By Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist
On 22 September 1921, Margaret Wintringham (1879-1955) was elected MP for Louth in Lincolnshire in a by-election, becoming the first ever Liberal woman MP. She was the third woman MP ever elected, following Constance Markievicz in 1918 and Nancy Astor in 1919; and the second to take her seat in the House of Commons, after Astor.
By-election in Louth
The previous Louth MP was Tom Wintringham, an Independent Liberal, elected in 1920 with a majority of more than 2500 votes. Following his death in August 1921, his widow Margaret was selected by the Liberals to stand in his place at the forthcoming by-election. She was politically active in the Liberal party and in many other organisations.
Among the papers of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, is a briefing note on the Louth by-election. It sets out facts and figures about Louth's recent electoral history, previously a two-horse race between Coalition Unionists and Independent Conservatives.
She is listed among the candidates as 'Mrs. Tom Wingtringham' - the note managing to mis-spell her surname as well as identify her in relation to her dead husband. The note goes on to explain it is the first time there have been three candidates in Louth, including a Labour candidate and a woman candidate. Mrs Wintringham 'is said to be very able and has a pleasant personality'.
As she was in mourning, Wintringham chose not to speak in public throughout the election campaign. She won by 791 votes.
Wintringham's maiden speech
Wintringham might have been silent during her election campaign, but she was an active speaker in the House of Commons from the beginning. She made her maiden speech on 9 November 1921 during a debate on the economy, declaring:
'The question of economy appeals very much to women... Just as the woman is the housekeeper in the home, I look upon Parliament as the housekeeper of the nation.'
Wintringham developed a close friendship with Nancy Astor and the two worked together on many issues in Parliament, including pensions for widows and orphans, equal franchise, and women police. Women police had been recruited to some police forces during the First World War, but were disbanded in many places afterwards, often under the guise of cuts.
There is a small cluster of letters and papers on women police among the papers of William Wedgwood Benn MP, who was sympathetic to many women's causes. In this letter, Wintringham asks Benn to meet Astor, Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland and herself in Members Lobby 'to talk over the next move with regard to women police.'
This newspaper cutting from the Scotsman reports on one debate on 28 March 1922 'when the House found itself cheering Lady Astor and Mrs Wintringham in their objections to the saving of £27,000 by the disbandment of the Metropolitan Women Police. Doubtless some of the cheers were more appreciative of the quality of the speeches than of the special case the lady members sought to make.'
Perhaps Wintringham’s most significant Parliamentary achievement was equal guardianship of infants. Before 1925, fathers were the legal guardians of children, which could lead to great hardship for mothers who were denied custody. Women’s organisations campaigned over decades to change this. Wintringham sat on a joint select committee on this subject in 1922-23 and then introduced a Private Members’ Bill in 1924.
The bill's list of supporters shows cross-party support including Astor, a Conservative; Lady Terrington, the second Liberal woman MP (elected in 1923); and former militant suffrage supporter Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, now a Labour MP.
The principles behind her Bill were agreed by the Labour government in 1924 and adopted by the subsequent Conservative government a year later. As passed, the Equal Guardianship Act 1925 did not go as far as Wintringham would have liked, but it did enshrine into law the principle of equal guardianship between mothers and fathers. The welfare of the child was now the paramount concern for any court.
Wintringham as Parliamentary pioneer
Wintringham won two general elections but lost her seat along with most other Liberal MPs in 1924. She was never re-elected but stayed politically active outside Parliament.
She was acknowledged as a Parliamentary pioneer in 1949, when she was invited back to the House of Commons for an event marking the twentieth anniversary of Megan Lloyd George’s election as a Liberal MP. This photograph shows Megan Lloyd George being presented with a book by Edith Summerskill, surrounded by other Liberal and Labour women MPs and former MPs. Wintringham is the elder stateswoman, seated right.