Julia Kennedy and Rosamund Philpott were the first women to stand for election to what is now Cambridge City Council – Parliament having recently removed the ban on women standing for election to local councils.
On Friday 16 October 1908 the great and the good of Cambridge wrote a letter to the Cambridge Independent Press calling for women of the town to step forward as candidates for the looming Cambridge Town Council elections. The letter was co-sponsored by the two titans of Cambridge society, Lady Maud Darwin (husband of Sir George Darwin, one of Charles’ Darwin’s sons), and the Mother of Modern Cambridge, Florence Ada Keynes.
Who was Julia Kennedy?
Julia was the daughter of Professor Benjamin Kennedy and the younger sister of Marion, the first hon secretary of Newnham College. The whole family were instrumental in campaigning for the education of women – especially in the early years of Newnham College that the latter named a hall after them – Kennedy Hall.
Education and housing
The archives show that Julia was concerned not just with education but also with housing. This is similar to a number of political activists at the time, including future Labour MP and former Homerton College student Dame Leah Manning. Prior to her marriage just before the First World War, Leah Manning taught at New Street School (founded by Homerton College) and rose to prominence after speaking out following the death of a little girl in her classroom who had died of malnutrition.
In 1905, Julia chaired a meeting on the state of housing in and around Cambridge – something that Eglantyne Jebb was in the process of researching into under the mentorship of Florence Ada Keynes and also of Mary Paley Marshall – probably the most prominent woman economist of her age who also lectured at Newnham College, and the University of Bristol too.
Introducing the subject and speaker for the event – Mr Henry Aldridge of the National Reform Housing Council, we get a feel for what the Newtown area of Cambridge (one of the first areas outside the current inner ring road of Cambridge to be built upon) was like.
“On his way to from the [Railway] Station he had passed what was called “New Town.” There had all the materials for a slum – narrow streets, houses built flush with the roadway, cramped courts, and a general absence of gardens. “New Town” would require to be carefully watched by the local authority, or it would get worse.”
All the more striking therefore, that Julia opted to put her name forward a few years later as a candidate for election in that ward – the same ward that Jack Overhill would write ever so powerfully about during his life there during the Second World War. It wasn’t until after that war that the slums were finally cleared.
Julia Kennedy and the Cambridge Liberals
Looking through the British Newspaper Archives (£ to search), we find that Julia was a very active member of both the Cambridge Women’s Liberal Association and later, of the Cambridge Liberal Women’s Suffrage Society. In late 1908, she was persuaded to stand as an independent for the Newtown Ward in Cambridge for the up and coming town council elections. Newspapers at the time noted that the ‘independent’ label was a thin disguise given her history of campaigning within the Liberal Party.
Candidates – Miss Kennedy and Miss Philpott stand for election
It must have taken a huge amount of courage for Julia and Rosamund to put their names forward at a time when sexism was still institutionalised. It’s easy for us to look back and think that they were pushing against an open door, but the newspapers of the time indicate it was anything but.
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be for either women.
Defeated: Julia Kennedy losing to Mr Heal 451 votes to 139, and Rosamund Philpott losing to Mr Mathers of the Liberals 654 votes to 121.
It wouldn’t be until 1914 that Cambridge would get its first woman councillor – Florence Ada Keynes taking the Fitzwilliam Ward shortly after the outbreak of the First World War following the removal of the ban on married women standing for election. The ban on married women being in the professions such as teaching and the civil service would remain for a few more years afterwards.
Julia Kennedy and Votes for Women
Such was Julia’s passion for Women’s Suffrage that she fell out with the Liberal Party’s leadership under Asquith. As president of The Ely Women’s Liberal Association, Julia carried a resolution that the women would effectively down tools until Asquith (who was Prime Minister at the time and an opponent for votes for women) changed policy – as the British Newspaper Archive reveals in late 1913.
Boycott: Ely women liberals cease party work over women’s suffrage.
Until the end in 1916
One of the common themes around the great women of Cambridge of this age (other than they all seemed to know each other) was that they kept on going politically right up into very old age. Theirs were lifetimes dedicated to social justice causes.
Fitting Tribute: The Cambridge Independent following Julia’s death.
The article – too short to be a proper obituary and written only a week after her death, writes that her last public appearance was at a prize-giving ceremony at The Guildhall, for pupils at The Girls’ County School – now Long Road Sixth Form College.
What makes Julia Kennedy a hero is that she, along with Rosamund Philpott did what no one else had done before as being the first women to stand for election. That Julia in particular persisted for many years in the causes of improving education, housing as well as on equalities are what makes her one of Cambridge’s heroes.
As one of Cambridge’s living heroes, Professor Mary Beard writes here that Julia and her family lived for many years at The Elms on Bateman Street. If there isn’t a blue plaque up there in Julia’s name, could Cambridge City Council put one up please?
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