Looking for more women

Margaret WintringhamThe Liberal Democrat History Group faces a double bind when it comes to finding authors and topics for our articles, books and meetings cover the history of the Liberal Democrats and our predecessor parties.

The superficial explanation is that our output is bound to be dominated by men because that is how political has been. Just look at the ranks of male party leaders, for example. And look at how nearly all the biographers of our party leaders have been men. So whether we’re looking at topics or authors, you might think we’re bound to be dominated by men for understandable reasons. No problem there. Move along please.

Except it there is rather more to it than this, for when you scratch under the service it is clear things do not have to be quite this way.

Yes, the most prominent ranks of past historians, and current professors, may be dominated by men. But work your way through the rest of the ranks of academics and it is a much more mixed picture. If you know who to hunt out and ask in the more junior – but still very talented – ranks then it stops being inevitable that the author lists are so overwhelmingly male.

Likewise, there were plenty of prominent women in our history, and it’s hard to argue that the relative obscurity of some of them is really due their own lack of achievements. Take Margaret Wintringham, for example. Except for the coverage of her in the Journal of Liberal History and my own writing she is almost completely forgotten. Yet as the first female Liberal MP she could be someone frequently referred to as an inspiration and a pathfinder – especially as, unlike some figures from the past, her political views are ones that still generally are both relevant and acceptable. No embarrassing past support of slavery, but a belief in the importance of building up the party’s local government base, for example. She could, and should, be far better known than she is.

Once again, if you know where to dig a little deeper, there often are great women whose stories the Liberal Democrat History Group could be telling and often, as with Margaret Wintringham, helping rescue them for undeserved obscurity.

But as with finding the other academics, you have to know where to look. Which is where you, I hope, come in. We try hard to do this, but I’m sure we have not covered all the possibilities.

The Liberal Democrat History Group is always looking out for both good female subjects to cover and more female authors to invite to contribute (click on the link to see who we have covered or run pieces by).

Your suggestions for who else we should look out for please…

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Mark, I’d suggest Emily Hobhouse and Kate Courtney as likely subjects ………… though whether they were still Liberals in 1918 is questionable.

    Emily inspired Campbell-Bannerman to use the phrase “Methods of Barbarism” about Kitchener’s concentration camps in the Boer War. Both were suffragists and opposed WW1 mediating with Asquith for several imprisoned conscientious objectors.

  • After my irreparable loss, one of my earliest cares was to print and publish the treatise, so much of which was the work of her whom I had lost, and consecrate it to her memory. I have made no alteration or addition to it, nor shall I ever. Though it wants the last touch of her hand, no substitute for that touch shall ever be attempted by mine.

    The publication of On Liberty marks the start of modern Liberalism. As Mill emphasises, the essay is the product of joint authorship of J.S. Mill and Harriet Taylor, so her name deserves prominence. Her daughter, Helen Taylor was also a prominent radical and feminist (though Labour might want to claim her as one of theirs).

  • Ruth Bright 11th Apr '16 - 3:24pm

    Mark I have to admire your nerve. What a patronising piece! The Lib Dem History Group was involved in a book on Liberal Leaders with 24 out of 24 chapters by men, so hardly a record of “digging a little deeper” to find female contributors. Do read my recent article on LDV about this – how about women taking the lead on their own history or are we to remain unctuously grateful for the occasional man who rescues one of our deceased number from obscurity?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Apr '16 - 3:36pm


    Why do you respond to what you personally find patronising , when Mark is so clearly not that , with being insulting and dividing us along gender lines , when it is so possible to look out for each other !This was a well meant and thoughtful piece , by a man in search of women past and present .If someone looks for progress , they should not be slapped down , that is patronising .

    Actually Mark is stating fact, but recognising underneath the facts are yet more facts that point elsewhere . In other words , he is acting like a true historian and Liberal .What a surprise ?!

    Must everyone with a positive attitude and good intentions be kicked back by the so called liberals , who seem illiberal in their lack of fellowship to others at times .

  • Ruth Bright 11th Apr '16 - 3:48pm

    Lorenzo I do not think you have to turn this into a great moral question. Mark’s piece is an admirable piece of spin as was his profile of my mum back in 2011 where he used my record of (then) 24 years in the party to kindly rescue her from her supposed obscurity and promote himself.

  • Just out of interest, I was led by Mark Pack’s remarks to look up the Women’s Liberal Federation on the internet, to see which prominent Liberal women politicians of the past were involved with it, only to find that all that Wikipedia could offer on the subject was a sadly defective list of its past Presidents and no information at all on the WLF’s other past office holders. That would suggest to me that a very useful article could be written for the Journal of Liberal History on the role that the WLF played in our party’s history from its foundation in the late nineteenth century down to the 1960s and beyond.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 11th Apr '16 - 5:58pm

    I don’t understand why the political left is so obsessed by creating demographics and fitting people into these demographic groups and treating people according to their assigned group rather than as individuals.

    It’s almost like the left have become the new religious right and UKIP are the individualist civil libertarians these days.

  • David, Hugh: thank you, some good ideas there. I wonder if also we should think about a Wikipedia event to get more people filling out such history on the site.

    Martin: yes, she’s a great example who the History Group has covered a few times. I think there’s a risk of her becoming the token ‘oh we’ll just mention her and we’re done’ standard reference.

    Ruth: sorry to hear you feel that way about the profile I wrote of your mother a few years ago. At the time, I recall you being both very positive about it – so not sure what has happened since to change that, and of course happy to discuss that through some other channel if you’d prefer.

    On your point about the 24 authors being male – I agree it’s a striking example we should seek to do better about in future. The point we need to overcome is that every published biography of party leaders is written by a man, so the usual obvious source to turn to for contributors (‘who has written a book about this?’) only turns up men. That’s what I was trying to get to with talk of digging a little deeper – looking in future beyond who has written books to other people too. They can be harder to identify, hence the question.

  • Duncan Brack 11th Apr '16 - 6:53pm

    Thanks to Mark for raising this issue. I’d just like to add that ‘digging a little deeper’ can mean sometimes digging a long way without any light at the end of the tunnel! I explained in September why our ‘British Liberal Leaders’ book had only male chapter authors (because there is no biography of any of the subjects included written by a woman, and because we went for already published authors because we weren’t offering them any money or much time). So suggestions for potential woman authors for us to approach would be enormously welcome.

    Just to add that our special Journal issue on women in Liberal history – including a history of WLF – is available free here (http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/journal-issues/journal-of-liberal-history-62-special-issue-women-and-liberalism/) and our booklet of biographies of leading women Liberals, ‘Mothers of Liberty’ has sold out and we’ll be reprinting soon.

  • Hi Mark strangely enough I know more about what my ma thinks than you do! I posted positively about her record and loved the picture of her but we both thought that the article was extremely anodyne (she was basically presented as an amiable but inconsequential old bat) and denuded of any of her criticisms of the coalition. You quoted things about me but did not have the courtesy to name me in that piece just as you did not acknowledge the uncanny closeness to your currently acquired themes of my article placed on LDV a month ago “Time for some Liberal Herstory”: https://www.libdemvoice.org/time-for-some-liberal-herstory-49713.html.

    If Duncan and his colleagues produced a book of the calibre of “Liberal Leaders” on a shoestring they are very much to be commended but it is condescending to say that one has to search and hunt and look in the junior ranks to find women historians who are still talented. Imagine the reaction if I were to say as a visibly white person that you have to know where to look for talented BAME writers and even though they are in the junior ranks I graciously deem that some of them are actually talented!

    Why the obsession with the big,”doorstop” biographers. For instance Ffion Hague and Margaret Macmillan have written wonderfully on Lloyd George and his times. One would be pushed to describe Margaret Macmillan as a junior rank historian.

  • I would urge the Liberal Democrat History Group to do a write up on Violet Markham from Chesterfield. She was an active social reformer both here in Chesterfield and with a strong National profile.

    In Chesterfield she had a major impact on expanding educational opportunity spening over 20 years on the School Board plus serving a stint as a Cllr and as Mayor. Violet Markham Secondary School still existed until the early 1990’s. I seem to recall reading that she was the first female Cllr in Chesterfield but I would have to check on that. She initially opposed Women’s Suffrage for Westminster elections (although not for Local Government) arguing that she knew women were superior and did not want them seeking to merely become equal with men! But by WW1 she had become a supporter of Votes for Women. After the War she stood for election as a Liberal for the Mansfield seat which her brother had represented as a Liberal until his death in 1916, but a Coupon candidate split the vote and Labour gained the seat.

    In summer 2014 I read this very resonant quote from a letter she wrote to a friend in 1922; “I cling, like yourself, to the party, for great though its weakness at the moment and deplorable though the lack of vision in our unsatisfactory leaders, liberalism as a faith and principle is that I cannot give up.” As I used to teach as a Historian ‘those who fail to learn from history risk repeating it.’

  • Ruth Bright 12th Apr '16 - 8:16am

    Inspiring choice Paul – she also inspected air-raid shelters in East London in the Second World War, ran a canteen for victims of the blitz in Southwark and wrote in 1942: “No-one is satisfied with the government. It is too much Winston and third rate men”. (!)
    Dr Helen Jones edited a wonderful book of Markham’s writings.

    Presumably Jones is yet another female historian the Lib Dem History Group hasn’t heard of.

  • Thanks Paul – that is a great quote, and in addition to the idea of covering her, the quote certainly should also be a strong contender for inclusion if/when the Dictionary of Liberal Quotations is updated.

  • Ruth: I think she is indeed someone we’ve not previously asked to contribute to the History Group – so a good example of how there are people we could ask and need to learn about the existence of. If you happen to have any details of the best way of getting in touch with her, that would be great to know, but otherwise some Googling and emails await later…!

  • Inheriting massive wealth from a coal mining empire is somewhat of an advantage in having the time to be a political campaigner – though top be fair Violet had a warm heart.

    Bit more difficult for others – I knew someone widowed at 28 (miner’s lung) and five kids to bring up. Not much time for politics.

  • @David Raw. Absolutely true David. There are some Markham family graves, now situated at the heart of the Council owned Tapton Golf Course, but originally in the heart of the grounds of Tapton House. The House (originally built as the home of George Stephenson) and Grounds were gifted by the Markham family to the people of Chesterfield in 1925 -but when the graves needed restoring a few years ago one retired local miner who had worked at Markham Main Pit, wrote a bitter objection based pretty much on your point. A similar view to those my father, who attended Firth Park School and learned his trade as a pipe fitter at Firth Brown steel works in Sheffield, expressed on more than one occasion.

    However there are plenty of historic examples of Coal Owners and other wealthy families who just pocketed the money and despised the poor. At least the Markham family put a great deal back into the community. Violet’s father for example put a lot of his ‘coal’ money -when a Cllr -into helping to pay for the demolition and replacement of some notorious Victorian slums in Chesterfield known as the Dog Kennels. Violet’s brother, as an MP, exposed some of the Northern coal owners practices and provided Lloyd George with information to justify taxing some of their gains in the famous ‘People’s Budget’.

    If we were to write off every ‘wealthy warm hearted’ reformer on grounds of where their wealth came from we would be writing off almost the entire Whig/Liberal Party of the Nineteenth Century not to mention a number of the twentieth century figures who kept the Party alive. Unfortunately not everyone can be a Lloyd George or Charles Kennedy and rise to the top of the political world from a poor background -more is the shame of our system.

  • I’d like to see more prominance given to Nancy Seear who was an inspiring and charismatic speaker and former Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords.

    If you want to look for prominent Liberal women at local level, Christiana Hartley was elected as a councillor on Southport County Borough in 1920 and became the first woman Mayor of Southport in 1921.

  • Steve Griffiths 12th Apr '16 - 2:35pm

    What about Honour Balfour and Penelope Jessel?

  • Sue Sutherland 12th Apr '16 - 3:00pm

    I have a problem with this article and some of the responses but it’s not about the role of women in the party, it’s about the role of history. I believe the party is sucked into elitism by its history. I have been a member since 1986 when I joined the SDP. One of the things that attracted me was the freshness of the party because it didn’t seem to matter who you were but what you did. Unfortunately, imo this was lost with merger.
    If we are to be the party of inclusiveness then we need to attract more new members and by definition they are unlikely to have political history except of a recent nature. Reading this article and the comments I definitely feel part of the out crowd. I have no idea who Ruth’s mother is, but obviously I should know. The same thing happens when candidates at whatever level have their forbear’s history given as much commentary as their own skills in party write ups. Many of us want to see more working class members, more members from minority ethnic groups joining the party but I do not think this tendency to value history over actions helps people from these backgrounds to feel they belong. It’s understandable to go back to past glories when the present is so difficult but perhaps someone could write a history of working class Liberalism? Maybe they already have?
    One of my great grandfathers was a Liberal mayor of Taunton and I have a plate inherited from my great grandmother which bears the motto ” Our bread untaxed our commerce free”, which I think must have been bought as part of the Free Trade movement fund raising effort. Neither of them was wealthy or renowned and yet they played a part in the history of the Lib Dems because Liberalism was once a populist movement. Please let’s promote that aspect of our history to help the fight back.

    PS I have tried to write this comment in calmness but it is quite painful to feel so excluded.

  • Duncan Brack 12th Apr '16 - 3:22pm

    Thanks for all the helpful comments. Just to pick up on Nigel’s, we do include a biography of Nancy Seear in ‘Mothers of Liberty’, and we’re certainly keen to to publish more on her, if anyone would like to submit an article. Christiana Hartley is included in our article on women Liberal mayors in the latest issue of the ‘Journal of Liberal History’.

    A biography of Violet Markham is an excellent suggestion; we will try to commission one. But no, Ruth, we have not heard of Dr Helen Jones, and why should we? As far as I can see, Markham’s diary is the only piece of work she’s done directly relevant to Liberal history. I also can’t find any contact details – looking at other books she’s written, she was at Goldsmiths in 2006, but isn’t now. So any help anyone can offer – with her or any other potential authors – would be welcome.

  • Ruth Bright 12th Apr '16 - 3:45pm

    Duncan – I don’t know Helen Jones, I’m just an admirer of her work, I think she is at the University of Liverpool. But it is like the situation with candidates Duncan is it not? If there are not enough women why not go out and look for them? As the social work jargon goes they are not “hard to reach” just unheard.

    Sue – many apologies if you felt excluded. I have a fine Liberal surname but that is a bit of a con as I acquired it by marriage. My mum is Poddy Clark, if she will forgive me, not a big party name, but a veteran activist from an ordinary background who first won an election at the age of 66. An inspiration to any of us no longer in the first flush of youth!

  • Rightsaidfredfan 12th Apr '16 - 4:01pm

    Liberalism is surely about the rights of the individual over the rights of the collective.

    Dividing people into subgroups and treating them in accordance with which sub group you have decided that they’re in rather than as individuals is not very liberal.

    Ironically it’s usually seems to be privileged people who think their race, religion, gender, sexuality or whatever else is making them unprivileged and that their social class has nothing to do with any of it.

  • @Duncan I haven’t read the latest edition of the Journal yet, delighted that you have covered Christiana Hartley. I shall read asap.

  • Rightsaidfredfan as the ninth child of a bricklayer I don’t really fit your stereotype of the whining posh feminist. Do you have some examples you could furnish us with petal?

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