Published in Finest Hour 98
MANY are the fashionable women ‘birds of paradise’ who speak, sing, or wheedle the electors into a state of enthusiasm for a husband, son or relation who, left to himself would not create a spark.” Such were Lady Randolph Churchill’s thoughts on women’s influence in politics. The story of Jennie’s support to her husband, Lord Randolph Churchill, one of the most brilliant politicians of the late Victorian age, and to her son Winston Churchill, the greatest British statesman of the twentieth century, is significant and worth telling.
At their first meeting in August 1873, Jennie Jerome enchanted Lord Randolph Churchill with her stunning beauty and he swiftly proposed to her. However the Duke of Marlborough declared that he must prove his affections by waiting for a year before marrying her. Lord Randolph seized the opportunity provided by a dissolution of Parliament to change his father’s mind. The Duke and Duchess had assuaged their disappointment over their wayward elder son, the Marquess of Blandford, by transferring their expectations to Lord Randolph, whom they intended to become Member of Parliament for Woodstock, the local constituency He now threatened not to stand for election unless he was allowed to marry Jennie before the year had passed. In February 1874, Lord Randolph was elected; he married Jennie in April, eight months after they had first met. It was hardly the most orthodox beginning to a dazzling political career. Similarly, the interests of Lord Randolph’s wife lay elsewhere. Although, at the bidding of her fiance, she had dutifully read political columns in The Times, Jennie later confessed that she had looked forward to the 1874 general election because it would spell an end to their probation.
The elevated social circle in which Lord and Lady Randolph moved included figures such as the Prince of Wales, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Jennie was expected to entertain these distinguished people and she later recalled that the lengthy conversations with Disraeli led her friends to tease her about what position she had managed to secure for her husband. However, a serious breach between the Prince of Wales and the Marlborough family resulted in the higher echelons of society slamming their doors in the faces of the young couple. The Duke took the position of Viceroy of Ireland and the family decamped to Dublin to let the anger of the court subside. During these years Lord Randolph continued attending the House of Commons, and became increasingly interested in politics.
On her return to London in 1880 Lady Randolph too, although still ostracised by society and rather in spite of herself, developed political interests. She was a familiar figure in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons, that “small, dark cage to which the ungallant British legislators have relegated [women].” As hostess, she was also present at frequent political meetings at their London home and mingled with politicians including the members of Lord Randolph’s cabal, the Fourth Party (John Gorst, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff and Arthur Balfour).
Lady Randolph’s tangible involvement in politics began in 1883 with the establishment of the Primrose League, an organisation intended to support the Conservatives. The League was a political and social society whose appeal to all strata of society lay largely in its lack of refinement. It soon boasted almost two million members and became a formidable canvassing weapon, largely thanks to the enthusiasm of its female members, who had become involved in electioneering after the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act prohibited the payment of election agents. Lady Randolph was one of the first “Dames” of the League. She travelled the country organising concerts, recitals and garden parties to spread the Party’s message.
At this time women involved in politics were expected to behave with feminine gentility As the St. Stephen’s Review put it: “Each Dame may drive in her luxurious carriage to the rendezvous, and with sweet persuasive words we can imagine the undecided voter induced to step in…how the scale may be turned by the influence of Dames of the Primrose League!”
In 1885 Lady Randolph and her sister-in-law, Lady Curzon, canvassed the Woodstock election for Lord Randolph. Although not the first wife of a political figure to do this, Lady Randolph attracted considerable press attention with her stylish campaign. Lord Randolph, genuinely worried about defeat, had nevertheless opted not to contest the election personally. His decision was motivated by a quarrel with his brother, now Duke of Marlborough, and his desire to avoid Blenheim Palace. Although the Duke grudgingly allowed Lady Randolph to stay at the Palace, she was forced to set up her committee rooms at the nearby Bear Hotel.
From this base the ladies toured the constituency in a smart horse-drawn tandem decorated with chocolate and pink ribbons, Lord Randolph’s racing colours. Accounts of the campaign agree that its success was largely due to Lady Randolph’s personal charms. Henry James wrote to congratulate her: “My gratification is slightly impaired by feeling I must introduce a new Corrupt Practices Act. Tandems must be put down, and certainly some alteration…must be made in the means of ascent and descent therefrom; then arch looks will have to be scheduled…The graceful wave of a pocket handkerchief will have to be dealt with in committee.” Lady Randolph was invigorated by the campaign and boasted, “I surpassed the fondest hopes of the Suffragettes, and thought I was duly elected.”
Although Jennie’s involvement in the Primrose League and the Woodstock election did not signify groundbreaking feminism, her work contributed to the acceptance of women in the political sphere. She did not win universal approval. Among the letters she received after the Woodstock election, there is a postcard from “a Working Man” reading, “Had your Husband learnt even the common decencies of political controversy he would not now be placed in the humiliating & unmanly position of having to send his Wife down to struggle for his seat at Woodstock.”
Not to be deterred, Lady Randolph continued campaigning for her husband at elections in Birmingham and South Paddington. She was a recognised public figure and her panache and beauty won many votes. However she avoided formal public speaking until 1886 when she spoke with Arthur Balfour at the opening of a new Primrose League Habitation in Manchester (she tried to allay her nervousness by relying on notes hidden behind her fan).
Lord Randolph Churchill’s resignation as Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886 spelt the end of his career and dealt a crushing blow to his wife. He did not confide in her and his letter of resignation (which she read first The Times) came as a painful shock. The robes he wore as Chancellor were preserved because Lady Randolph insisted that she was keeping them for Winston (or perhaps because Lord Randolph’s successor refused to purchase them). Either way, Lady Randolph’s political abilities were also mothballed until her son set his foot on the bottom rung of the political ladder.
After his father’s death in 1895, Churchill found his mother an invaluable source of advice and practical assistance: “an ardent ally, furthering my plans and guarding my interests with all her influence and boundless energy.” It was through her that Churchill made many of the contacts (Bourke Cockran, Colonel Brabazon and Sir Henry Drummond Wolff to name three) who were to prove significant in his career.
In the election campaigns of 1899 and 1900 at Oldham, the first constituency contested by Churchill, Lady Randolph proved a positive influence on the voters. It was expected that candidates should be supported by a woman and in 1899 the value of Lady Randolph’s attendance at Churchill’s opening address was borne out by the Oldham Daily Standard: “There are thousands of true hearts in this constituency which have a warm corner for Lady Randolph Churchill.” In 1900 Churchill, still unmarried, decided that his mother’s presence was vital and wrote urging her to help him. He described the wife of the other candidate, Mr. Crisp, as “indefatigable, going about trying to secure voters and generally keeping the thing going.” Lady Randolph cut short her honeymoon with her second husband, George Cornwallis-West, to assist Winston at his public meetings. After his election as MP for Oldham in 1900, she was in the Ladies’ Gallery to hear Winston’s maiden speech, which he had rehearsed with her beforehand.
At the turn of the century the issue of women’s position in politics had been thrust to the fore by the campaign for female suffrage. Lady Randolph’s feelings on the issue were ambivalent. Her experience had shown her that women were a powerful force with the electorate. Yet she thought that the strength of women’s political influence might be derived from the very fact that they did not have a vote.
Churchill had been singled out by those with radically different opinions from his mother, the militant factions of the women’s suffrage movement, who thought he was sympathetic towards their cause. Ironically, incessant disruption of Winston’s meetings with calls for “Votes for Women” contributed greatly to his (and his mother’s) belief that, by behaving destructively, women proved themselves unworthy of the vote. Lady Randolph, fiercely protective of her son, was outraged by the behaviour of the “shrieking sisterhood.” Disruptions to public order became commonplace. The initial solution of imprisoning the suffragettes was thwarted by hunger strikes, which either resulted in force-feeding or early release for the women.
Lady Randolph accompanied Churchill on political tours and in 1906 went with him to Manchester. She was present at a meeting in January which was interrupted by a suffragette bearing a banner with the slogan, “Votes for Women.” Eventually the protester was summoned to the platform, where she asked Churchill whether he would be prepared to give the vote to women. The Manchester Guardian reported that “women, of all classes of society, who were among the audience in considerable numbers, joined heartily in the cries of ‘No’ and ‘Never’ which followed upon the question.” Lady Randolph might have agreed with them. Churchill, who maintained that he would not be “henpecked” into a decision, answered crisply, “I utterly decline to pledge myself.” Lady Randolph wrote to her sister, Lady Leslie, in exasperation: “The female suffrage women are too odious. Every night they make a disturbance and shriek and rant. They damage their own cause hopelessly” Her irritation was to continue for several years: when she accompanied Winston and Clementine to the theatre in 1912 they were attacked by the suffragettes. Lady Randolph retaliated and “told them they ought to be forcibly fed with common sense!”
In common with many of the politicians of the time, Lady Randolph did not relax her view towards the female suffrage movement until the First World War. At the outbreak of war, the suffrage societies called a halt to campaigning for the vote and threw themselves into the service of the country. Women eagerly took up the challenge of working in hospitals, munitions factories, even the volunteer police force, to fill gaps left by men on active service. Jennie herself was active in nursing and helped to establish the American Women’s Hospital for Officers. She expressed approval for the suffragists’ actions: “By refusing to hamper and embarrass their country while it is engaged in a struggle for life with a powerful foreign foe, they have undoubtedly taken a grand opportunity for showing at once their patriotism and their fitness for political responsibility.” This positive work resulted at the end of the war in the granting of the vote to women over the age of thirty.
In the course of her lifetime, Lady Randolph Churchill witnessed a revolution in women’s involvement in politics. From a position of merely exercising the power behind the throne, women became recognised as critical props to men and political parties, and were finally rewarded with the vote. She married a husband who began by entering politics as a means to the end of marrying her and matured into a brilliant though unpredictable politician who cut short his promising career. She saw her son grow up to exceed expectations and become a remarkable and inspirational figure. The successes of Lord Randolph and Winston Churchill cannot ultimately be ascribed to any but their own merits, but there is no doubt that the effort expended on their behalf by Lady Randolph was a significant factor.
Jennie’s conviction of the importance of a woman providing the right kind of political support is epitomised by her judgement on Lady Beaconsfield, the wife of Benjamin Disraeli. In the margin of a letter inviting her to comment on the example set by Lady Beaconsfield and the influence she exercised “through her womanly tact and study of her husband’s interests,” Lady Randolph wrote: “L[ad]y B was a most vulgar old cad & did B more harm than good!”
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