Winifred Holtby on the first Female MPs

Portrait of Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby by F Lewis Copyright Somerville College Oxford


Hugh Gault

At the end of May 1929, and after five years of a reforming Conservative government, the first general election at which everybody aged 21 and over could vote had resulted in no clear majority.  Nationally, the Labour Party had won 287 seats in parliament against 260 for the Conservatives, and it was they who took office with the tacit support of 59 Liberals led by Lloyd George.

The following month the author, activist and Somerville College graduate Winifred Holtby assessed the fourteen women elected as MPs.[1]  They included Eleanor Rathbone, another Somerville graduate sitting as an Independent, and Megan Lloyd George, the sole Liberal.  The three Conservatives were all returning to the Commons, the Duchess of Atholl, Lady Iveagh and Nancy Astor, as were three of the Labour women: Margaret Bondfield, Susan Lawrence and Ellen Wilkinson.  The six new Labour women were Jennie Lee, Mary Agnes Hamilton, Cynthia Mosley, Marion Phillips, Ethel Bentham and Picton Turberville. 

Two things stand out:

– women constituted more than 50% of the electorate but only 2% of the 615 MPs;

– yet, or perhaps partly because of this, most of the fourteen remain known today. 

In addition to the achievements for which, for example, Eleanor Rathbone, Ellen Wilkinson and Nancy Astor remain known, they also helped forge a path for women representatives in the future.  But they did more than this for women.

Indeed, Winifred Holtby’s opening paragraph read:

‘The day will come when the presence of women in the House of Commons will be no more noticeable than that of men, when their political preoccupations will be determined by no consideration of sex, and when the grouping together of women members will be no more significant than the grouping of members who have travelled in the Dominions, or members with a scientific training.  But that time has not yet arrived.  The fourteen women in the new Parliament, though they differ in their interests, party allegiance, and experience, are bound together upon certain issues by the special position which women still hold under the law and the economic system as a class apart.  Not one of them perhaps is a feminist before all other claims, but on certain questions all fourteen will stand together.’

Examples of this are family allowances, education, abortion and maternal health, as well as women’s issues more generally.  It is striking, for example, that one of the things Nancy Astor is known for is the Cliveden set and appeasement in the 1930s.  What is far less well known is that one of her frequent guests at Cliveden was Ellen Wilkinson so that the two friends could work together on women’s rights.[2]

                Holtby goes on to consider each of the fourteen women in turn, but at least as important is her overall conclusion that ‘they make a notable team’.  They clearly were trailblazers for women but, even given the equal rights and gender representation initiatives of the last forty years, women occupy only 195 of 650 seats in the Commons today (30%).  The gender gap remains and only when 50% of MPs are women will parliament be fully representative of the electorate.  Much remains to be done.[3]  Yet for all that, Holtby’s article remains prescient – if still predictive rather than the result itself.

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[1] Sunday Times 9th June 1929

[2] University of Reading Special Collections hold the Cliveden visitor books which I examined in March 2015.  One of Ellen Wilkinson’s biographers explained their connection later that month.


Somerville’s Archives Blog relaunches!

We are very excited to announce that we have relaunched the Somerville Archives Blog under the new title History of Somerville College  Blog to be more representative of the items we plan to include. Our first post is from a guest contributor: historian and author Hugh Gault who writes about alumna Winifred Holtby and her review of the first women MPs in 1929.

 We welcome contributions on subjects of a historical nature relating to Somerville – please contact if you would like to submit a piece which should be no more than 500 words long.

Online Catalogue Complete

The project to upgrade and digitise the catalogue of the papers of  Mary Somerville (1780-1872) is now complete.  For the first time, researchers all over the world will be able to have access to the complete listing of the collection which is owned by Somerville College but held by the Bodleian Library.  During the cataloguing process some interesting documents have been unearthed including a letter from Charles Babbage inviting the Somervilles to view his ‘Calculating Engine’  (a mechanical calculator that was the forerunner of the modern computer), a request from John Stuart Mill for Mary Somerville to sign his petition for women’s suffrage and a letter from Charles Darwin commenting on one of her publications.  The project has been enabled by a generous grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and the catalogue may be found and searched via the Bodleian Special Collections website.

Now that the catalogue has been made available online we are working towards the next stage of the project which is to digitise some of the papers themselves for the purposes of preservation and to make them more widely available.  Fundraising has begun for this and we hope to be able to start this phase towards the end of 2013.  Please contact the Librarian if you would like to help us with   this exciting project.

Mary Somerville

mary_somervilleSomerville College was named after the renowned mathemetician, astronomer and scientist, Mary Somerville (1780-1872).  The College is fortunate to own her papers which were given by the descendents of Mary Somerville, the Fairfax-Lucy family. The papers are held in the Bodleian Library and for many years access to their contents has been via a typewritten list  available only at Somerville College or at the Bodleian itself.  This year, thanks to a generous grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the College has been able to begin the task of updating the listing to 21st Cenury cataloguing standards and transferring it to the Bodleian’s Online Special Collections catalogue so that scholars all over the world will be able to search the catalogue for items of interest. The project is due to be completed in the Spring of 2013.  Staff working on the project will be going through all the papers and items in the collection, reboxing and refiling where necessary, noting items of interest discovered along the way (and updating this blog with them!)

Phase 2 of the project will be to digitise the papers once they have been curated and catalogued.  We are currently looking for ways of funding this part of the project – all suggestions gratefully received!


First Graduation in 1921


A recent addition to the Somerville photo archive is this photo of Katherine Guthrie Wood who was a student at Somerville between 1914 and 1918.  She was amongst the first women students to receive their degrees in 1921 when the university regulations were changed to admit women as full members of the university.  Miss Wood married Sir Richard Robert Ludlow in 1919 (also pictured) whom she met whilst at Oxford.  Many thanks go to Ms Angela Ridge who contacted me with  photos of her grandmother and who has kindly given permission to use this one

Mrs T H Green

Charlotte Green was a member of Somerville Council from 1884-1929 and its Vice-President from 1908-1926. She was the sister of poet and literary critic John Addington Symonds, the aunt of future Somerville Principal Dame Janet Vaughan, wife of philosopher T H Green (one of the founding members of Somerville Council) and champion of higher education for women.   At one stage she was considered to succeed Miss Shaw Lefevre as the second Principal of the college. There are two portraits of her in the College, in the Treasury Corridor in House and in the Senior Common Room.

Gilbert Murray

Last weekend saw the opening of Somerville’s new accommodation buildings for undergraduates by the Chancellor of the University Lord Patten of Barnes.  One of the floors in the new building has been named the Gilbert Murray Floor so it seems apporpriate to devote this post to Professor Murray and his association with Somerville.

Professor Gilbert Murray was both a great classical scholar and an influential internationalist.  Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford from 1908 to 1936,  he was also a founding member of the League of Nations Union in the UK and later three-times President of the United Nations Association.  Murray was a modest and moderate man (he twice refused a knighthood, was a vegetarian and teetotaller) but he nevertheless made a huge impression on all he met.

Murray first came into contact with Somerville College whilst an undergraduate at St John’s (1884-88) when he was invited to tea with the first Principal of the College, Madeleine Shaw Lefevre.     

He resumed his acquaintance with Somerville when he returned to Oxford in 1905 after a brief spell as Professor of Greek at Glasgow University.  His interest in Somerville stemmed from his conviction of the importance of higher education for women and he worked steadily to support this cause.  He was elected to serve on the governing Council of the College in 1908, chairing the library Committee throughout this period, and remained an active member until his death in 1957.  Always a source of wise counsel, he was delighted when Dame Emily Penrose, the Principal of Somerville helped steer Oxford University towards the awarding of degrees for women in 1920.

In this photo from 1920. Murray is pictured with Emily Penrose, Principal of Somerville following the first degree ceremony at which women received degrees at Oxford.  The degrees were awarded to the five heads of the womens Colleges, presented by the presidents of their Councils – a task which fell to Gilbert Murray. 

His involvement with the College consisted not only in the role he played in its governance: he also persuaded his wealthy mother-in law the Countess of Carlisle to endow a research Fellowship at Somerville, a fund that still provides Somerville Fellows with research leave to this day.  He often gave lectures at Somerville and in 1912 he helped the students to put on a production of Aristophanes’ play  The Frogs – a play that he had translated.  It was revived at Somerville thirty-four years later after the Second World War in 1946 with Gilbert Murray in the front row of the audience.


The Chapel

Chapel interior-1936

The College chapel (architect Courteney Theobald) was built in 1935 following a donation from former student, Emily Kemp.  However, as Somerville was specifically founded without religious affiliation,  some contemporaries saw the building of a chapel as contrary to this founding principle. Construction went ahead in spite of objections but the chapel was never consecrated and its one stained glass window (designer Reginald Bell) portrays  female figures representing Learning and Truth in addition to the risen Christ.  The  photograph above was taken shortly after construction and reflects the stark simplicity of the chapel which is retained today (below).