Carol Moore, of Dorchester Road, Stourbridge tells me that Mary Macarthur was nominated as the Labour party candidate for Stourbridge, in the 1918 general election. And, amazingly, Carol has sent me a photocopy of Marys 1918 manifesto. She says: Enclosed is a rather faded copy of part of a letter circulated by Mary Macarthur as part of her election campaign.
Its likely that Mary Macarthur was Englands first woman Parliamentary candidate. In 1918, legislation was passed enabling women to stand for Parliament for the first time ever. Yet, only women over the age of thirty were allowed to vote. They also had to be householders, married to a householder, or pay more than £5 a year in rent. Effectively, millions of women were still denied the vote, despite their efforts to keep the countrys infrastructure going during the war.
Carol tells me: I came across this letter amongst family papers when my husbands mother died but I have no idea who originally owned it. The original was obviously much creased and held together with sellotape. You get the impression of a piece of paper that was important to someone and carried around in a purse or wallet until it fell apart. Thankfully someone found it interesting enough to copy and keep.
Dated 28th September 1918, Marys campaign letter was sent out from Stourbridges Co-operative Rooms, just before the end of the Great War. And, politics apart, it shows us the very real concerns felt by a war weary nation. Indeed, many of the issues Mary addresses are just as relevant today:
In her campaign letter, she demands ....Justice, not charity, for soldiers and sailors... All disabled men are entitled to an adequate pension based on the cost of living. No widow or child should lack the necessities of life....
Mary also asks for The speedy return of the fighting men...our soldiers and sailors want to get home to their wives and families. Their wives and children want them back... ample allowances must be made for the men and their families until suitable work, at standard rates, is available.
As for the issue of equal pay, something thats still far from being resolved today, Mary passionately believed women were entitled to A Mans pay for a mans work. As Carol Moore points out, item seven of Marys manifesto is True to her championing of womens rights. Mary states: It should be illegal to employ a woman on the same work as a man for less pay.
Mary was also a passionate believer in equal access to education, an issue still at the heart of politics today. For Mary, education was the golden key to a world of opportunity: The best education must be within the reach of all. There should be no distinction of sex, class or wealth. From the nursery school to the university, every child should have an equal chance. The financial problem for the parent must be solved by adequate maintenance grants. You can imagine her views on todays university tuition and top - up fees!
After the war, there was an acute housing problem. The returning troops had been promised homes fit for heroes, and Mary wanted the government to deliver. Her views on housing would certainly have appealed to Stourbridges eligible female voters. She demands well planned and healthy houses at reasonable rents, with every labour-saving device, hot and cold water upstairs and downstairs, and plenty of cupboards. No jerry-built dwellings should be tolerated.
Many ordinary working folk no doubt supported some of Marys views. She tells Stourbridge folk: I stand also for a Ministry of Health, the abolition of the workhouses, increased old age pensions, payable at 60.... Many of todays pensioners feel they are still waiting for a fair deal.
But, in 1918 many people felt Marys views were just too radical, and she failed in her bid to represent Stourbridge in the House of Commons. In fact, the first, and only, woman to be elected to Parliament that year, was Constance Markievicz, the Sinn Fein member for Dublin.
When she was elected, Constance was actually in Holloway Prison for alleged dealings with the Germans. On her release in 1919, she refused with other Irish colleagues to take her seat at Westminster. But vanity did tempt her on one occasion, and its said she secretly visited the MPs cloakroom at Westminster, to see her name on the hat-peg reserved her her!
The first woman to actually sit in the Commons was American-born Nancy Viscountess Astor. In November 1919, she was elected as a Conservative to her husbands former seat when he succeeded to the peerage. Lady Astor thought her stay would be short, hoping for a change in the law so her husband could surrender his peerage, and return to the Commons. But this didnt happen, and Nancy Astor stayed in Parliament until 1945.
In 1918, Mary Macarthur was probably seen as too much of a political firebrand, and the nation still wasnt ready for women MPs. Her opposition to the war also counted against her. Sadly, her political loss was quickly followed by a personal one. In 1919, Mary was devastated when her husband, Will Anderson, died in the great influenza pandemic. Mary threw herself into her work, carrying on with her role in the Womens Trade Union League. She died of cancer, aged 41, on 1st January 1921.
Many thanks to Carol Moore for the fascinating glimpse into the mind of a pioneering woman, much remembered in the Black Country.