Issue date: 13 November 2002

A new project to study the lives of four women who were at the forefront of Labour politics between the two World Wars is under way at the Regional History Centre, based in Bristol’s University of the West of England (UWE). Women over the age of thirty were given the vote in 1918 in the aftermath of the First World War, while those aged twenty-one and over achieved full franchise in 1928. Researchers are investigating the period from 1924 until the end of World War II, focussing on four women who became early Labour MPs.

Of the four, the youngest was perhaps given one of the greatest challenges. Born in 1894 in Keynsham, between Bristol and Bath, Lucy Middleton (nee Cox) was handpicked by the Labour Party to stand in Plymouth against the wealthy establishment figure of Nancy, Lady Astor.

Nancy was herself a pioneer, becoming the first woman ever to sit in Parliament. She represented Plymouth for the Conservatives and was clearly regarded as a formidable opponent. Lucy was selected as a candidate in 1936 and succeeded in winning the seat in 1945.

Researcher June Hannam is keen to research the routes by which these women – who represent a range of views and generations - became involved in politics at a time when they had so recently been enfranchised.

“Lucy was originally a teacher, one of the few professions open to bright working class women at the time. Other women that I am studying are Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson and Dorothy Jewson. Margaret began as an official in the shop assistants’ trade union before WW1, and became women’s officer for National Union of General Workers. She was the first woman to enter national government, as a minister in the Labour Cabinet in 1929. Ellen Wilkinson, or ‘Red’ Ellen as she was known, was one of the leaders of the Jarrow Marches. She had won a scholarship to Manchester University, having started work as a schoolteacher.

June’s research has been made possible by a £12,000 research leave award from the Arts and Humanities Research Board. She will carry out her research in archives such as the National Library of Women at the Guildhall, the Museum of Labour History in Manchester and Hansard records. Opened in Jan 2002, the National Library of Women contains archive material collected by suffragists to ensure the work of Millicent Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, would not be forgotten.

“This project will look at these four women – some of whom, like Margaret Bondfield, later wrote accounts of their political lives - and how their politics developed over their lifetimes.

“I intend to approach their politics through their biographies to see how their experiences affected their politics on class and gender. Their different experiences led them to complex views that changed over time. I want to discover what their political journeys were - particularly with Margaret, to find out how she presented herself in her autobiography and how this could have affected her reputation in history.

“During this period, feminist politics were changing. Women-only groups continued to campaign on women's issues. However Labour women - some of whom had been involved in the suffrage movement before the war - were now more likely to pursue any feminist goals through the Labour party, and to distance themselves from the organisations of the women's movement.

“I want to find out to what extent these early women Labour MPs had to make compromises in order to achieve national prominence. For example, were their particular needs put to one side once they had come to represent a party that was still preoccupied mainly with class struggle and male concerns.

“Lucy Middleton lived until the mid-1980s, when she was ninety. As she came originally from Keynsham, it is possible that some of her family may still remain in this area and may have some documents or photos relating to her life.”

June’s research is one of a range of fascinating projects being undertaken at the Regional History Centre, part of UWE’s Faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences. The Centre, whose administrator is Dr Kath Holden, acts as a focal point for historians throughout Bristol and the surrounding region.

The Centre’s website gives access to information of great importance for those researching history in Bristol and the West. Visitors to the website can access a database of Bristol Attorneys and the Centre is working on a database of Bristol Women Philanthropists. The website also provides a gateway to the Bristol Record Society.

The Centre publishes the Regional Historian, a newsletter that serves the former county of Avon and the Bristol ‘home counties’ of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset. It has wide links to museums, local and family history groups, schools, colleges, history departments in other Universities, and via its magazine and website, to historians interested in the history of the West Country from as far afield as Australia, Canada and the US.

Editor’s notes

1. A workshop organised by the Regional History Centre entitled 'Women, Local Politics and Philanthropy in Bristol and Manchester' will take place on Saturday 16 November from 9.30am - 2.15pm at UWE’s St Matthias Campus, Fishponds. It is free of charge and open to anyone to attend. For further information contact the Centre administrator Kath Holden on 0117 344 4395 or email: Katherine.Holden@uwe.ac.uk

2. The Regional History Centre is led by directors Peter Fleming and Madge Dresser and the website is on: http://humanities.uwe.ac.uk/Regionhistory/index.htm

3. The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) funds postgraduate and advanced research within the UK’s higher education institutions. It is also responsible for a special scheme of funding for museums and galleries within higher education institutions. All AHRB awards are made on the basis of academic excellence.

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