The Cambridge Women’s Citizens’ Association 1918-1984

Many of the greatest women in our city who were active during the 20th Century were members of this organisation – several standing for election under WCA sponsorship and getting elected – including Cambridge’s first woman mayor Eva Hartree.

At the Cambridgeshire Collection in Cambridge Central Library I stumbled across a file containing various reports and files from the Cambridge Women’s Citizens’ Association (WCA). (You can see the listing here). Furthermore, over 100 returns come back from a key phrase search in the British Newspaper Archive online (free to access at public libraries).

“Why did the society come to an end?”

All good things have to, as the saying goes. The reason why I’m starting with this question is that until today (09 Jan 2023) I had no documentary evidence to explain what happened to the association that seemed to prominent in the inter-war years. Furthermore, I didn’t have a full explanation of why there seemed to be a fall-off in the number of women councillors in the post-war years.

The motion for their final meeting reads as follows:

“After a great deal of thought the following resolution was proposed by Mrs Lanson, a member of long standing, and seconded by Mrs Adlington:

“It is with great sadness it is proposed that the Association ceases to meet after the Annual General Meeting on March 27th 1984.”

Cambridge Women’s Citizen’s Association – minutes of the 13 March 1984 – in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

“The Garden Party to take place as arranged on July 10th, at Robinson College and that the party be free of cost to members wishing to attend. The outing at present bring arranged by the Social Secretary to take place but the cost to be met by members themselves. The Society to be wound up, any monies left over to be given to Age Concern. The Gavel given in memory of Mrs Salter to be given to the Cambridge Folk Museum, and any interesting records to go to the County Archivist, Mr Farrer, at the Shire Hall.”

“This decision was carried unanimously, all present agreeing that the decision is inevitable”

They had so much to be proud of

13 March 2024 will be the 40th anniversary of the closure of the association. We missed the centenary of the founding of it back in 2018, which is a shame – but then there was the centenary of the first votes for women.

A public meeting – the National Union of Women Workers: Monday 13th May 1918

Declared the advert to consider forming a Women’s Citizens’ Association for Cambridge. Sadly, St Andrew’s Hall does not exist anymore.

The report of the meeting described it as a ‘Little Parliament’

Above – Cllr Florence Ada Keynes, Maude Gray the social reformer, and Margaret Heitland the suffragist organiser in Cambridge, – all civic titans in their own right, with the geologist May Ogilvie Gordon – later Dame Maria Matilda Gordon – the first woman to get both a Ph.D from the University of London, and a DSc from the University of Munich.

Florence Ada Keynes presided:

Above – Cllr Florence Ada Keynes circa 1916 from the glass plate negative in the Palmer Clark Archive, in the Cambridgeshire Collection, Colourised by Nick Harris, Commissioned by Antony Carpen.

“[Florence Ada Keynes] said that Cambridge women had now to face a new situation and responsibilities. They would have to devise some way in which they could help one another to understand local and national conditions better than ever before. Until there was a possibility of women being able to give effect to their opinions, no Association could be formed with any zest to it, but now the need had become a real and important one. Six million women had been given the Parliamentary franchise, and five million women would be new to the local government franchise – something must be done to meet the occasion. They would have to think how best they could form their judgement and how they could learn to make their judgement serviceable to the community.”

Florence Ada Keynes, St Andrew’s Hall, Cambridge. Reported in Cambridge Daily News of 14 May 1918

The context to the above from the woman who – for me at least is The Mother of Modern Cambridge, is this:

  • The Great War was still raging – despite the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the entry of the United States of America
  • The Representation of the People Act 1918 had only been enacted some three months earlier (enfranchising women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications)
  • They were dealing with a population that had little education about Westminster or party politics
  • There were massive social problems that Parliament was struggling to deal with in the run up to the First World War that had not gone away
  • The demands of war had transformed how the UK economic and political institutions functioned – to one where we saw the rise of centralised government and the growing interference (positive in terms of direct grants to councils, negative in terms of overzealous inspection regimes!) by central government into local government which continues to this day!
The message from Dr May Ogilvie Gordon is one that resonates today:

“In the period of reconstruction many difficulties would arise in connection with the relations of women and men in industry. [Cambridge Women] must consider those questions Now. It would be too late when the time of reconstruction was upon them. It was far better that they should form an association, and at once plunge bravely into the complex problems of economic relations.

Although in Cambridge they had only certain limited kinds of work, they should place the industrial workers in their midst. But they should not think for a moment to confine themselves to Cambridge: they should seize every opportunity of getting workers from some other associations who could tell them about different spheres of labour.

They must not consider big, public questions from the point of view of Cambridge alone. In Cambridge, they already had one councillor, but none of them were satisfied with that. They wanted 50 percent of the Council to be women. (Applause) [Progress update: Target achieved in May 2022!]”

Dr May Ogilvie Gordon, St Andrew’s Hall, Cambridge – reported in the Cambridge Daily News of 14 May 1918, from the British Newspaper Archive.

The vote was carried unanimously.

General Election December 1918 – questions from Cambridge WCA

As Dame Leah Manning recalled in her memoirs, Cambridge’s MP was the Conservative MP Bill Geddes, one of the senior ministers in the War Cabinet in Lloyd George’s Coalition. This meant that there was no ‘official’ Liberal candidate for the first time since 1900 – the only unopposed election since 1832. As a result, Labour stepped into the breach with the non-confirmist preacher T Rhondda Williams as their first ever candidate – Florence Ada Keynes declaring her support for him at a rally at Morley School – founded by Homerton College some 20 years before.

The questions the Cambridge WCA put together covered:

  • Housing – demanding a vigorous policy including compulsory purchase powers for local councils
  • Health – establishing a new Ministry of Health in which women shall have a full share of power & responsibility
  • Liquor Control – calling for maintaining the wartime controls on the sale and purchase of alcohol
  • Equal Pay – demanding equal opportunities for all professions and industries, with the principle of equal pay for equal work for all Government and state-recognised bodies
  • Morals – calling for an equal moral standard for men and women – including on divorce laws, and ‘moral offences and with public health and law and order’ based on the same principle
  • Law – removing the prohibitions on women in the legal profession
  • Education – removal of discrimination in all branches of education and educational administration

As you can see, some of these are still work in progress over a century later.

Both candidates wrote back in agreement.

The early-mid-1930s – significant years…if only the men had listened!

The two items that stand out for the Cambridge WCA for me are the election of Florence Ada Keynes as only the second woman Mayor of Cambridge…

Above – introduction to the 1932-33 Annual Report of the Cambridge WCA – in the Cambridgeshire Collection

…and from the 1934-35 report, a very stark warning that the Nazis in Germany had to be opposed. Although the report omits who the speaker was

Two years later, Frida Stewart did exactly that – setting off to Spain to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

“With such a flying start, why did the Cambridge WCA decline in its later years?”

This is a question for an early career researcher or a further education student looking to do an extended project. The relevant papers and annual reports are all in the Cambridgeshire Collection – alongside the papers of the Cambridge Branch of the National Council for Women, previously the National Union of Women Workers, and before that the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society, the earliest of which Dr Anne Kennedy-Smith has already done substantial research.

We know that towards the end of the Second World War, the membership of the Cambridge WCA was around 500, and that representatives of the three main political parties set out their post-war vision for Cambridge and beyond in the run-up to the election that saw Cambridge elect its first Labour MP. It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that Clara Rackham was the representative of the Cambridge Labour Party to make the case for Major Arthur Leslie Symonds.

Above – a snapshot from the 1944-45 Cambridge WCA Annual Report from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Anecdotally, I recall one reason mentioned in one of the later annual reports in the 1960s, which stated that it was getting harder and harder for women to get elected as independent candidates compared with the early interwar years. This reflected the growing centralisation of political institutions and the challenge of overcoming deeply ingrained prejudices on the role of women in politics, industry, and society generally across the political spectrum.

With access to key-word-searchable newspapers of the time, it would be wonderful to have those past papers and annual reports digitised – similar to what the Wellcome Library did with Cambridge Borough/City Council’s annual reports on sanitation and public health – about 80 years worth of them! Cross-referencing the two will enable researchers to compare the data published by the local council with the local public health and social reform campaigns that the women of 20th Century Cambridge – and later Cambridge & District, were campaigning on.

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