I am a long-time film lover and grew up cheering for the hero(ine) and booing the villain. This is obviously not a helpful way to categorise real people but when looking further into a 1922 tussle, I got to know a man for whom, at least as far as women’s rights is concerned, I am prepared to make an exception. The way in which Lord Birkenhead, (ab)used of his position epitomises what women are still up against in their ongoing fight for equality and this will not be his only appearance in this blog.
As well as giving 8.5m women the right to vote, the 1918 Representation of the People Act also enabled women to enter the House of Commons. In the General Election 10 months later, 17 women campaigned for a seat. One was elected, Constance Markievicz, but she represented the Sinn Fein party and never took up her seat. In November 1919, Nancy Astor won a by-election in Plymouth and the House of Commons got its first sitting woman MP. But 24 hereditary peeresses were still not allowed to take their place in the House of Lords and a fight was brewing.
In the red corner: Viscountess Rhondda, aged 38. Suffragette, jailbird (OK, only for five days), business woman, war worker and, since the death of her father in 1918, a peer(ees). She has recently established a pressure group to advance women’s rights, the Six Point Group and a weekly feminist magazine, Time and Tide.
In the (very) blue corner: Lord Birkenhead, aged 49. Anti-suffragist, barrister, Lord Chancellor and, since 1919, Baron Birkenhead. Born Frederick E. Smith he is a great friend of Churchill’s, a skilled orator and a serious drinker.
The trigger point: the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which enabled women to join the professions and professional bodies, sit on juries and be awarded degrees.
Round 1: Viscountess Rhondda takes her case to the House of Lords, on the basis that the Act states that “A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function”
Round 2: The case is referred to the House of Lords Committee for Privileges and is heard in 1922. The Committee votes in favour and on 2nd March a proposal is made that ‘a Writ of Summons to Parliament may be sent to the said Viscountess Rhondda’. ‘Victory!’ shout the papers the next day. The next step should just be a formality. It’s a swingeing left hook for Lord B.
Lord Birkenhead goes down. The referee starts counting, 1, 2… Lord Birkenhead staggers up and off the floor and back to his corner.
Round 3: On the 30th March 1922, the Writ comes to the House of Lords where Lord Birkenhead makes a move to refer the it back to Committee on a technicality. This move is, he admits ‘unusual’ but not ‘unprecedented’.
Time out: Lord Birkenhead reconfigures the committee so it is ‘strengthened by the presence of a larger number of the legal members of the House’. i.e. him and his mates. This bit of the story is usually glossed over but it is a critical step. Lady Rhondda is on the ropes.
Round 4: On the 19th May, the ‘specially strengthened’ Committee for Privileges reviews the petition again. Thirty peers and eleven Law Lords are present (including Lord Birkenhead). And, surprise, surprise, now the vote by the peers is 22-4 against. Lady Rhondda goes down.
The next day the press weighs in. This refusal is ‘in accordance with neither common sense, the spirit of all recent legislation, nor the spirit of the times. It adds another ridiculous anomaly to the network of absurdities… In Lady Rhondda we have a woman of public spirit and unusual business capacity whose qualifications for the legislative work of the Second Chamber are obviously superior to those of many existing members.’ Lady Rhondda starts to get back up. More criticism of Lord Birkenhead follows and calls for government action to reverse the Committee’s decision are made.
Round 5: On the 4th July, 1922, the Lord Chancellor gives a brief update – ‘and it shall be very brief’ – on the dismissal of the petition of Lady Rhondda, noting that ‘the petitioner has been making observations, and, perhaps, inconsiderate animadversions, upon the course that has been adopted in this House.’ It is clear the matter is going no further. The knockout blow has been landed.
The referee holds up Lord Birkenhead’s arm, the champ making no attempt to contain his smug smile of victory. Lady Rhondda leaves the ring and pursues her agenda through other means. Lord Birkenhead makes for the nearest bar.
Two years later, at the inaugural dinner of the London Soroptimists, Lord Birkenhead boasted: ‘I spent many years of my life in attempting to prevent any woman getting into the House of Commons and if I could drive them out today I should certainly do it. I am entitled to say that I, and I alone, have kept them out of the House of Lords.’
Viscount Astor, the husband of the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, Nancy Astor, made multiple attempts to promote similar bills over the next six years but to no avail.
Lord Birkenhead died in 1930 from cirrhosis of the liver, leaving a dubious legacy. Viscountess Rhondda may have been the nominal loser in 1922 but she was fighting ‘not for herself or a small handful of other privileged women but for the whole sex.’ It was not until 1963 that the voices of hereditary peeresses were heard in the second chamber, a constitutional body that plays a crucial role in examining bills, questioning government action and investigating public policy. All women, and many men, are probably worse off for that.
If you want to know more about the world of Viscountess Rhondda, have a look at this reconstruction of a dinner in her honour in March 1933.
Sources: Hansard; Westminster Gazette: 03/03/1922; 31/3/1922; 20/5/1922; 27/6/1922 The Vote 22/2/1924. House of Lords Library Note: Life Peerages Act 1958 by Glenn Dymond 21/4/2008