An exhibition to mark the centenary of the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act.

Black and white photograph of women MPs on the House of Commons Terrace.

Women MPs on the House of Commons Terrace (1 December 1944), The Papers of Florence Horsbrugh [HSBR 3/9]

Twenty-five women parliamentarians, past and present, were photographed after attending a luncheon to celebrate Nancy Astor’s 25th anniversary as an MP and her decision to retire at the next election. Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the Commons, had been in favour of creating a women’s alliance, but other women MPs resisted her efforts to put gender ahead of party politics.

The legislation which gave women the right to stand for election to the House of Commons was passed on 21 November 1918, nine months after 8.5 million women over 30, and all men, had been given the right to vote. A century later, women have been involved in parliamentary politics at almost every level and have held some of the highest offices of state, with Britain’s first female Prime Minister becoming its most significant leader since Churchill. But the path towards gender equality in parliament has been long and arduous. At Westminster, where for centuries rules and rituals have been made by and for élite men, female MPs have faced daily challenges unimaginable to their male counterparts — not least of which is the assumption that their politics should be defined by their status as ‘women’.

Black and white photograph of Mary Agnes Hamilton with two other women, a child, and a baby in a pram, on the street in Blackburn

Mary Agnes Hamilton campaigning in Blackburn (c. Spring 1929), The Papers of Mary Agnes Hamilton [HMTN 2/1].  Image reproduced with permission of Commander Hamilton.

Mary Agnes Hamilton was one of nine women Labour MPs elected in 1929 — the first general election in which women had been able to participate on the same terms as men, having been granted the vote under the Equal Franchise Act in the previous year. Having fought the 1924 election unsuccessfully in Blackburn, she moved into two unfurnished rooms in a working-class ward and became a ‘citizen of the town’, persuading the neighbours who had initially addressed her as ‘Lady Hamilton’ to call her by her first name.

Uphill All the Way features highlights from the Churchill Archives Centre’s three collections belonging to pioneering female parliamentarians — Mary Agnes Hamilton, Florence Horsbrugh and Margaret Thatcher — and delves into the personal papers of some of their contemporaries to uncover the whole range of women’s experiences at Westminster.

The front page of the newspaper 'The vote: the organ of the Women's Freedom League", featuring an interview with Florence Horsbrugh and a black and white photograph.

Interview with Florence Horsbrugh MP, The Vote: The Organ of the Women’s Freedom League (25 March 1932), The Papers of Florence Horsbrugh [HSBR 2/3]

This interview appeared as part of a series on women MPs in the newspaper of the Women’s Freedom League, a militant suffrage organisation which had unsuccessfully attempted to field several independent women candidates for parliament outside of the party system after 1918. Horsbrugh, whose constituency had a large female workforce, spoke to the newspaper of the need to promote women’s interests while avoiding being ‘relegated to “women’s questions”’.

Drawing on women MPs’ personal correspondence with politicians and constituents, speech notes and interviews, contemporary press coverage and photographs, and election campaign materials, this exhibition explores the changes women politicians brought to parliament, and the impact of the national political stage on the parts women had to play in public and professional life over the course of the twentieth century. Alongside the rise of Margaret Thatcher, it looks at the legislative battles successive generations of women MPs fought in the Commons, most notably over the issue of equal pay, and their efforts to raise the profile and representation of women and equalities issues in government. Documenting parliamentary rebellions as well as achievements in high office, women’s political archives illuminate a century of struggles for gender equality in British political and cultural life.

The display is open to all in the Churchill Archives Centre’s permanent exhibition gallery, Founder and Foundation, in the Wolfson Hall at Churchill College, from 21 November 2018–18 January 2019.

— Heidi Egginton, Archives Assistant


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