Today is special for those who know women can be fantastic local councillors. Women came to that role through a struggle that hasn’t ended. About 30% of councillors are women now, and it has stuck around that level for the last decade. Lobbying to improve that position led me to the story of how it all started.
On 5th March 1910, Susan Lawrence and Henrietta Adler were elected to the London County Council. It was not the first time women were elected to local office. There were pioneers on School Boards, Poor Law Guardians and town and parish councillors. ‘Ladies Elect’ tells their story.
Amongst hidden stories are Lady Sandhurst and Jane Cobden, elected to the LCC when it was formed back in 1889. Legislation setting up the County Councils was unclear. The courts clarified it, declaring the election of Lady Sandhurst invalid, supporting the challenge from the man she defeated. Jane Cobden wasn’t challenged – the next candidate on the list shared her Liberal politics, but LCC Conservatives were unhappy. One issued a writ, declaring that every time Jane Cobden voted on the council she acted illegally. She could remain a councillor, but couldn’t vote. The court case supporting this challenge made sure the women would be penalised either way – they could resign or carry on, both with a financial cost. Once again in fighting for rights to representation a woman had to face the prospect of going to prison.
While tussling with courts Jane Cobden found time to write to The Times vowing to fight on for equal municipal rights. When barred from voting she still attended meetings, and like so many women councillors, immersed herself in detailed work looking after asylums and schools. But despite her work and the continued support of Progressive members of the LCC, women were to remain barred from holding office there for decades.
Jane Cobden’s campaign had well known male support in George Lansbury, but the women who paved the way for her remain hidden. First called the ‘Society for Promoting Women as County Councillors’, they became the Women’s Local Government Society. Primarily prominent middle class Liberal women, many had interests in national suffrage as well as local. Some were guardians or involved in charitable work. Their networking skills are an inspiration and their persistence exemplary.
When the candidates they nurtured were barred from the LCC, they helped with court cases, and campaigned for a change in the law. Skilled lobbyists, they drafted bills and found friends to introduce them in the Lords. Their biggest victory came in 1907 when the Qualification of Women (County and Borough Councils Act) passed through Parliament, despite familiar vocal opposition. ‘Women’, said the Earl of Halsbury, were ‘too hysterical … guided by feeling and not cold reason’ to make a valuable contribution as elected local councillors. WLGS now worked to find candidates, to inform electorates and educate women on the merits of being a councillor. It had taken nearly two decades to change the law, but Annie Leigh Browne and her persistent little band carried on, their work eventually absorbed into other organisations in the 1920’s.
The first LCC elections after the 1907 legislation were a hundred years ago today. Henrietta Adler succeeded in Hackney Central where Liberals gained two seats. In Marylebone, Susan Lawrence had a bigger majority as a Municipal Reform or Conservative candidate. She was soon to change allegiance, working for Labour in Poplar. She campaigned tirelessly for poorer women like school cleaners. By 1921 her commitment to the rights of poor families was put to that ultimate test, as she and four other women were jailed as part of the Poplar revolt. I would have loved to meet Nellie Cressall. A former laundry worker she became a Poplar councillor in 1919. Imprisoned when expecting her sixth child, when her condition embarrassed the authorities she refused to leave jail without her colleagues. She carried on as a councillor until 1965.
Poplarism tells of the battle between two Labour men, George Lansbury and Herbert Morrison. History sometimes reminds us Lansbury campaigned for women’s votes, but seldom mentions that Morrison also encouraged women candidates – for expediency or equality, one wonders? Some prominent women politicians on the LCC mention that Morrison persuaded them to stand. Acceptance meant that by 1934 23% of the LCC Labour group were women – Margaret Cole, Peggy Jay and Molly Bolton amongst them. Women took up committee chairmanships on the LCC in the 1930’s, when other County Councils were finding their first few women members. Evelyn Emmett (Conservative North Hackney) chaired endless committees until losing her seat in 1934. She was co-opted back on, and eventually went on to lead the WVS. Evelyn Lowe (Labour, Bermondsey, where Ada Salter led an impressive team of women borough councillors) became the first woman chairman of the LCC in 1939. By 1963 women made up 27% of the LCC, not far off the national average today. The LCC was well ahead of the rest of the country, with London Boroughs also electing more women than other towns and cities throughout the inter-war years.
It would take another page to map out the legacy elected women left behind. Perhaps we can find more anniversaries to celebrate – constant reminders that the mother and baby homes, the wash houses, the design of council houses and the state of streets and parks all benefitted from women’s work, alongside their roles as pioneers in education and welfare work. For my part, I will spend today at the AGM of the Women’s Local Government Society. Revived in 2007 to celebrate that legislation, we have a small cross-party group of women campaigning still to bring about equality in the election of women councillors. We can look back on our predecessors with pride, and envy their networking skills and persistence.
Dedicated to Baroness Hollis of Heigham, whose work inspired me to find out more, and who is still campaigning in the House of Lords decades after becoming leader of Norwich city council.
Anne Baldwin, Research student, Huddersfield University, is looking at ‘the progress and patterns in the election of women as local councillors 1919 – 1950’. She is Secretary of the Women’s Local Government Society.
Patricia Hollis, Ladies Elect, Women in English Local Government 1865 – 1914. (Clarendon, 1987) Copies signed by Patricia available from Women’s Local Government Society.
Noreen Branson, Poplarism 1919 – 1925 (Lawrence and Wishart, 1979)
Gloria Clifton, ‘Members and Officers of the LCC 1889 – 1965’ in Andrew Saint (ed) Politics and the People of London, the London County Council 1889 – 1965. (The Hambledon Press, 1989).
 Hansard col 1355, 12 June 1907.