In May 1920 Margaret Haig Thomas, Lady Rhondda, founded the political magazine Time and Tide. It was initially edited by her lover, Helen Archdale. In January 1921 she launched the Six Point Group of Great Britain. "We have recently passed the first great toll-bar on the road which leads to equality, but it is a far cry yet to the end of the road, and our present position is not yet altogether a satisfactory one from the point of view of the country as a whole. We have, as a fact, achieved a half-way position, and that is never a position which makes for stability." (1)
Lady Rhondda argued that women were moving in the right direction yet still had some way to travel on the long road to equality, she was placing a special responsibility onto newly enfranchised women (who now constituted over a third of the electorate) to complete the task that others had started for them. (2)
The group focused on what she regarded as the six key issues for women: The six original specific aims were: (i) Satisfactory legislation on child assault; (ii) Satisfactory legislation for the widowed mother; (iii) Satisfactory legislation for the unmarried mother and her child; (iv) Equal rights of guardianship for married parents; (v) Equal pay for teachers and (vi) Equal opportunities for men and women in the civil service. (3)
The Six Point Group (SPG) was formally inaugurated on 17th February 1921. It had monthly meetings at its headquarters on the top floor of 92 Victoria Street. Other members included Ethel Annakin Snowden (vice-president), Elizabeth Robins, Cicely Hamilton, Stella Newsome, Rebecca West, Helen Archdale, Frances Balfour, Charlotte Marsh, Theresa Garnett, Winifred Mayo, Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain. The SPG Parliamentary committee of supportive MPs was chaired by Philip Snowden. At the time there were only two women MPs: Nancy Astor and Margaret Winteringham. (4)
The SPG drew up "black and white lists" of MPs which were compiled on the basis of previous record on women's issues in the House of Commons. Cheryl Law argues in Suffrage and Power: The Women's Movement, 1918-1928 (2000): "It informed its readers that additional information was available on request from the SPG. It was an ingenious tactic, presented in a readily comprehended format, and the advantage over questionnaires of being compiled without actual recourse to the MPs." (5)
Women were urged to set aside party loyalty and work to defeat the "Blacklisted" members. After the 1922 General Election the SPG was able to report that of 23 MPs on the Blacklist 9 had been defeated, 2 stood down and only 12 had been re-elected. Martin Pugh argues: "In practice, however, this was only a shade more coercive than the pressure being applied by the constitutionists at this time, though their emphasis was perhaps rather more on supporting friends of women's causes." (6)
The SPG aattempted to persuade the political parties to have more women stand in winnable seats. Time and Tide pointed out: "When the women get defeated... the parties who have thus used them are the first to turn round and say: 'There is no use putting up women candidates, they only get defeated'... It should be remembered that there is no generosity in offering a woman the chance of fighting a hopeless seat on condition that she pays her own expenses." (7)
In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". On 22nd January, 1924 Stanley Baldwin resigned. At midday, the 57 year-old, Ramsay MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace to be appointed prime minister. (8)
The Conservative Party blamed the women's vote for losing power. Three Labour Party women won seats for the first time: Margaret Bondfield, Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson. Three conservatives, Nancy Astor, Mabel Philipson, Katharine Stewart-Murray and two Liberals: Margaret Winteringham and Vera Terrington. Astor commented: "We have needed more women members, whatever their party, and what a relief to us their coming will be." (9) MacDonald appointed Bondfield as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour, the first woman to be given a post in government. (10)
The Six Point Group continued to campaign for all women to have the vote. Dorothy Jewson argued: "I wish to draw attention to the very great injustice that is done to large bodies of women by their exclusion from the franchise. There is a large body of young wives and mothers who feel, very naturally, that if they are capable of bringing children into the world, and of being responsible to the State for those children, it is only right that they should have the privilege and protection of the vote in helping to mould the laws which will govern themselves and their children. Then there is the large body of wage-earning women. It is estimated that 70 per cent. of those women are under 30 years of age and are now excluded from the franchise. They have suffered intensely, and are now suffering, from low wages and under-employment, and as this House will be discussing during the next few years questions of a minimum wage, hours of work and other questions which vitally affect these women, the time has come when they should have some opportunity of exercising their control over the laws that are going to affect them.... I would particularly draw attention to the report of the inquiry into domestic service, which was set up by the Minister of Labour in last Government, the Committee on which definitely recommends that to improve the status of domestic workers the women should be allowed to exercise the franchise." (11)
The Jewson motion was won 288 to 72, but the Ramsay McDonald was unable to bring in the legislation because Stanley Baldwin, the leader of the Conservative Party, and H. H. Asquith, the leader of the Liberal Party, decided to being the Labour government down over the issue of its relationship with the Soviet Union. On 30th September, the Liberals condemned the recently agreed trade deal with the Soviet Union. They claimed, unjustly, that Britain had given the Russians what they wanted without resolving the claims of British bondholders who had suffered in the revolution. "MacDonald reacted peevishly to this, accusing them of being unscrupulous and dishonest." (12)
The Six Point Group suggested that they might need to resort to the tactics employed by the Women Social & Political Union before the First World War in order to get suffrage for all women: "The militant spirit was still needed to solve the many problems that remained." (13) Women's Freedom League gave its support to the SPG and suggesting that its members, as in the past, it would have no hesitation in fighting a Government "which refused to do justice to women." (14)
The Six Point Group established an Equal Political Rights Demonstration Committee (EPRDC) to organise a mass demonstration in London on 3rd July, 1926. Margaret Haig Thomas, Lady Rhondda, was the EPRDC's Chairman and Dr Elizabeth Knight, was in charge of press and publicity. At the end of the procession Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Eleanor Rathbone, Maude Royden and Ellen Wilkinson made speeches. (15)
Stanley Baldwin, wanted to change the image of the Conservative Party to make it appear a less right-wing organisation. In March 1927 He suggested to his Cabinet that the government should propose legislation for the enfranchisement of nearly five million women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. This measure meant that women would constitute almost 53% of the British electorate. The Daily Mail complained that these impressionable young females would be easily manipulated by the Labour Party. (16)
Winston Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was totally opposed to the move and argued that the affairs of the country ought not be put into the hands of a female majority. In order to avoid giving the vote to all adults he proposed that the vote be taken away from all men between twenty-one and thirty. He lost the argument and in Cabinet and asked for a formal note of dissent to be entered in the minutes. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. (17)
As a result of the act all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. Many of the women who had fought for this right were now dead including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst. Some veterans of the campaign such as Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS, was still alive and had the pleasure of attending Parliament to see the vote take place. That night she wrote in her diary: "It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning." (18)
The membership dropped considerably after the passing of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act. During the 1930s it only had an income of a few hundred pounds a year and was unable to afford either an office or a secretary. It continued to campaign on issues such as equal pay and family welfare and did not close down until 1981 but according to the author of Women and the Women's Movement in Britain 1914-1959 (1992) "this was achieved only at the cost of gradual isolation from the mass of women for whom they wished to speak, and they were eventually overtaken by a new generation of feminists." (19)
Helen Archdale became the international secretary of the Six Point Group. Archdale worked closely with Alice Paul in persuading the League of Nations to adopt an equal rights treaty. As Carol Miller pointed out: "At the same time, the economic depression precipitated the rise of conservative and anti-feminist policies. In this atmosphere, advances in the direction of equal rights for women became increasing difficult, particularly in the field of economic rights." (20)
The Scotsman reported in August 1929 that Helen Archdale had given an "inspiring talk". It added: "In November a big meeting is to be held to discuss the subject of the Equal Rights Treaty, an international covenant to secure international recognition of the main principles of feminism, as you will remember, this treaty was first brought forward by a handful of women, led by Alice Paul, at the Pan-American Conference at Havana last year. Never before had a woman addressed the Conference." The first article, which reads: "The contracting States agree that, upon the ratification of this treaty, men and women shall have equal rights throughout the treaty men and women shall have equal rights throughout the territory subject to their respective jurisdictions." (21)
Helen Archdale helped to establish the Equal Rights International. "Helen Archdale of Great Britain, was chosen as chairman; Jessie Street of Australia, vice chairman; Winifred Mayo, of Great Britain, hon. Sec.; Lily van der Schalk Schuster, of Holland, hon. Treasurer. The Equal Rights Treaty, which the international has been created to promote, centres round the demand that sex should be among the things in which States should consider no distinctions of rights, abate no privileges, and lessen no responsibilities." (22)
On December 23rd, 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act passed into law, and for the past two years or more it has been gradually dawning upon women of all classes, ages and professions, that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act does not remove sex disqualification.
Let us examine this Act a little more closely. When it was passed it was presented by the Government as a Charter of Freedom. Henceforth women were to enjoy equal opportunities, equal chances, equal rights with men. It was a reversal of the customs of the ages. It was, as Mr. Talbot pointed out last Friday, a revolutionary piece of legislation. Incidentally it was the carrying out of a pledge made by the Coalition to the women just before the previous General Election and signed by Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Bonar Law: 'It will be the duty of the new government to remove all existing inequalities in the law as between men and women.'
Specifically, of course, the Act did not do a very great deal. It was quite short, consisting of four clauses only. The first clause dealt with the admission of women to the Civil Service, to which, for practical purposes, if not in theory, they had been admitted before; and to juries, which was a new departure. It also entitled women to become magistrates and to be admitted and enrolled as barristers or solicitors. The first sub-clause to clause I contracted out of the obligations of the Act to admit women on equal terms into the Civil Service by providing that all regulations dealing with this admission should be left to Orders in Council.
The second sub-clause to clause I gave power to a judge to order that a jury should be composed of men only or women only as the case might be, and that on application being made a woman might be exempted from serving in a case 'by nature of the evidence to be given or of the issues to be tried.'
The second clause dealt with the qualifications necessary to entitle women to be admitted and enrolled as solicitors on the same terms as men.
The third clause stated that nothing in the statutes or charter of any university should be deemed to preclude the authorities of such university from admitting women to its membership. It was as a result of this that in 1920 Oxford admitted women to full membership. The clause was, however, merely permissive, and Cambridge has elected not to act upon it. Women were already admitted to membership of every other university in the United Kingdom before this date.
The fourth clause was simply the short title and repeal clause usual in Acts of Parliament.
To sum up, what the Bill actually did was:- To admit women to jury service although not on the same terms as men. To allow women to become magistrates. To allow women to become barristers or solicitors. To grant power to Oxford and Cambridge to admit women to membership if they chose.
It is true that we have been most singularly fortunate in our first two women members. They have set a standard to which few could hope to attain. Nevertheless, even though we can scarcely hope that many future women M.P.'s will achieve so conspicuous a success as have the first two it is undoubtedly most desirable to add to their number. In the last Parliament Lady Astor and Mrs. Wintringham were doing the work often ordinary people. No human being can be expected to keep going indefinitely at such a pressure. We publish today the first of a series of three articles dealing in some detail with the chances of the prospective women candidates who have been adopted up to the present. It seems clear from a close scrutiny of the list of seats placed at their disposals that none of the Parties have been prepared to pay much more than lip service to the proposition that it is desirable to have women in Parliament. The Independent Liberals head the list so far as numbers are concerned, but even the Independent Liberals do not so far appear to have given their women candidates any safe seats. Perhaps, however, there was some excuse for the 'Wee Frees,' seeing that they had not many safe seats to give.
Few people who have closely followed the course of events in the last Parliament will be found to deny that there is need in the next for a greater representation of women. And this not only on the general grounds that it is desirable to have national political problems fully envisaged from every possible angle, but also and at the present time particularly because there are still today a certain number of subjects the importance of which tends to be underrated by many of the men in Parliament but is adequately appreciated by women. The value of Lady Astor and Mrs. Wintringham has lain not only in their contributions upon general political questions but also in the steady hard work they have put in over such matters as the Criminal Law Amendment Bill (whose passage was largely due to their efforts), the Equal Guardianship of Infants Bill, the Women Police question (that any Women Police at all have been retained in the London area is due almost entirely to them), and other matters of the kind. It has lain also in the fact that they could be trusted to understand the point of view of the professional and working woman.
Up to the time of going to press only sixteen women parliamentary candidates have been officially endorsed by their respective parties. It seems certain that more women candidates will be adopted almost immediately, but in most cases these will only be asked to fight forlorn hopes. We much doubt the desirability of women candidates accepting the party leavings. In fact, what the parties are doing is to fling to any women who are prepared to accept them - and in most cases to pay the greater part of their own expenses - constituencies which the average male candidate refuses to touch knowing them to be 'duds.' When the women get defeated, as in these hopeless seats they can only expect to be, the parties who have thus used them are the first to turn round and say: 'There is no use putting up women candidates, they only get defeated.' We are of opinion that women of any standing should refuse to be made use of in this way, their defeat only does harm to the ultimate cause they desire to serve. It should be remembered that there is no generosity in offering a woman the chance of fighting a hopeless seat on condition that she pays her own expenses. The party which does so is merely trying to get something for nothing by playing on the comparative innocence of women in the political game.
I desire to draw attention to the fact that the principle of the Bill, to grant equal franchise to women, has been acknowledged and accepted by the House on a very large number of occasions by an overwhelming vote. Following on the 1918 Act, which was only accepted as a compromise and a temporary measure, the Coalition Government at the General Election in 1918 declared in their election manifesto that it will be the duty of the new Government to remove all existing inequalities between men and women. I think the women of the country interpreted that as an intention on the part of the Government at least to remove the existing inequalities in the franchise. That pledge was never carried out. In 1919, 1920, 1922, 1923 Bills came before this House and were carried on Second Heading, and in some cases on Third Reading. The time has come when the House ought to consider not merely talking about this question of equal franchise, but acting on it
We believe that the 1918 Act was a compromise. It was only accepted, very reluctantly, by women's organisations in the country because it was agreed that to add 7,000,000 or 8,000,000 of new electors to the register was a very big experiment. I think no hon. Member will deny that that experiment of 1918 has been amply justified. We have had six years in which to consider whether or not that experiment was justified. In that time, we have had three elections, and I think every hon. Member will agree that in those elections women have shown very great interest, and an increasing interest, in national and international affairs. Uncertainty was expressed at the time as to how women would vote. I think everyone must now admit that they have exercised their vote wisely and well. Some fears were expressed that women might combine as a sex, and it was felt that that would be dangerous, because women who would be in larger numbers than men might so exercise the vote that we might have petticoat government. Events have shown that those fears were not founded on fact. The women have shown that they differ, like men differ, in their opinions; they have divided into parties in just the same way as men, and there is really no fear that women will combine as a sex and vote against the men. In an electorate of 26,000,000, it has been estimated that if women receive the vote on the same qualification as men there will be only about 500,000 more women on the register than men, and that half million would, of course, be spread over many constituencies.
In supporting the Second Resolution, I wish to draw attention to the very great injustice that is done to large bodies of women by their exclusion from the franchise. There is a large body of young wives and mothers who feel, very naturally, that if they are capable of bringing children into the world, and of being responsible to the State for those children, it is only right that they should have the privilege and protection of the vote in helping to mould the laws which will govern themselves and their children. Then there is the large body of wage-earning women. It is estimated that 70 per cent. of those women are under 30 years of age and are now excluded from the franchise. They have suffered intensely, and are now suffering, from low wages and under-employment, and as this House will be discussing during the next few years questions of a minimum wage, hours of work and other questions which vitally affect these women, the time has come when they should have some opportunity of exercising their control over the laws that are going to affect them. There are also large numbers of wage-earning women, professional women, business women, nurses, governesses and a large body of hotel and domestic workers who are altogether excluded, or practically excluded, from the exercise of the vote. It may be argued that domestic workers have not any knowledge of politics, and should, therefore, be excluded, but I do not think that is a fair argument, because the women have shown in exercising the vote that they have gained knowledge and that the vote in itself has been a liberal 865education for them. I would particularly draw attention to the report of the inquiry into domestic service, which was set up by the Minister of Labour in last Government, the Committee on which definitely recommends that to improve the status of domestic workers the women should be allowed to exercise the franchise.
I have carefully looked through the Debates on this question in the House, and I have found no justification for the ago limit of women being fixed at 30, whereas for men it is fixed at 21. It has been pointed out on more than one occasion that, legally, it is possible for a girl to marry at the age of 12, whereas a boy cannot do so until he is 14. Many speakers have pointed out, and, I think, we all recognise it, that women do mature much more quickly than men, and we know that a girl of 21 has quite as much commonsense, if not, more, than a young man of that age. All these disabilities are relics of a by-gone age, and ought to be swept away. Great Britain could claim at one time to be the pioneer of representative government, but it is now very much behind on the question of the franchise. Great Britain is alone in Europe, with the exception of Hungary, in granting equal franchise to women Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany have all given equal franchise to women with men, and in our own Dominions. New Zealand and Canada have done the same. Even in the East, Madras, Bombay and Burma have given equal franchise to women with men. Surely the time has come when the Mother of Parliaments should do the same.
The Bill has the backing of all the women's organisations, religious, political, social and economic. I would remind hon. Members that of the 32 Members who in 1919 opposed the Women's Emancipation Bill only 10 are now Members of this House, and of the 60 who opposed the Bill in 1922 only 40 are now Members. I thank the House for the very great courtesy it has shown in listening to me, and in conclusion I appeal particularly to hon. Members to give this Bill their whole-hearted support. I appeal also to the Government, who have long been pledged to this principle of equal franchise, and I ask them to realise that the women look to them to carry out their promises. Great disappointment was felt by the women at the reply of the Prime Minister on this question recently, when he said that the Government had not had time to consider this important question. That reply came definitely as a shock and disappointment to many women. I ask the Government to give full facilities for this Bill to become a Government Measure and to go through all its stages in the House, without any delay.
Recently I had a talk with Mrs Helen Archdale, international secretary of the Six Point Group. It was an inspiring talk. In November a big meeting is to be held to discuss the subject of the Equal Rights Treaty, an international covenant to secure international recognition of the main principles of feminism, as you will remember, this treaty was first brought forward by a handful of women, led by Alice Paul, at the Pan-American Conference at Havana last year. Never before had a woman addressed the Conference…
The treaty is simplicity itself. All that matters is contained in the first article, which reads: "The contracting States agree that, upon the ratification of this treaty, men and women shall have equal rights throughout the treaty men and women shall have equal rights throughout the territory subject to their respective jurisdictions."
"A big idea? Of course, its big!" said Mrs Archdale. "But we feminists are not a body afraid of being laughed at. We know what we want, and that ultimately, we shall get it."
The report, just issued, of work done by the Six Point Group during the 1930s tells the story of the formation of the Equal Rights International. A numerous delegation representing various organisations of women from Great Britain and the Dominions sat at Geneva during the whole period of the Eleventh Assembly. "It quickly became clear," says the Report, "that no national organisation could effectively carry on work of such a widely international character as required by the Equal Rights Treaty."
The Treaty had to have the support within the League of all States members, therefore any organisation seeking that support must have within itself a similarly representative membership. It was therefore decided to form a new organisation. Helen Archdale of Great Britain, was chosen as chairman; Jessie Street of Australia, vice chairman; Winifred Mayo, of Great Britain, hon. Sec.; Lily van der Schalk Schuster, of Holland, hon. Treasurer. The Equal Rights Treaty, which the international has been created to promote, centres round the demand that sex should be among the things in which States should consider no distinctions of rights, abate no privileges, and lessen no responsibilities.
The proposal for an equal rights treaty originated in July 1926 with Lady Margaret Rhondda, editor of Time and Tide and chair of the British Six Point Group, an equal rights organisation formed in 1921. Rhondda was convinced that most valuable propaganda could be done in the course of demanding an equality convention. A member of the International Advisory Committee of the American National Woman's Party, she wrote directly to its chair, charismatic lawyer Alice Paul, about the plan. The idea could not fail to appeal to the the shrewd calculating mind that had conceived the American Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Following the model of the ERA, Paul drafted an equal rights treaty. It had only one effective clause: The contracting States agree that upon the ratification of this Treaty, men and women shall have Equal Rights throughout the territory subject to their respective jurisdictions. For the next decade Paul spent most of her time outside the US attempting to sell the treaty to feminists, the Pan-American Union, the League of Nations and the International Labour Office (ILO).
The Woman's Party support for an equality convention can be interpreted in part as a conscious manoeuvre to help persuade the American Congress to pass the ERA. Members believed that if other countries signed such a convention the US, for reasons of international prestige, would be obliged to follow suit, if not by signing an equal rights treaty, then at least by passing the ERA to signal their support for the principle of equality. By the late 1920s equal rights feminists in both the US and Britain had reached a sort of impasse. In the years immediately following the war, many legal inequalities had been overcome yet discrimination still existed in civil and labour law. Social reform and working women's organisations were promoting further legal inequalities through protective labour legislation for women. At the same time, the economic depression precipitated the rise of conservative and anti-feminist policies. In this atmosphere, advances in the direction of equal rights for women became increasing difficult, particularly in the field of economic rights. To counter the incremental and, in their view, even regressive pattern of change at the national level, equal rights feminists turned to Geneva as The Key to Equality. As British pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain put it, the time has now come to move from the national to the international sphere, and to endeavour to obtain by international agreement what national legislation has failed to accomplish.