The pioneering women who first stood for Parliament in the Black Country
ONE hundred years ago, this December, the Black Country and Birmingham were at the heart of campaigns to get the first women elected to Parliament.
Women chainmakers’ strike leader Mary Macarthur, suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, and Margery Corbett Ashby, later to form the Townswomen Guild, all put their names down as parliamentary candidates in the region.
The general election of December 14, 1918, saw most women over 30 voting for the first time. It also gave all women over 21 the right to stand for Parliament.
Over seven hundred seats in the House of Commons were up for election, but just 17 women stood, and three of those were in adjoining constituencies of the Black Country and Birmingham.
Local historian David Hallam has written a book commemorating the ground breaking election called Taking on the Men – the First Women Parliamentary Candidates 1918.
David, who lives in Bearwood, is a former Sandwell Councillor and Member of the European Parliament. He researched the book as part of a Master of Arts course at the University of Birmingham.
“The 1918 General Election was like no other”, said David, “it was called within weeks of the Armistice. Polling took place on Saturday, December 14, and the count a fortnight later to enable servicemen to cast their votes by post.
“The most successful candidate was Christabel Pankhurst for the Women’s Party in Smethwick. Her mother Emmeline worked hard to ensure that she had the support of the London newspapers and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George. However, she was up against a wellknown trades union official, John Davison, who won with a majority of 775, a margin of just 4.4%.”
You can read more about Christabel Pankhurst’s election battle in Smethwick in the 2019 Bugle Annual, on sale now.
David Hallam continued, “Mary Macarthur took on Stourbridge for the Labour Party. The constituency stretched from Stourbridge across to include Halesowen, Oldbury and Warley Woods, where it bordered Smethwick.
“The returning officer insisted that Mary could not use her maiden name, Macarthur, by which she was known, but had to be described on the ballot paper as ‘Mrs Anderson’. This is believed to have contributed to her defeat,” says David Hallam.
“Margery Corbett Ashby was very brave to fight Ladywood as a Liberal and take on the future Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, who was, of course, backed by the formidable Chamberlain political machine. She was very unfortunate to be squeezed between Labour and the Conservatives and Unionists”.
Taking on the Men includes a section on each of the 17 women candidates with full results and a short biography. The only woman of the 17 to win a seat was Constance Markievicz, who claimed Dublin St Patrick’s for Sinn Fein but, in line with the party’s policy, did not take her seat in the House of Commons.
The 1918 manifestos of Christabel Pankhurst, Mary Macarthur and Margery Corbett Ashby are reproduced in full, the first time they have been published together.
Taking on the Men – the First Women Parliamentary Candidates 1918 by David Hallam is published by Brewin Books, price £9.95.
Suffragettes Flora Drummond and Phyllis Ayrton campaigning on behalf of Christabel Pankhurst in Smethwick for the 1918 General Election
David Hallam’s new book
Margery Corbett Ashby