Tag Archives: International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day, 2016

The records of the National Council of Women, Birmingham Branch, held at Birmingham Archives and Collections, [MS 841B] illustrate some of the steps along the way to women achieving ‘Equality’, which is the theme of this year’s, and indeed today’s, International Women’s Day.

Bham Trades Council Circulars 'Equal Pay for Equal Work Conference' c.1950 [LF 61.52]

Bham Trades Council Circulars ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work Conference’ c.1950
[LF 61.52]

In 1937, the question of the status of women was brought before the 18th Assembly of the League of Nations, at the request of 15 states who were members of the League. This was as a result of united activity by a number of international organisations and national bodies.

As a result, the Council of the League set up a commission of eminent jurists, women and men, to make a world survey of the status of women. The British representative was a Professor Gutteridge of Cambridge ‘and although the women’s organisations had hoped that a woman would be appointed, they welcomed the fairness, impartiality and great interest Professor Gutteridge brought to the task.’

To show their interest in this unprecedented advance, it was proposed to celebrate a ‘Status of Women Day’ in which all women’s organisations could take part on 14 May 1938, and two planning committees were set up by the N.C.W., one to organise a conference at the University College London, where Professor Gutteridge was to speak on the subject: ‘Equality can be won. Make your demand heard’; and a second committee to give assistance to set up similar events outside London.
[MS 841B/300-301]

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‘My whole time is given to the service of my fellow citizens’ – the first women elected to Birmingham City Council

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.

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1909 - 1911.  Municipal Election 1911, Edgbaston Ward, Mrs Ellen F Pinsent and two other Unionist Candidates.  [LFF35.2]

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1909 – 1911. Municipal Election 1911, Edgbaston Ward, Mrs Ellen F Pinsent and two other Unionist Candidates.
[LFF35.2]

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.

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1920 - 1924.  Municipal Election 1920, Selly Oak Ward, Mrs Cottrell, Co-operative and Labour Candidate.  [LFF35.2]

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1920 – 1924. Municipal Election 1920, Selly Oak Ward, Mrs Cottrell, Co-operative and Labour Candidate.
[LFF35.2]

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.

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International Women’s Day

National Council of Women Birmingham Branch Certificate of Merit, nd. [early 20th cent.] Ref: MS 841B/273

National Council of Women Birmingham Branch Certificate of Merit, nd. [early 20th cent.] Ref: MS 841B/273

In celebration of International Women’s Day, here is an interesting item (printed) from the archives of the National Council of Women, Birmingham Branch (MS 841).

It is a petition addressed to The Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli, M.P. thanking him for previous support and again asking him to give his ‘support and influence as leader of the Conservative Party, to the measure to be proposed by Mr Jacob Bright in the House of Commons for removing the Electoral Disabilities of Women.’ The petition (undated) was probably penned c1870 and contains the signatures of many prominent female activists, – Ursula Bright, Lydia Becker, Margaret Lucas, the Ashworth sisters, Florence Nightingale no less, – many of whom came from non-conformist backgrounds.

Petition to Benjamin Disraeli M.P

Petition to Benjamin Disraeli M.P, nd. [19th cent], Ref: MS 841

From a local perspective, Eliza Sturge, also a signatory, was born in Birmingham into a prominent Quaker family. She was an active speaker for the suffrage movement and secretary of the Birmingham Society For Women’s Suffrage in the 1870s. She was also the first woman to be elected to the Birmingham School Board in 1873. It is interesting to reflect that the women’s suffrage movement had its roots in political lobbying and debate well before the time we traditionally think of the movement taking a militant stance in the early 1900s.

Close up of signatures in petition to Benjamin Disraeli M.P

Close up of signatures in petition to Benjamin Disraeli M.P, n.d. [19th cent], Ref MS 841

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