Clara Rackham’s last public speech in 1962 – Part 2.

This part follows on from the previous blogpost here.

“And through all this time while we were building up those new services, there was a constant effort to get women on to public bodies where their experience and their capacities could be used for the benefit of all.

“It was our branch which started a rota of its members to attend the police court and listen to the cases, especially those concerning women and children. And the result was that when women were made magistrates in 1920, we had a larger number (Actually five) than any other place comparable to ourselves. We got women onto the magistrates, onto the school managers, we worked for women on juries, and perhaps most important of all, for women on local councils.

“It was Mrs Keynes who set to work to get the law altered, so that any woman, simply by residence, could stand for election to the local town council. And working through Lord Haldane [The Secretary of State for War, then Lord Chancellor], who acted for us in the House of Lords at a time when you might say that no one was looking, because it was August 1914 and there were other things to think about, she got a bill through the House of Lords allowing women to sit. Within a few months, our branch had put up Mrs Keynes and she got elected onto the City Council.

“Ten years later, in 1924, there’s a note of triumph in the minutes of the branch, because at that time they had six women magistrates, fifteen women guardians (but that was rather tempered by the fat that the guardians were soon going out of existence altogether) and they had five women on the town council.

“Today, nearly forty years later after that note of triumph, we’ve got six women on the City Council, and I can assure you there is no note of triumph when I tell you that. Of course, we know with pride that we’ve had three women mayors and sometimes had women aldermen, but now we have nothing but the six women councillors and the small number makes a very poor showing.

“I want to quote to you two items in the minutes which gives you some idea of what we were up against in those days. In the very first years of our existence, we sent a letter to all the Colleges, drawing their attention to certain reforms that we wanted to see for the women College servants. We asked that bedmakers and helps should in future be employed and paid all year round instead of only for eight weeks a term. We also asked that helps should be appointed by the College and not by the College porters, as they then were, and we also asked that a lady should be appointed to supervise the women servants. We seem to have got only two replies, one College said that they had the matter under consideration, and the other said they couldn’t consider any of those suggestions because they were too poor!

“The other item in the minutes refers to the hospital [1st Great Eastern, during WWI] which in the first war [WWI] was built where the University Library now stands, an open-air hospital where the nurses were said to be suffering dreadfully from the cold and the solders in their beds were saying that they were badly fed. Well, our branch went into both of those complaints and  found that they were justified and approached the authorities. One distinguished medical man replied that he would never believe the evidence of any soldier whether educated or not, which rather suggests the days of Florence Nightingale.

“What strikes one again looking back on this history is how the same questions which were brought forward from the very beginning are still just as much in evidence today. The first meeting on that 9th May was asking for better treatment of Juvenile Offenders; we seem to hear something about that today. Another asked for some regulation of the speed of motor cars. And again continuously – a sort of hardy annual – protests against economies in education.

“It’s been said that flags often get very tattered before they are carried to victory, and we are carrying some rather tattered flags today. I was myself surprised to see that more that forty years ago we passed a resolution protesting against the taxing of incomes of married persons as one. We seem to have heard about that since, and it certainly has flared up again in recent months.  Really it is time that the demand of forty-three years should now be satisfied.

“In talking about these matters one often uses such words as victory or defeat, but I’ve come to the conclusion that no battle is ever either lost or won. We sometimes say that a battle has been lost, but who knows whether it is? In fighting the battle, some seed has been sown, and the birds haven’t consumed it all, and we know that attention has been drawn to the subject; it’s still alive in many men’s minds and someone will bring it forward and carry it in future, though it may not be in the same form.

“And when we come to the battles being won, we know again that after the victory how very much more there always still is to do.

“In 1922 we asked that women should be Members of [Cambridge University]. We had to wait until 1948 before Membership of the University was, as we say, won. But I feel there is still a good deal to do when you think that the numbers of women in the university are still 1 to 10 men and when you see the immense difficulty in getting money for our third women’s college. [New Hall – now Murray Edwards]. And though we have fought all these years to open doors to women, and have opened a great many doors, and a great many wonderful women have passed through them, there is still a great deal more rom for women to pass through. That’s one of the jobs for the next fifty years, a better training for women and girls to fit themselves to go through those doors, and in themselves a better opinion to the problems of the day.

“I think that in facing the next fifty years we’ve got to realise that of course there is not the same scope for pioneer work as there was in the earlier part of the last fifty years; the State and the local authorities have taken over so much more, and so many voluntary societies have sprung up to do this and that and the other, and an army of social workers, both paid and voluntary, are now in the field. But we mustn’t imagine for one moment because our work is changing that there isn’t still just as much work to do.

“I suppose we are in the danger that other societies are, that if we are not doing some actual piece of work we may get rather lost in a flood of resolution, remembering the old jape that the road to perdition is not only paved with good intentions, it is also littered with resolutions. We want our resolutions to be followed by action. I think that there are two words that we can keep in mind in the future; that we’ve got to be “eternally vigilant,” we’ve got to watch not only the laws but the administration of the laws, taking every opportunity to promote and to further progress and to right what is wrong.

“We have to remember that legislators and administrators draw their very life blood from the pressure and the opinion of those who care. We believe that the National Council of Women is among those who care, and they have got to go on pressing and urging and bringing the opinion of the people to those who have to make the laws. And if only we can go along with that purpose in view, the next fifty years are not going to be unworthy of our past.”


9th July 1962

The University Arms Hotel


300404 Clara Rackham Photo.jpg

Clara Rackham – 1875-1966: Educated at Newnham College, Cambridge; Suffragist, politician, and Labour Councillor for Romsey, Cambridge. 

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