a celebration of
100 years of federation

Women in the Potteries politics

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Historian Fred Hughes writes....

There have been only eleven women Lord Mayors in the 99 year history of Stoke-on-Trent council. Highly chauvinistic you might think particularly as there were only two in the first 50 years.

“You have to remember that women did not get the vote until 1919,” says Potteries historian Steve Birks. “Politics nationally was acted out in a man’s world and very clubby. And even at local level women were rarely consulted on matters of politics – business yes, education yes. But unless you were from the aristocracy or their husband’s work connected them to some area of social welfare, women were either domestically tied or were compelled to work for meagre wages on the factory floor.”

Gertrude Jarrett was a Potteries girl born in 1890. She worked on the potbanks and was very much aware of female inequality. She found a voice when she became a suffragette and joined the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) just before the Great War. 

“I thought that women should have the same rights as men,” she told the BBC in 1995 in an interview for its social documentary The People’s Century. “There were several of us who wanted votes for women. We used to get up in Hanley Market square and spout a bit. But in those days, if it got too rowdy the police would come and move us off – but we still used to say what we thought.”

In 1918, with the war over, Parliament agreed to give the vote to women who were over 30. But it was not until 1928 that the law granted women the right to vote on the same terms as men. The first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons was Lady Nancy Astor in 1919. In that same year Stoke-on-Trent admitted its first woman councillor, Florence Farmer.

“She was the daughter of a Longton printer who was actively engaged in Liberal Party local government,” continues Steve, “So Florence was caught up in politics at an early age. As the Liberal party began to wane she joined Stoke-on-Trent’s early Labour movement and at the age of 46 she was elected to the federated council which at that time was in its infancy.”

Florence Farmer set high standards for women who followed her into local government right up to the current intake of women councillors. As a trained teacher her council interests were related to education and she held a number of leading posts on libraries and arts committees. And it was Miss Farmer’s Watch Committee that introduced the first women police officers onto the streets of Stoke-on-Trent. Members thought so highly of her that they chose her to become Stoke-on-Trent’s first female Lord Mayor in 1931.

Florence Farmer
Florence Farmer
Annie Barker
Annie Barker
Doris Robinson
Doris Robinson

Another 23 years were to pass before the next female Lord Mayor came to office; that was Annie Longson Barker in 1954. But this does not tell the full story of the role women played in local government in Stoke-on-Trent,” Steve adds. “More women had begun to come through the ranks of the Labour Party and the Co-op movement. Alongside Annie Barker was the formidable Blanche Meakin, a councillor for Birches Head – diminutive in size but gigantic in attitude. The unmarried Annie Barker even chose Blanche to be her Lady Mayoress. Then there was Harriet Slater, a councillor from Milton who became Member of Parliament for Stoke North in 1955 serving as a government whip in Harold Wilson’s first administration. In 1968 Doris Robinson CBE, daughter of Potteries Union leader Sam Clowes MP and sister of education reformer Sir Harold Clowes, became Lord Mayor. By this time the importance of women in the council chamber was certainly recognized.”

Even so it does seem that certain qualifications were necessary for women to achieve the status of high civic office. For instance all the women who became Lord Mayor, including Mary Bourne, Mary Stringer, Sybil Halfpenny, Lily Wall, Marion Beckett, Kathleen Banks and Barbara Dunn all belonged to one particular political party. Labour councillor Jean Edwards was the city’s last woman Lord Mayor in 2006.

Labour certainly promoted women,” she says. “And there’s no doubt that social organisations such as the Co-op movement, workers educational programmes and other ethical societies attracted women interested in socialist ideology. Trades unions and the Labour Party gave women opportunities to engage with domestic politics. It should be remembered that women were the majority in the potteries workforce and it is only right they should be involved in democratic representation. But the meagre list of women Lord Mayors illustrates how difficult it has been to achieve impartial and equitable representation over the last hundred years. Although there were no women councillors in 1910 I think that today’s 17 female representatives reflects what federation was all about. I’m so proud that women played their part in its history.”

Jean acknowledges we are living in interesting times. A century ago the pioneering councillors took a leap of faith towards a united city. Who knows now what the next 12 months will bring never mind the next hundred years.  


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25 Mar 2009