Cambridge women in plea for equality in international politics


In December 1919, the Cambridge Branches of the the National Council of Women and the Women’s Citizens’ Association held a meeting at St Columba’s Hall to discuss “Women in the League of Nations”. The hall has hardly changed – and is still used for community meetings and recreational classes.

This article appeared in the Cambridge Daily News on 11 December 1919. Below I have transcribed the article in the British Newspaper Archive here. <- You’ll need to purchase a subscription to view the article – but it also gives you access to the 20million or so pages that it has scanned from British newspapers. The ones from 19th Century Cambridge are historical gems – and are waiting for someone to go through them in detail.

191211 Women League Of Nations Report.jpeg

“A joint meeting of the National Council of Women (Cambridge Branch) and the Cambridge & District Women Citizens’ Association was held on Wednesday [10 Dec 1919] evening, when Mrs Corbett Ashby (British Suffrage Council) addressed a large attendance on “Women in the League of Nations.” At the conclusion of her address she proposed a resolution regarding the equality of men and women in international affairs, and complaining that a promise made by the Prime Minister at the General Election was not fulfilled.

Mrs Keynes presided, and said this was not the first meeting in Cambridge for discussing and supporting the League of Nations, but so far as she knew it was the first meeting when women had come together specially to consider one particular aspect of the League, the work that they hoped women would do in it. They wanted to hear something of the possibilities of the aspirations of the past being of real practical effect in the future, and they were extremely fortunate to have Mrs Corbett Ashby to address them.

Women’s Work in Paris

Mrs Corbett Ashby said the subject she was asked to speak upon was a long and complicated one, and she suggested giving them an idea of the work the women’s organisations were able to do in Paris at the various conferences. Women must interest themselves in matters abroad, for however interested they might be in the immediate practical home affairs, it was impossible to imagine that they could evolve any system of social reform unless this country had a sound foreign policy.

The League of Nations was especially interesting to women, whose hopes were so much tied up with the next generation; they wanted to make the world a better place for their sons, that they might never go through what their fathers experienced, and what was true of us was true of every nation.

The Women’s Labour deputations during the Paris Conference found that their common ground was far greater than any differences caused by nationality, religion or language. When the women’s deputations were given an audience at the League of Nations Commission at Paris, the representatives of the women of the allies and, she thought she could say the women of the whole world, asked that as the League of Nations was the greatest advance made by civilisation, there should be a test made of the civilisation of every country entering the League. They asked that no country should be admitted which was prepared to continue the same bartering with women and children, and they asked for equality of opportunities for women with men in the League. Women had now legally the right of absolute equality with men in the administration of the League.

With regard to the traffic in women and children, they had the assurance of the Commission that the League meant to set up an international campaign to suppress traffic, for immoral purposes, in women and children. This was an enormous advance. The delegates asked that the League of Nations should point out to the nations entering the League that women should have a part in the government of the country, and in reply to this, President Wilson said all present agreed with them, but the question could not be dealt with there.

If we could only make the League of Nations democratic, said Mrs Corbett Ashby, instead of autocratic as it was now, we should build up among the people of the world a real feeling of co-operation, and the women had a tremendous amount of work to do in common to benefit mankind thus.

A League of Governments

After touching upon the work of women as technical advisers at the International Labour Conference at Washington, the speaker said that in reality we had suffered extraordinarily little in war, and since America had rather dropped out, for the moment, of the Peace Treaty and the League of Nations, she felt that it was for Great Britain to lead the world, as we had had to lead the world in many other idea.

We had the League of Nations just started, but it was not at present a League of Nations of peoples, but a League of Governments. There was no provision to be made for the election of government delegates. The Parliament of Each country should meet to vote for a delegate to be sent to the Council. Then, in addition to the Assembly and Council, there should be a Permanent Secretariat to keep the countries in touch with each other, and they wanted a woman in this secretariat. Also she (the speaker) believed they should admit the enemy countries at once into the League, for to leave out any great nation was inviting a centre of mischief. (Applause). She hoped they would be admitted as quickly as possible.

One of the most burning questions was that of armaments. The League of Nations had to consider how the armaments could best be reduced. If any country acted as an aggressor, the rest of the League would be automatically against her, and that was an enormous protection. In future, it might not be necessary to go in arms against a common foe, for the mere cutting off of all communication with all the other nations of the lEague should being the foe to themselves.

There would always, of course, be questions arising in which each country would think its honour was absolutely involved, and for some reason honour was only satisfied by going to war. In the future however, there would be a body of neutral opinions to consult upon these points if relations became so strained between two nations. The differences between Serbia and Austria were daily growing more acute, so that it was almost impossible for the two countries to come to an agreement, but it would be possible for the League of Nations to say “We can’t have you flying at one another’s throats” while they found some way out of their difficulty.

However weak the League of Nations might be, and however disappointing it was, it would come. It might take longer in developing than was anticipated, but it was the one alternative to the old policy of alliances and counter-alliances, and the old embitterment and hatred between nations. The women must work for it, and they would attain victory in this national matter as they had attained victory in other matters.

In conclusion, Mrs Corbett Ashby proposed the resolution:

“That this meeting, while welcoming the principle of equality of men and women in international affairs as laid down in the Covenant of the League of Nations, urges the Government and the nation to take the fullest advantage of this provision in the organisation and administration of the League. It further calls upon the Government in national affairs to remove all existing inequalities of law as between men and women, in accordance with the promise made by the Prime Minister and Mr Bon ar Law on the eve of the last General Election, a promise with the Sex-Disqualification (Removal) Bill fails to perform.”

An Election Promise

Mrs Rackham seconded the resolution Regarding the promise made by the Prime Minister at the last General Election, they all knew it was made in the hope of attracting the votes of six million women. This promise had not been fulfilled. Certainly the Sex Disqualification (Removal_ Bill had several points in the women’s favour, but they still had to go on being very active in watching the orders in Council to see what posts in the Civil Service women were being excluded, and what conditions were being laid down as to their employment.

The pledge made at the election could not be said to be fully redeemed, but there was a great deal upon which women could congratulate themselves very heartily. She hoped women would take advantage of the opportunities which were offered them in the Bill, and would press for the complete equality which was promised at the election, and which would give to men and women equal opportunities in the home, the workshop, the professions and the State.

On being put to the meeting, the resolution was carried with applause, and the meeting was closed with a vote of thanks to Mrs Corbett.”


It’s interesting to note that this time in two years, it will be the 100th anniversary of this speech/event. One for Newnham College and friends to ponder (Given the three women mentioned – Mesdames Corbett Ashby, Keynes and Rackham were all students there), an anniversary lecture?

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