I was privileged recently to see an advance viewing of the upcoming film ‘Suffragette’, starring Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts. I would warmly recommend it and you can read my review of ‘Suffragette’ exclusively on the Vote 100 blog.
Some of the scenes were filmed on location in Parliament. The House of Commons gave special permission for such commercial filming. In particular, as you can see in the trailer for ‘Suffragette’, Maud Watts gives evidence to a Parliamentary Committee about her life working in a laundry, and this was filmed in an actual House of Commons committee room.
I found this particularly interesting as I looked at the history of women and Parliamentary Committees as part of my PhD research. Women could not sit on committees until they became members of the House of Commons or House of Lords, so the first woman to sit as a full member of a Parliamentary committee was Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat. She sat on the joint select committee on the Criminal Law Amendment and Sexual Offences bill in 1920-21, which was concerned with issues including the age of consent, prostitution and venereal disease. Today this bill is perhaps best known for a Commons amendment to make lesbianism an offence, which fell in the Lords on the grounds that,
‘The more you advertise vice by prohibiting it the more you will increase it.’
However well before this, women were involved with Parliamentary committee work as witnesses and specialist advisors, including well-known campaigners such as Josephine Butler against the Contagious Diseases Acts. One of the earliest such women was educational expert Mary Carpenter, who gave evidence to the House of Commons select committee on Criminal and Destitate Juveniles in 1852. Another was Isabella Tod, who gave evidence on the subject of married women’s property in 1868. In 2013 the BBC made a programme about Tod, and I showed presenter Margaret Mountford the select committee report in the Parliamentary Archives searchroom.
Closer to Maud Watts, there are a number of examples of working-class women giving evidence to committees, albeit often outnumbered by men talking about the same subject. In 1855, following a motion by the Earl of Shaftsbury, who risked ridicule to declare that needlewomen were:
among the most helpless and oppressed of Her Majesty’s subjects. He was perfectly aware of the ridicule that attached to a Motion of this kind; but could only say he was quite willing to submit to this, provided he received in exchange some modification of the wrongs to which this unfortunate class of persons was exposed. Some of the greatest statesmen of this country had taken up the cause of the black man, and he could not see why an inferior statesman like himself should not also advocate the cause of the white woman.
A House of Lords select committee on Needlewoman Limitation of Hours was set up, and six women were among 13 witnesses who gave evidence on their long hours and poor working and living conditions. In 1906, a number of female Post Office employees gave evidence to a Commons committee on Post Office Servants. I haven’t come across laundry workers before, but I think it’s completely feasible for a woman like Maud Watts to be giving evidence of this kind to a Commons committee in 1912.
Do read my review of ‘Suffragette’ on the Vote 100 blog.