Clementine Churchill – behind every great man …

A new biography of Winston Churchill’s wife has just been released, timed to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of VE day, and Clementine’s story is a good one. She was far from the ‘little wife’ you might imagine: their rows were legendary and Winston was usually the first to surrender.

Clementine was born in 1885 and her childhood was unhappy. Her paternity was uncertain, her mother was a serial adulterer and gambler who repeatedly uprooted the children, her beloved sister died of typhoid when she was fourteen, and her mother couldn’t afford the university education recommended by her teachers. She briefly had to earn her living sewing and teaching French.

When she was nineteen, she first met Winston, ten years her senior. At that time, the gauche man didn’t impress her, but by the time they encountered each other again four years later, Clementine had been engaged several times, always to older men. Their mutual attraction was instant, Winston proposed a month later and they were married later that year. Although she was the granddaughter of an earl, she had to deal with plenty of snobbery from Winston’s aristocratic family when they became engaged, partly because she made her own clothes.

Clementine had five children but maintained a keen interest in politics and refused to sit back and play the passive role expected of a political wife. Sadly, this had traumatic consequences for her children; her own difficult childhood made her a distant mother. During World War I, Clementine organised canteens for munitions workers. Politically, she supported the Liberal party and hated the ‘brash, vulgar Tories’. At this stage Winston, was also a Liberal and she became his social conscience, supporting him in his work to establish the welfare state. When he changed parties, she didn’t follow him. They also fell out over women’s suffrage; Clementine was a keen supporter.

It’s no surprise that their marriage was turbulent. Winston wasn’t the easiest man to live with, egotistical, selfish and with an extravagance that strained their finances. Between the wars, Clementine briefly considered divorce and fell in love with another man. She argued with Winston during the Edward VIII abdication crisis when she recognised that Winston’s views were out of step with those of the public. But their marriage was strong, and her influence on her husband considerable. She re-wrote his speeches, toned down angry letters and helped him recover from political mistakes. During the Second Word War, as well as being the most trusted advisor to a man whom Clement Atlee described as ‘Fifty percent genius, fifty percent fool’, she was active on the home front, gaining the respect of the allies and the government and became a life peer. It has even been suggested that her hospitality helped to negotiate America’s entry into the war.

Clementine’s loyalty to Winston, however, could never be questioned. In 1951, she opposed Winston taking another term of office. He ignored her, though her advice turned out to have been astute. When the House of Commons commissioned at portrait to commemorate Winston’s eightieth birthday, he hated it, saying that it depicted him as a ‘down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand’. Later she secretly destroyed it, ensuring it would never be put on public display. After Winston’s death in 1965, she took up her place in the House of Lords, though increasing deafness limited her political activity.

She died aged 92 in 1977, having outlived three of her children. But her achievement in making Churchill the greatest world leader in history should not be underestimated. Churchill’s chief of staff, General Ismay, said that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story”.


Millicent Fawcett – thanks for the vote

As it’s election day in the UK, it seems fitting to write about one of the women who helped gain British women the vote. I’m ignoring the usual subjects – the Pankhursts and Emily Davison – not because I don’t admire them but because one glance at Facebook this morning tells me that everyone knows them already. But the suffragettes, or Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were only a small, extreme part of a wider movement. Many historians have argued that the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), known as suffragists, were ultimately more persuasive in gaining women the vote. Their leader was one of the unsung heroes of the feminist movement – Millicent Fawcett.

Millicent Fawcett was born in Suffolk in 1846 to a progressive, middle class family, and together with her older sister Elizabeth Garrett, received a boarding school education in London. Elizabeth later became the first woman in England to qualify as a doctor. When Millicent was 19, she heard a speech by John Stuart Mill in favour of equal rights for women. It made such an impression on her that she became his loyal supporter and sought out fellow activists, including Henry Fawcett, an MP fourteen years her senior, whom she married. Henry had been blinded in a shooting accident and had been expected to marry Millicent’s sister, but Elizabeth was too devoted to the study of medicine to marry.

Millicent immersed herself into the world of politics, writing a book on political economy and becoming a popular speaker, even though the act of public speaking made her so nervous she was often physically sick. She also helped in the founding of Newnham College, the second Cambridge college to admit women. In 1884 her husband died of pleurisy, leaving her, at 38, a widow with a young daughter. She threw herself into political work, becoming involved with the Personal Rights association, which exposed men who preyed on vulnerable women. In 1886, when discovering that an army major had been harassing a friend’s servant, Millicent threw flour over him and pinned a paper on his back, drawing his actions to others, including the woman to whom he was engaged; she subsequently dumped him. In 1890 she was elected president of the NUWSS. As well as campaigning for equal rights for women, the organisation formed a relief fund for South African women and children during the Boer war.

In the years 1901-14, when the Liberal government refused to consider giving women the vote, the Suffragettes grabbed all the headlines. Millicent didn’t believe that theirs was the right direction to take; she believed that the violent actions of the WSPU were not only alienating supporters but also preventing the government from voting on the issue as they would be seen to be giving way to extreme tactics. By 1914, the women’s movement was divided. While the militant WSPU were supporting the war and encouraging young men to enlist, the NUWSS were pacifists. However, Millicent supported the war, causing other NUWSS members to resign.

In 1918, women aged thirty or over gained the vote, and the NUWSS was disbanded. From then onwards, Millicent’s work was less high profile. She became active in other areas of women’s equality, including education for Indian women and enabling female students at Cambridge to be awarded degrees. In 1928, she realised her ultimate dream when the voting age for women became equal to that of men. She wrote in her diary: ‘It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.’ Her life’s work complete, she died the following year.

So when you cast your vote today, think of the women who chained themselves to railings for the cause, but also remember the woman whose long years of rational, constitutional campaigning played a key role in enfranchising women.