As we look towards International Women’s Day and the forthcoming national and local elections, it seemed a timely moment to revisit the Library’s wonderful, but surprisingly little-used, collection of election literature for evidence of the first women elected to the City Council. Although limited parliamentary suffrage was not granted to women until 1918, they had been able to vote and stand for election in local political contests for some time as members of School Boards, Poor Law Guardians and local councillors.In 1911 two women were elected to serve on Birmingham City Council for the first time. Before this, a few women had served on City Council committees as co-opted, unelected members, particularly committees concerned with education, and the health and welfare of women and children. This had been the case with the first elected female councillor Ellen Pinsent, also known as Mrs Hume Pinsent and later Dame Ellen. Elected as a Liberal Unionist for the Edgbaston Ward on 1 November 1911 she had previously served for some years as a co-opted member of the Education Committee and Chairman of the Special School Sub-Committee. Well known nationally for her work with children who had special educational needs (or in the parlance of the time ‘feeble-minded’), she had served on the national Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded from 1904 to 1908. Her stint as an elected councillor was cut short in October 1913 when she was appointed as an unpaid Commissioner for the Board of Control.
Ellen was rapidly followed by Margaret Frances Pugh, elected in North Erdington on 22 November 1911 and nominated by the Birmingham Women’s Local Government Association who campaigned for the election of women to local councils. Educated at King Edward’s High School for Girls, Margaret was a keen supporter of women’s suffrage and a teacher in an adult education school for women. Defeated at her first attempt by 59 votes she stood again when the successful candidate was made an alderman and this time, in the words of the Women Workers magazine, ‘was returned by the triumphant majority of 790.’ As a result two of Birmingham City Council’s 120 elected councillors were women, with a further eight serving as co-opted members of committees.
Like Ellen, Margaret served only a short time as a councillor, resigning her seat in November 1913. The third woman elected however spent over 19 years on the Council. Clara Martineau represented Edgbaston from 14 October 1913 until her death in 1932 at the age of 57. Like Ellen she benefitted from family connections among the City’s elite families. For the daughter of former Mayor Sir Thomas Martineau, sister of wartime Lord Mayor Ernest Martineau, and niece of Alderman Sir George Kenrick, civic service was a family tradition. Like all the early women councillors, Clara had a long track record of working in philanthropic and social causes in the city, including the Women’s Settlement and the Charity Organisation Society, and had served as a co-opted committee member before being finally elected in her own right.As local government dealt with social issues that affected people’s daily lives, standing for election was a natural extension for women who had been involved in local political and social activism. The first woman Labour Councillor, Mary E. Cottrell, who was elected unopposed in Selly Oak in February 1917 had been a long standing activist in the Women’s Co-operative Guild and had formerly stood for election as a Poor Law Guardian.
Mary’s election leaflet from 1920 illustrates the breadth of her interests. She advocated a number of policies – change to the rating system, capital expenditure to ease the housing shortage, indoor water supply in more homes, making local hospitals part of ‘an efficient State Health Service’, free secondary education with more schools, playing fields and smaller classes, a ‘good and cheap’ tramway system for the suburbs, more allotments, a municipal milk supply, and City Council labour schemes for the unemployed. She concluded by stressing the need for women councillors.
Mary also went on to play a national role. In 1921 she became the first woman to be elected to the board of the Co-operative Wholesale Society and consequently resigned her City Council seat in 1922 due to pressure of work. During the Second World War she was a government advisor on rationing.