In July 1945, as the British people awaited the results of the recent general election, Churchill remarked to his doctor: ‘I hear the women are for me, but that the men have turned against me.’ The Conservatives were, of course, defeated by a landslide. But was it the case, as Churchill suggested, that the electorate divided along gender lines? He himself had only impressionistic evidence to rely on. He was unaware of the opinion polls that were forecasting a Labour victory, and, at any rate, those surveys did not provide any information about whether women’s voting intentions were different from men’s. If he was correct, and female voters preferred him, then there was a certain irony, as he appreciated. When his wife Clementine ‘reminded him how bitterly have had opposed the vote being given to women’ he acknowledged this was ‘Quite true’. [1]


Indeed, if Churchill had succeeded in turning women in his favour, this would have been somewhat surprising. A Mass-Observation (MO) spot poll of 75 people carried out just before the fall of Neville Chamberlain’s government in May 1940 found that Anthony Eden was the most popular candidate to replace him as Prime Minister with Churchill as the only other serious contender. MO found that ‘Eden gains on the women’s votes, Churchill being much less popular among women than among men’.[2] Unfortunately, the sample size was too small to be meaningful. Nor, in spite of the wealth of evidence of ordinary people’s opinions of Churchill as war-time Prime Minister, is it possible to say with any precision whether responses to him varied on gender lines.


Nevertheless, there are some significant clues regarding the popular reaction to Churchill’s one significant wartime statement on an issue relating to gender. This was his insistence, in March 1944, that the Commons reverse a vote in favour of equal pay for women teachers. This had come about as a result of an amendment to the Education Bill put down by the Conservative MP Thelma Cazalet-Keir which resulted inwas the wartime coalition’s only parliamentary defeat – by one vote. Churchill, without discussing the merits of the issue, was adamant that the matter be treated as an issue of confidence. He thus succeeded in persuading (or browbeating) the House into deleting the clause in question, by an overwhelming majority. The Prime Minister was motivated by what he saw as an opportunity for squashing opposition in general, not by any great concern about the matter at hand: ‘He was sorry that the issue raised had been on equal pay for women, but the issue in these cases did not much matter and he proposed to rub their noses in it.’[3] Churchill later forgave Cazalet-Keir to the extent of appointing her as Parliamentary Secretary for Education in his short-lived Caretaker Government. As he did so he told her, chuckling, ‘Now, Thelma, no more of that equal pay business’.[4]


According to the Ministry of Information’s Home Intelligence Report, the equal pay debate ‘stimulated widespread discussion’, with most people appearing to be in favour. .’[5] One MO diarist, staying with her husband in Bishop Auckland, where he was stationed, recorded an argument with a fellow lodger: ‘My husband and I are both furious about it and even my husband’s mess, who are on the whole very Conservative, agree that Churchill’s conduct over the whole business has amounted to sharp practice. But everyone in this house keeps emphasising that Churchill is the only man who can run the war and what a splendid record he has.’[6] Adelaide Poole, a retired nurse, took a similar view of Churchill’s handling of the Commons: ‘I hate such bullying, and I find the people I have spoken to round here agree with me’.[7] J.B. Gregory was disturbed by his discussion with a fellow (male) teacher who ‘supported Churchill and was against equality in any respect for women’.[8] Views were clearly mixed; although where there was anger with Churchill it seems to have been a result of his high-handed political tactics more than of strong feelings about the principle of equality.


Equal Pay did not become an election issue in 1945. Neither Churchill, nor the Conservative Party as a whole, made a strong conscious attempt to appeal to the female vote. This is striking in view of the efforts made by the Tories in the interwar years to secure women’s support, albeit in an often very patronising way: they were labelled ‘natural Conservatives’ who were supposed to act as guardians of the family in the face of the threat of socialism. This apparently successful technique was now forgotten, it seemed (although it would shortly be revived and would contribute to the party’s pre-1951 recovery). Perhaps this was in part down to Churchill himself. He had always been reluctant ‘to roam into the abstract question of the relations between the sexes, their relative capacities and capabilities’ and had found other reasons (based on party political calculation) for opposing the granting of the female franchise and its subsequent extension.[9] Nevertheless, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party was almost equally neglectful of women voters 1945 – that is, if we look at the problem in terms of policies explicitly designed to appeal to them. The Liberals, by contrast, demanded that women receive ‘equality of opportunity and status’, and Communist candidates emphasised both ‘safer motherhood’ and equal pay – though it did neither party much good in terms of winning votes.[10]


Nevertheless, the election was heavily gendered. The left-wing Daily Mirror urged: ‘Vote for them’, with ‘them’ being the soldiers who had fought and died. Similarly, one Labour campaign poster showed pictures of servicemen with the legend, ‘HELP THEM FINISH THEIR JOB! Give them homes and work!’ But in spite of the masculine theme, it is clear that such exhortations were aimed at least as much if not more at women voters than at men.


Therefore, although it is impossible to say how far gender issues affected the election’s outcome, it is possible that Churchill’s gut feeling that ‘the men have turned against me’ did have its basis in a genuine phenomenon. The Conservative campaign should perhaps not be faulted too heavily: by the time it began the election was probably already lost. It is striking, however, that Churchill, who was himself a symbol of heroic masculine endeavour, appears to have had difficulty countering Labour’s claims to be speaking on behalf of servicemen, and indeed to appeal to women in this way. The most important lesson, however, is that there were ways of trying to win over female voters that were quite different from, and perhaps more subtle than, the simple raising of so-called ‘women’s issues’. This is, perhaps, something that modern politicians would also do well to remember.


[1] Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965 (London, 1968), p. 283.

[2] ‘Political Crisis Report’, Report No. 99, 10 May 1940, Mass-Observation Archive.

[3] R.A. Butler, note of Apr. 1944, quoted in Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front (1992), p. 376.

[4] Thelma Cazalet-Keir, From the Wings, The Bodley Head, London, 1967, p. 123.

[5] ‘Home Intelligence Weekly Report No. 183’, 6 April 1944, The National Archives, Kew, London, INF 1/292.

[6] E. Murray diary, 30 March 1944 (MO diarist no. 5380), Mass-Observation Archive.

[7] A.R. Poole diary, 2 Apr. 1944 (MO diarist no. 5399), Mass-Observation Archive.

[8] J.B. Gregory diary, 31 March 1944 (MO diarist no. 5089), Mass-Observation Archive.

[9] Speech of 12 July 1910.

[10] F.W.S. Craig (ed.), British General Election Manifestos 1918-1966, Political Reference Publications, Chichester, 1970, p. 110; R.B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British General Election of 1945, Geoffrey Cumberlege/Oxford University Press, London, 1947, p. 108.


Richard Toye is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. You can read more of the ‘Rethinking Right Wing Women’ Series here and visit the Rethinking Right Wing Women conference website here.


Image: Women arrive to vote in Holborn, 1945. Image Source: Wikicommons.

Tags : 1945 electionequal payRight-Wing womenthe Conservative PartyWinston Churchilwomen voters
Richard Toye

The author Richard Toye

1 Comment

  1. High time that we have a reexamination of the much examined career and political fortunes of Churchill from a gender perspective. Thanks for this Richard, and just in time to mark the 70th anniversary of the 1945 General Election. Do you think there is any relationship between Churchill’s wilderness years and his reluctance to ‘turn the women for him’ those early post-enfranchisement years?

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