History

Forgotten Liberal heroes: Margaret Wintringham

Listen to Liberal Democrats make speeches and there are frequent references to historical figures, but drawn from a small cast. Just the quartet of John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, David Penhaligon corner almost all of the market, especially since Bob Maclennan stopped making speeches to party conference. Some of the forgotten figures deserve their obscurity but others do not. Charles James Fox’s defence of civil liberties against a dominating government during wartime or Earl Grey’s leading of the party back into power and major constitutional reform are good examples of mostly forgotten figures who could just as well be a regular source of reference, quotation and inspiration as the traditional quartet. So in this occasional series I am highlighting some of the other figures who have been unjustly forgotten.

Margaret Wintringham was the third woman to be elected an MP, the second to take her seat and the first to be a Liberal for her two female predecessors in winning election were Countess Markievicz (Sinn Fein, did not take her seat) and Nancy Astor (Conservative, first female MP to take her seat).

Yet despite her path-breaking achievement as the Liberal Party’s first female MP, her name now – as it has been for decades – is almost never mentioned.*

Born Margaret Longbottom in 1879 in the West Riding, she had a successful career outside politics, becoming a school headmistress and local magistrate. Active in politics herself, particularly the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, her electoral opportunity however came as a result of her husband, Thomas. He had been elected as Liberal MP for Louth (Lincolnshire) and it was on his sudden death in 1921 that Margaret Wintringham was nominated to succeed him.

In agreeing to stand, she insisted that she be exempted from any requirements to make public speeches during the campaign as she was still in mourning. Instead, she would attend meetings at which others would speak on her behalf, including both her two sisters (though some accounts suggest the idea for this silence came from party managers who were keen to encourage a sympathy vote). Support was also expressed by the Conservative Nancy Astor – who saw getting an extra woman in Parliament as more important than the candidate’s party label.

Wintringham won the by-election in September 1921 and was re-elected in 1922 and 1923, becoming a close political and personal friend of Nancy Astor. With eight female MPs elected in 1923, Wintringham became their unofficial coordinator, seeking working across party lines where there were common interests to pursue. However, she lost her seat in 1924 and failed to return to Parliament despite standing in two further general elections, though she served on Lindsey County Council in the 1930s.

Despite her own experience being in reverse, she strongly encouraged other women to stand for local office as a precursor to standing for Parliament.

During her short time in Parliament she campaigned for the voting age for women to be reduced from 30 to 21, for women to be allowed to sit in the House of Lords, for the state’s education scholarships to be available to girls too rather than only boys, for female police officers and for equal pay. Causes likely to be more controversial with liberals now were her support for temperance and for women’s-only carriages on trains. Her main legislative success was helping to ensure the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which improved legal protection for young girls.

In 1922 she, along with others such as Siegfried Sassoon, CP Scott and George Bernard Shaw, signed a letter to the The Guardian calling for an end to war – and the financial benefits of agreeing arms reduction treaties had featured in her first speech in Parliament.

She was active in Parliament throughout her years there, speaking or asking questions 157 times, frequently on social issues and usually from a radical perspective. The issues she raised still have a relevant feel. Her first speech, for example, was in a debate on government debt and her last recorded contribution was a written question pushing for pensions for nursery school teachers.

She was briefly joined by a second female Liberal MP, with Vera Woodhouse being elected in 1923 before also being defeated in 1924. Woodhouse’s achievement deserves a footnote in the history books for her election did not involve succeeding a male relative.

Margaret Wintringham died in 1955, by when she had already become an obscure figure in the Liberal Party. Lacking the glamour and connections of a Bonham Carter or a Lloyd George family name, her radical politics and historic achievement – not to mention her wise advocacy of the benefits of standing at the local level – steadily and surely disappeared into unwarranted obscurity.

Here is a talk she gave for the 1929 general election, distributed around the country on gramophone records:

* Since first writing about her, she has started appearing as an option for the photograph which party members can choose to have on their Liberal Democrat membership cards.

Further reading:

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