I went to a lecture this week on the politician F E Smith, also known as Lord Birkenhead. Beforehand, about the only thing I knew about ‘F E’ was that he consistently opposed women’s rights, including the vote, except when government policy forced him to support them. I now have a much more rounded picture of him. It was a very entertaining lecture, and Sir Peter Tapsell had a great quote from F E opposing votes for women:
I venture to say that the sum total of human happiness, knowledge, and achievement would have been almost unaffected if Sappho had never sung, if Joan of Arc had never fought, if Siddons had never played, and if George Eliot had never written.
It’s ironic that as Attorney General, it was F E’s job to pilot the Representation of the People bill, which gave some women the vote, through Parliament in 1918. He also had to promote a number of other measures affecting women’s lives and gender equality as Lord Chancellor, and from the ones I’ve studied it’s clear that he did so because it was his duty to support government policy, rather than any personal support for such bills. As he remarked on the proposals in the second reading of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill in 1919:
To many they will prove, I anticipate, surprising, and to many extremely disagreeable. The only observation which one may, perhaps, venture to make is that the current and development of events have plainly so proceeded as to produce, whether we wish it or whether we do not wish it, a complete revolution in the position of women.
It was clearly extremely disagreeable to him!
As Lord Chancellor, he opposed every attempt to allow women to sit in the House of Lords in the 1920s.