Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, explains why 2018 is so important in remembering how women got the vote in Britain
Find out more about the Vote 100 celebrations at the Houses of Parliament, including events, an exhibtion and special themed tours at https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-100/
2018 is an extraordinary year in the history of an extraordinary place: the United Kingdom Parliament. It marks the anniversaries of six major milestones in the long, hard-fought struggle toward universal suffrage - the representation of all citizens in Parliament. First and foremost among these landmarks: 2018 is the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act, which allowed women to vote for the first time. Yes, in the Mother of Parliaments, it was only 100 years ago that females got the vote. But then things happened rather quickly – see the timeline below.
We spoke to Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, about these epic changes in the way Parliament operates, and a fascinating interactive – and free - exhibition this summer in the heart of Parliament itself. Mari’s PhD thesis was on ‘Parliament and Women c. 1900-1945’, so organizing this exhibition is a perfect job for her:
From July - October 2018, a major public exhibition will tell the story of Parliament and women over the past 200 years. Anyone can come, from all over the world. We’re creating four immersive spaces in Westminster Hall. Three are historic and the fourth brings things up to date.
Take a look at the image of ‘The Ventilator’. It shows an octagonal structure surrounded by various stick figures peering through holes. Those are women, watching parliamentary debates, before the great fire of 1834 that burnt down Parliament. Women were banned from the public galleries in the House of Commons in the 18th century but there were many who needed/wanted to find out what was going on down there. These were the wives, daughters, sisters and mothers of the MPs, and also political campaigners like Elizabeth Fry the prison reformer and Hannah More the anti-slavery campaigner. If they wanted to find out what was happening, they had to come up here to watch. It is an attic space, high up above the ceiling of the Commons. You can see some of the architectural features, and the structure in the middle is literally a ventilator, expelling the foul air from the Chamber. The sketch was by a woman, the daughter of the Clerk of the House of Commons and it’s in our art collection.
The view wasn’t great. The sound may have been quite good according to some reports from women who went up there. But it must have been unpleasant, with candle smoke rising, and foul smells from the ventilator itself. We think the Housekeeper’s lodgings were up there, she was probably the first person who found that you could see the Chamber from there. And so the visits started, probably around 1818, informally at first, then they became quite formalised. Eventually they started issuing tickets and supplying refreshments up there.
It was quite a thing in letters and diaries of the period: ‘We’re going to the Ventilator today...’ It became a social event. We know the Speaker’s wife was there at least once, with her friends and servants. It was an all-women space in an extremely masculine building, right in the heart of Westminster.
In our exhibition we’re recreating part of the Ventilator: you’ll be able to put your head through a hole and it will show what it would have looked like, with a sound recreation of a debate – maybe the slave trade. We want people to think about how it makes you feel – would you rather be on the floor of the Chamber? Is it outrageous that you have to breathe the ventilator smoke? Or is it rather fun – a chance for women to get together on their own, have a cup of tea and chat?
Now we move from The Ventilator to The Cage. Whether that sounds like progress or not, I’m not sure. It’s quite a small room, and you can see ladies looking through the grills over some windows. This is the Ladies’ Gallery.
After the great fire, they built the new Palace of Westminster, the buildings we see today. By this point they realised they needed somewhere for women to go and the attic wasn’t good enough. It was thought that they should not sit with the men, so the Ladies’ Gallery was built. It was high above the Speaker’s chair, opposite the men’s public gallery. It was at a very steep angle. By peering out, the women could see the men, but the heavy metal grilles over the window were to stop the MPs seeing women watching them. This created a harem effect, right here in 19th century London.
Because of the grilles it became nicknamed The Cage almost immediately, and the women complained about them from the beginning and wanted them removed, saying it made the space hot and stuffy and smelly, and it was difficult to see and hear. To no avail – the grilles stayed. This was the space used by the campaigners for Votes for Women, from the 1860s on. First were the Suffragists, the peaceful campaigners, then later the militant Suffragettes. Millicent Fawcett, the great suffragist leader, whose husband was a blind MP, spent many hours up here because she was her husband’s eyes. In the early 20th century the militant Pankhursts were up here, and on one famous occasion in 1908 suffragettes from the Womens’ Freedom League chained themselves to the grille, which had to be removed so they could be cut free in a committee room nearby. Things were different in the House of Lords, where women and men shared a viewing gallery, albeit in cordoned off sections. It wasn’t until 1917 that the grilles were removed from the Ladies’ Gallery and women were allowed to sit in the Strangers’ Gallery with the men, when it became clear that the Representation of the People Act was going to pass and some women would have the vote. In the exhibition, we’re recreating The Cage, you can sit down and look through some grilles and see a visual representation of what it was like, perhaps with the sound of a debate about suffrage. Again, people can think about whether they would have been a suffragette, chaining themselves to the grille. This takes us up to 1918.
In 1918 some women got the vote, and in part three of the exhibition we move from Ventilator to Cage to The Tomb! This was the first Lady Members’ Room. Some women over 30 had the vote, and a separate Act allowed women to become MPs for the first time, at age 21. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1928 that women could vote at 21. The reason for the age 30 limit was to stop women voters outnumbering men, partly because of the great loss of men in the Great War. It was simply a mathematical calculation – there wasn’t a 30 limit on standing in elections because nobody thought women MPs would outnumber male MPs. So you had Jennie Lee, who became an MP despite being too young to vote. The 1929 election is sometimes known as the Flappers’ Election, because there was a big furore in the tabloid newspapers of the time about young women who didn’t have any stake in the country, or any morals, being able to vote.
The first woman MP elected never took her seat - Constance Markievicz [known as Countess Markievicz, she was a member of the Irish republican Sinn Féin party – Ed.]. The following year, 1919, Nancy Astor [an American – Ed.] was elected in a by-election and arrived in Westminster. She was given this as her office. In 1921 the second woman, Margaret Wintringham, arrived. She was a Liberal, Astor a Conservative, but because they were women, gender was more important than party and they were expected to share. A couple of years later the first Labour women arrived and they too had to share.
More women arrived and were added to the Lady Members’ Room, regardless of party. This would not have happened to male MPs. Most men didn’t have their own offices in this period, you had to be a minister to have your own office, but men had access to all the bars, the smoking rooms, the dining rooms, most of which women were formally or informally banned from. The women had this room, and that was it. The room moved and was adapted and updated over the years, but continued to be the main Lady Members’ Room until the 1970s, so the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams would have shared the room – and done their ironing there.
For our exhibition we’re recreating the room: we’ll have some uncomfortable chairs and tables and you can leaf through copies of some correspondence or sit on a sofa and think about how you’d feel about having to share with your opponents. This space covers us up until 1963, when we got parliamentary equality.
One of the few people to oppose equal franchise to the end was Winston Churchill. He did many great things in his life but he was never a feminist. He thought it would be the ruin of the Conservative Party - how wrong he was!
Once we’re through The Tomb we’ll tell the story about women in the House of Lords, from the famous test case in the 1920s when Lady Rhondda tried to take her seat and failed, through to success in 1958 when women were allowed to sit as life peers, then as hereditary peers in 1963
The last space is different to the others, as we’re not trying to recreate a historic space. It evokes the Chamber today. We have red benching and green benching for the Commons and the Lords, and a selfie opportunity – you can pretend to be Betty Boothroyd in the Speaker’s Chair or Margaret Thatcher at the Despatch Box – plus lots of information about women in Parliament today, oral history voice recordings and so on. The idea is that everyone should leave the exhibition more likely to vote, more likely to sign petitions, give evidence to committees and generally be more politically engaged than when they went in.
February 1918 - The Representation of the People Act, allowing some women to vote. 2018 is its centenary.
November 1918 - The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, allowing women to stand for election to the House of Commons. 2018 is its 100th anniversary.
December 1918 - The centenary of all men and some women voting for the first time, in the general election of December 1918.
July 1928 - The Equal Franchise Act, which gave women the right to vote at age 21 on the same terms as men. This is its 90th anniversary.
April 1958 - The Life Peerages Act, which allowed women to sit in the House of Lords. This year is its 60th anniversary.
October 1958 - The 60th anniversary of women sitting in the House of Lords for the first time.
2018 sees Sarah Clarke become the first female Black Rod.
2019 also sees the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which allowed women to enter some professions, including law. Mari Takayanagi is a Champion for the First 100 Years project marking 100 years of women in the legal profession in 2019