to enter the war as quickly as possible, she became a shorthand typist in the War Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence. After the war, she took up posts with the UK delegation at the United Nations in New York City, and then with the Conservative Parliamentary Secretariat (later the Conservative Research Department), where she became secretary to Enoch Powell MP. She later moved to Strasbourg to work for the Council of Europe but visited Enoch frequently, helping him with his re-election campaign in his Wolverhampton constituency in 1951. Following their short courtship and marriage, she continued to work as his secretary, remaining fiercely loyal to Powell in public as his political opinions became increasingly controversial. A new accession of private Powell family papers, including correspondence and notes by Pamela, has recently been catalogued and added to Enoch Powell’s archive.


5 Suzanne Warner, Lady Warner (c. 1942)

Suzanne Reeve (née Reeder), later Suzanne Warner, Lady Warner, became a member of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), a unit within the Cabinet Office, in 1973. She had previously served as Personal Assistant to Richard Crossman at the Department for Health and Social Security. The CPRS was the first major independent research institute to serve the UK government, and became popularly known as the ‘Think Tank’. Comprised of a select team of academics, businesspeople (especially from the oil industry), and civil servants, it aimed to co-ordinate policy-making across departments by providing Cabinet ministers with impartial advice on issues of national importance. Under its first director Victor Rothschild, Warner wrote in 1992, the CPRS represented ‘a new and refreshingly different culture which operated with insouciant independence at the very heart of government.’ Suzanne Reeve returned to the Department of Health and Social Security as Assistant Secretary in 1974, and went on to have a long and varied career in the civil service. She received an OBE for her services to plant conservation in 2006. Lady Warner’s papers at the Archives Centre consist of CPRS papers, c. 1971-74, and materials for her biography of Victor Rothschild, published as part of a series of profiles on Fellows of the Royal Society.


4 Enid Russell-Smith (1903-1989)

Enid Russell-Smith was one of the first women to enter the civil service through competitive examination, after graduating from Cambridge with a degree in Medieval and Modern Languages in 1925. She rose steadily through the ranks of the Ministry of Health and worked alongside Florence Horsbrugh (who is at Number Two in this list) to co-ordinate provision for evacuees during the Second World War. In 1948, Russell-Smith helped to oversee the introduction of the National Health Service, and took overall responsibility in 1950 for the General Practitioners’ (GPs) services, nursing, and local health divisions. As a civil servant, she was unafraid to offend the cultivated manners of some of her male colleagues with fresh ideas and practical insights. Enoch Powell remembered her from his years as Health Minister (1960-63) as a ‘memorable presence’ in the department. In 1963, Russell-Smith retired from the civil service and was made Principal of St. Aidan’s College, Durham University, where she also served as a Lecturer in Politics and (as a judo black belt) provided self-defense classes for women students.


3 Mary Stewart, Baroness Stewart of Alvechurch (1903-1984)

After graduating from Bedford College with a degree in philosophy and certificate in social studies in 1928, Mary Stewart (né Birkinshaw) taught sociology and psychology for the Workers Educational Association (WEA). It was at the WEA that she met her second husband, Michael Stewart, and began her involvement with the Fabian Society. During the war, she worked as an air-raid shelter warden in London and then in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. After the war, her husband was elected Labour MP in Fulham, while Mary devoted her career to young people, specialising in education, health, and crime. As a juvenile court magistrate and member of the Fabian executive, she was a vocal advocate of greater leniency for young offenders – an unpopular view but one which gained currency under Harold Wilson’s Labour governments during the 1960s. She retired from lecturing in 1964 and stood down as a magistrate when her husband became Wilson’s Foreign Secretary, and was made honorary president of the Diplomatic Service Wives’ Association. In 1979 Mary and Michael Stewart became the second married couple to have both received life peerages in their own right. Their papers are held in one collection with two sections; a PDF catalogue is currently available from the Archives Centre on request.


2 Florence Horsbrugh (1889-1969)

 Florence Horsbrugh

Florence Horsbrugh, Horsbrugh Papers HSBR 3/1.

Florence Horsbrugh was elected MP for Dundee in 1931 and became one of the most successful Conservative women parliamentarians before Margaret Thatcher. She served in the Health and Food Ministries during the Second World War, where she coordinated the evacuation of women and schoolchildren from major cities, and as Education Secretary from 1951 to 1954. She was denied the status of Cabinet Minister in Churchill’s government until September 1953, when she became the first Conservative woman to hold the position. Her difficult brief involved implementing cuts to the Education budget at the same time as overseeing the raising of the school leaving age, and dealing with the effects of overcrowding in schools caused by the baby boom. The role proved damaging to her political reputation, and she left office in October 1954. Upon her retirement from backbench politics in 1959, she became one of the first women life peers in the House of Lords.


1 Mary Agnes Hamilton (1882-1966)

Mary Agnes Hamilton

Mary Agnes Hamilton, HMTN 2/1/18

Mary Agnes Hamilton became one of nine Labour women MPs elected at the 1929 general election – the first election to be conducted under equal suffrage. She lost her seat in 1931, but later worked closely with Labour politicians as a temporary civil servant in the Ministry of Information and Reconstruction Secretariat during the Second World War. Her private diaries, covering the period from 1938 to VJ Day in 1945, give a fascinating insight into early work on post-war planning, especially on issues such as professional work for women and education, as well as everyday life in London during the war.


— Heidi Egginton

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