Nashville (3). Churchill and Women’s Rights

Nashville (3). Churchill and Women’s Rights

Votes for Women, Yeas and Nays

Among the more per­ni­cious dis­tor­tions of Churchill’s record is that he was a life­time oppo­nent of rights for women, includ­ing their right to vote. Remarks to the Churchill Soci­ety of Ten­nessee, Nashville, 14 Octo­ber 2017. Con­tin­ued from part 2….

In 1999 Time mag­a­zine explained that Churchill could not be “Per­son of the Cen­tu­ry” because he “bull­dogged­ly opposed women’s rights.” In 2012 London’s Dai­ly Tele­graph wrote: “Churchill believed that women shouldn’t vote, telling the House of Com­mons that they are ‘well rep­re­sent­ed by their fathers, broth­ers and husbands.’”

As I show in my book, Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Real­i­ty, Churchill nev­er said those words, in or out of Par­lia­ment. He did write some­thing sim­i­lar in 1897, a pri­vate note when he was 23. Yet as a politi­cian (from 1901 on), he nev­er cam­paigned against women’s suf­frage, and changed his youth­ful atti­tude. Today, we would say he “evolved.”

Remem­ber that in 1897, more British women were opposed to suf­frage than for it. Nei­ther of Churchill’s par­ents sup­port­ed it. His wife Clemen­tine did, and as a young MP, Win­ston agreed with her. But his sup­port cooled dur­ing the 1906 elec­tion cam­paign. Here he encoun­tered the for­mi­da­ble suf­frage lead­ers Christa­bel and Sylvia Pankhurst.

Attacked with a dog whip, Bris­tol, 1909: “Take that in the name of the insult­ed women of Eng­land!” (Man­ches­ter Evening News, Mirrorpix)


At one ral­ly, Christa­bel inter­rupt­ed so fre­quent­ly that she was hauled into court and fined. Churchill offered to pay her fine; she heat­ed­ly refused and spent a week in jail. Young Win­ston was not amused. “I am cer­tain­ly not going to be hen­pecked,” he said. Any more of this, he added, and he would not vote for suf­frage in the new Parliament.

He did oppose a 1910 bill extend­ing the vote to female heads of house­hold, but his rea­son was tac­ti­cal. As a Lib­er­al, he feared that most of these would be prop­er­tied women who vot­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive. This was quite less than his Prime Min­is­ter, Asquith, who opposed votes for women seri­atim. In 1928, when Par­lia­ment extend­ed the vote to all women over 21, Churchill expressed fear in cab­i­net that it would increase the Labour vote at the expense of Con­ser­v­a­tives. While these may be con­sid­ered pet­ty objec­tions, a cen­tu­ry lat­er some politi­cians resist immi­gra­tion reforms they think will increase anoth­er party’s vote. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Women in War

With the advent of World War I in 1914 domes­tic argu­ments, includ­ing women’s suf­frage and Irish Home Rule, were set aside. In 1918, with Churchill’s sup­port, Par­lia­ment passed the Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Peo­ple Act, enfran­chis­ing women over thir­ty who met min­i­mum prop­er­ty qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Churchill sup­port­ed this reform, in part because of his obser­va­tions of the role women had played in the war.

In Churchill’s view, women had been the moral back­bone of the coun­try; their work had been vital. They might not have fought in the trench­es, but they drove vehi­cles almost to the front lines, served in field hos­pi­tals, took men’s places in war indus­tries. A few served as spies and paid with their lives. That, Churchill wrote, enshrined for them “the vote which for so many years they had vain­ly sought to wrest from suc­ces­sive Gov­ern­ments by meth­ods too often sug­gest­ing that they had not the civic sense to use the priv­i­lege rightly.”

Again in World War II, Churchill was deeply moved by the efforts of British women. To his for­mer pri­vate sec­re­tary, John Colville, he said: “When I think what women did in the war I feel sure they deserve to be treat­ed equal­ly.” Colville recalled the “aston­ish­ment” when Churchill said he hoped that Churchill Col­lege, found­ed as a nation­al memo­r­i­al to him, would admit women on equal terms with men. “No col­lege at Oxford or Cam­bridge had ever done any such thing,” Colville wrote. “I asked him after­wards if this had been Clementine’s idea. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘and I sup­port it.’” He had, indeed, evolved from 1897. 

In Sum

When Churchill entered pol­i­tics in 1900, sev­en mil­lion men had the vote; when he died, thir­ty-six mil­lion men and women had it. In 1945, Churchill cit­ed “the will of the peo­ple expressed by free and fair elec­tion on the basis of uni­ver­sal suffrage.”

Con­trary, then, to the impre­ca­tions of Time and oth­ers who have not done their home­work, Churchill was not against rights of women at any time in the 20th cen­tu­ry. His hes­i­ta­tions in 1905-12 arose when mil­i­tant women tried to break up his speech­es. He was against cer­tain mea­sures at cer­tain times, for tac­ti­cal reasons—unlike, say, Asquith, who opposed the very principle.

Churchill’s sup­port for women’s rights was less ide­o­log­i­cal than his wife’s, though she was cer­tain­ly an influ­ence. In part, too, it stemmed from polit­i­cal com­mon sense. In 1945, for exam­ple, the Labour mar­gin of vic­to­ry was 19% among males but just 2% among females. “Papa sup­port­ed votes for women,” said his daugh­ter, Lady Soames, “when he real­ized how many women would vote for him.”


World War I…

is anoth­er rich source of Churchill mythol­o­gy. We are told that he bun­gled the defense of Antwerp in 1914; caused the deaths of thou­sands in the Dar­d­anelles cam­paign; steered the Lusi­ta­nia into the path of a Ger­man sub­ma­rine; want­ed Amer­i­ca to keep out of the war; and sup­port­ed the use of poi­son gas. Every one of these accu­sa­tions is utter fantasy—including the out­ra­geous alle­ga­tion that Churchill was hell-bent for war in 1914. Con­tin­ued in Part 4…

Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Real­i­ty is now avail­able in paper­back, with a low­er price for the Kin­dle edi­tion.  Click here.

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