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Professor Maggie Andrews
University of Worcester
Emeritus Fellowship

Privilege, politics, pragmatism: Lady Denman and the women’s movement, 1914–1954

Using one woman as a prism to interrogate the significance of WWI and WWII for women, Maggie Andrews examines whether women’s movements declined post-suffrage

It has been suggested the British women’s movement declined in the inter-war years, but more recent research suggests the movement was multi-faceted and buoyant. I will be undertaking a biographical study of one woman’s politics and public activities, the organisations and campaigns she supported to explore some of the connections and the pragmatic accommodations made by those seeking to improve the everyday lives of women in Britain between 1914 and 1954.

Lady Gertrude Denman was born in 1884, the daughter of Weetman Pearson a Liberal MP with global enterprises in engineering, mining and munitions. Brought up to be a political hostess, like her mother, at nineteen she married an MP, Lord Denman. After a short stint as Governor General of Australia, Lord Denman’s poor health and Trudie’s affair with one of his aides stalled his political career. Instead, across two world wars and the tumultuous inter-war years it was Lady Denman who gained a national, public and political profile.

Inspired by a strong sense of civic responsibility, she became first the Chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes executive (1917–1946), then leader of the Family Planning Association (1930–1954) and honorary director of the Women’s Land Army during World War II whilst giving time and financial support to numerous other organisations. Her politics and public roles were diffuse including, for example: the Women’s Section of the Poultry Association, the BBC Women’s Advisory Committee and the Boards of Westminster Press and Carnegie Trust. She supported housing reform, hostels for nurses, the League of Nations Union and appeasement in 1938–1939.

Furthermore, Denman was an active member of the Liberal Party, elected onto the Women’s Liberal Federation’s National Executive in 1908. With the Liberals marginalised from mainstream parliamentary politics, Denman campaigned to improve women’s lives through organisations that transcended political boundaries. Her pragmatic politics suggests ways of understanding how some privileged, wealthy Liberal woman exerted influence in the post-suffrage era.

Lady Denman in the uniform of the Women’s Land Army
Lady Denman in the uniform of the Women’s Land Army. Reproduced by kind permission of the Women’s Library, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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