Women’s organising was an evident part of party politics from the inception of the Primrose League in the 1880s. The Ladies’ Grand Council, set up in 1885, allowed thousands of women (generally upper-class) to participate in canvassing and other political work. Women’s organisations outside the official workings of the Party itself flourished throughout the first two decades of the 20th century. Other distinctly political organisations such as the Women’s Tariff Reform Association (founded in 1905) provided a concrete way for women to enter the political arena, but the organisations and their participants were often relegated to a ‘quiet’ role and kept behind the scenes.
When women over 30 were granted the vote in 1918, the Party restructured itself to encompass these already-established women’s groups. The first Conservative women’s organisation – the Women’s Unionist Organisation – was founded in 1918/1919. Not only were women now allowed to play a real and tangible role in political organisation, the Qualification of Women Bill allowed female MPS; three female Conservative MPs took office in the first four years after the Bill, in 1919 (Lady Astor), 1921 (Margaret Wintringham) and 1923 (Mabel Hilton Philipson). In fact, the Party was concerned at the 1921 Conference that it not be seen to lag behind the Labour and Liberal Parties in putting forward female candidates (NUA 2/1/37, p. 31); Lady Astor, MP, responded by pointing out that women ‘are your great bulwark against Bolshevism’. George Younger remarked, ‘She is quite equal to it [working as an MP] … but she requires support’.
A November 1931 photograph featuring the national women MPs on the terrace of the House of Commons. The women were being filmed for a ‘talkie’ film. From left to right: Lady Iveagh, Irene Ward, Thelma Cazalet-Keir, Mavis Tate, Ida Copeland, Lady Astor, Sarah Ward, Florence Horsbrough, Mary Pickford, the Duchess of Atholl, and Norah Runge. (Barratt’s; from the Conservative Party Archive Photograph Collection)
Not all factions of the party were comfortable with female participation. Some who supported suffrage and women’s rights pointed out that giving too much power to a separate women’s organisation in effect divided the Party to its detriment (see letter from ‘Darius’ – aka Robert Topping – in the Conservative Agents’ Journal, August 1922, p. 9, PUB 3/3). Others replied, ‘Women have become part and parcel of our organisation system, and that they are out to help us men, if we will only let them help us’ (letter from ‘B.M.’ in September 1922 issue, p. 20). Another writer stated, the success of mass politics ‘stands or falls on … whether or not there is a good women’s organisation in the constituency’ (CAJ, April 1923, p. 68). This argument continued throughout the 1920s, with regular articles in the Journal criticising the segregation of men and women.
The Report of the Council to the Annual Conference indicates that a Women’s Conference was held in April 1921 in London. Elizabeth Hodder writes:
‘London under siege’ was how one Tory woman delegate described the Conservative Women’s Conference in 1921. Hatted women from all corners of the land packed to overflowing the largest hall available.
(PUB 182/4: Hats Off! …to Conservative Women, p. 8)
Empire was a significant issue in the first part of the century, and Viscountess Elvedeen, Chairman of that first Conference, spoke to the women of their focus on unity and equality:
Unionism sounds for unity, for the unity of our Empire, for that unity which alone makes for strengths, which stands for unity between classes, the greatest good for the greatest number, not the greatest good for any section of the community.
(Hats Off, p. 13)
In 1928, the conference and the Women’s National Advisory Committee were officially recognised by the Party; that year the Prime Minister addressed their Conference at Royal Albert Hall. The Countess of Iveagh told the 1928 Women’s Conference that the Women’s Unionist Organisation had a membership of over one million already (CCO 170/4/11, p. 5). We do know that the annual expenditure allowed to women’s organisation had increased by astronomical amounts; in 1924, the spending totaled £425, but by 1930 it had reached £3,800 (CCO 500/1/5).
The Women’s Unionist Organisation worked hard at bringing women into the political arena. It produced its own publication from 1921-1930, called Home and Politics. The journal proved far more popular than some of the men’s equivalents, and by 1928 its circulation had topped 2.5 million! The WUO/WNAC called for more women’s education and requested speakers from Central Office, particularly in areas such as economics. Women travelled to the Conservative Party College for training, and study groups formed throughout the country, offering courses on everything from canvassing to foreign policy.
Although it can be by no means said that the struggle of women for equal rights ended in the 1930s, by that decade Conservative women had fostered a groundswell of support and organisation. A report to Neville Chamberlain indicated that by 1931, ‘So great has been the advancement … it was decided to omit any provision as to the ratio of men and women representatives to be elected by the constituencies to the Conferences and Council’ (CCO 500/1/5). In 1939, the WNAC had over 1.5 million members, 474 Divisional Committees and well over one hundred paid organisers. They ran weekend courses, study schools, and other training sessions. Home and Politics had given way to Home and Empire, and they produced numerous other smaller publications.
The 1958 Conservative Women’s Conference, held at Westminster. (Keystone Photos; from the Conservative Party Archive Photography Collection)
Gender equality may still be an issue in both the political and social sphere, but the Conservative Women’s Organisation (as it is known today) is still going strong after over 90 years. It provides a network for supporting women in the Party as well as encouraging campaigning and political activity, and it still holds an annual conference. More information about the Organisation’s current activities can be found at http://www.conservativewomen.org.uk.