Brothers-in-law at war

Following the success of Herbert Samuel’s resolution, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed to allow women to be MPs. It was a very simple Act that stated:

‘A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament.’

It was introduced into the House of Commons by Lord Robert Cecil, who faced opposition from his brother-in-law among others.

Lord Robert Cecil image from WikipediaViscount Cecil of Chelwood is today known as one of the founders of the League of Nations. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1937. It’s not so well-known that as a young independently-minded Conservative MP, he supported women’s suffrage (although not militant suffragettes) before the First World War.

In 1918, Cecil was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He was asked why the Foreign Office was put in charge of this bill on women MPs, to which he answered with a touch of whimsy:

I should have thought it was quite obvious. Because it is the most enlightened office in the State. Beyond that… perhaps the Leader of the House asked me to take charge of it because I had taken a great interest in the subject from the first.

Cecil’s interest might at least in part stem from his wife. I was fascinated to discover that she was Lady Eleanor Lambton, sister to Admiral Hedworth Meux who opposed the Parliament (Qualification of Women) bill so bitterly! Eleanor and Hedworth Lambton were among thirteen children of the 2nd Earl of Durham.

Lambton Castle image from Wikipedia
Lambton Castle, seat of the Earls of Durham, in the late 19thC

One wonders if Eleanor sat in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons, watching her husband and brother argue!  You would never guess from the Parliamentary Debates that they were brothers-in-law. Meux dared suggest that Cecil didn’t actually want to see women MPs at all:

Are they going during the Recess to alter the House to give reasonable accommodation for the ladies? I see the Noble Lord shakes his head, which confirms me in my belief that he really does not hope to see them in this House at all, and I believe that there are very few Members who do…

Cecil responded, ‘I do not think that it would be really respectful of me to pretend that he [Meux] has presented any serious argument on the subject.’ Herbert Samuel was a little more forthright, saying Meux’s speech ‘was of a kind which was distasteful to very many Members of this House.’

Few women had campaigned for women MPs before 1918.

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