Churchill Archive Platform - Churchill and Women

Documents from the Archive

  • Mrs Everest to Winston Churchill, 2 October 1891, CHAR 1/4/14.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph, 29 October 1893, CHAR 28/19/24-27.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph, 18 November 1896, CHAR 28/22/26-27.
  • H. N. Brailsford to Winston Churchill, 12 July 1910, CHAR 2/47/23.
  • Winston Churchill to Sir Edward Henry, 22 November 1910, CHAR 12/3/43.
  • Winston Churchill to the Master of Elibank, 18 December 1911, CHAR 2/53/83.
  • Clementine Churchill to Winston Churchill, 14 April 1916, CHAR 1/118A/136-138.
  • Clare Sheridan to Winston Churchill, 23 January 1921, CHAR 1/138/5-6.
  • Winston Churchill, ‘Extending Female Suffrage’, Cabinet memorandum, 8 March 1927, CHAR 22/155/119.
  • Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, 21 January 1935, CHAR 1/273/14-18.
  • Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, 13 April 1935, CHAR 1/273/139-145.
  • Winston Churchill, testimonial for Grace Hamblin, 20 September 1937, CHAR 1/300/16.
  • Winston Churchill to the Secretary for War, 18 October 1941 and 29 October 1941, CHAR 20/36/10. Winston Churchill to Clare Sheridan, 12 November 1942, CHAR 1/368/43.
  • Winston Churchill to Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1 November 1942, CHAR 20/82/11-12.
  • Winston Churchill, ‘Man-power’, Note by the Prime Minister, 5 July 1945, CHAR 20/232/10.

Further Reading

  • Natalie Adams, ‘“An Ardent Ally”: Lady Randolph and Winston’s Political Career’, Finest Hour, no. 98, Spring 1998, pp. 14–16,

  • Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992)

  • Violet Bonham Carter, Winston Churchill As I Knew Him (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965)

  • Stefan Buczacki, Churchill and Chartwell: the Untold Story of Churchill’s Houses and Gardens (London: Frances Lincoln, 2007)

  • Randolph Churchill, Winston S. Churchill: Volume I: Youth: 1874–1900 (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1966)

  • Sarah Churchill, A Thread in the Tapestry (London: Deutsch, 1967)

  • Winston Churchill, My Early Life (London: Macmillan, 1944)

  • Winston Churchill, Onwards to Victory (London: Cassell, 1944)

  • Peter Clarke, Mr Churchill’s Profession (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

  • John Colville, The Churchillians (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981)

  • Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981)

  • Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill (London: HarperCollins, 1994)

  • Martin Gilbert (ed.), Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume IV: Part 1: January 1917–June 1919 (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1977)

  • Brian Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (London: Croom Helm, 1978)

  • Richard Langworth, Churchill by Himself (London: Ebury Press, 2008)

  • Elizabeth Nel, Mr Churchill’s Secretary (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1958)

  • John Pearson, Citadel of the Heart: Winston and the Churchill Dynasty (London: Macmillan, 1991)

  • Andrew Roberts, ‘Churchill the Wartime Feminist’,

  • Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill (London: Cassell, 1979)

  • Mary Soames, A Daughter’s Tale (London: Doubleday, 2011)

  • Mary Soames (ed.), Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill (London: Doubleday, 1998)

  • Chris Wrigley, Winston Churchill: A Biographical Companion (Oxford: ABC-Clio, 2002)

Churchill owed much to the three most important women in his life, his nurse Mrs Everest, his mother Lady Randolph Churchill and his wife Clementine. Neither a misogynist nor a womaniser, he enjoyed the company of women socially, delighted in feminine beauty, and greatly valued the work of women secretaries in the organisation of his literary and political life. However, he absorbed in youth the values of a male-dominated world in which women were still excluded from politics and his attitudes towards the enfranchisement of women were ambivalent. It was the role played by women, not least his own daughters, in the Second World War, that persuaded him to revise his opinions – if only to a limited extent.

In Churchill’s youth social convention taught that women were destined by nature for the domestic sphere of home and family while the public realm of politics and government was reserved for men. In practice women did play a significant role in public life, but it was mainly as wives and daughters in support of husbands and fathers, or as rank-and-file party workers helping to mobilise male voters in support of male politicians. Such influence as they did possess was indirect. They did not have the vote and could not stand for Parliament. In the course of Churchill’s lifetime this distinction between the private and public spheres began to crumble. The mass mobilisation of women in two world wars, the extension of the franchise to women, and the entry of women into politics and the professions began to chip away at the old orthodoxies. Since masculine supremacy was never seriously at risk, Churchill, like most of the male politicians of his day, could afford to regard ‘women’s issues’ as peripheral. When they did arise his responses varied. By no stretch of the imagination could he be described as a feminist, although it has been argued that he was a ‘wartime feminist’ between 1939 and 1945 (Roberts). The one incontestable fact is that he owed so much to the assistance of the opposite sex, beginning with the three most important women in his life: his mother Lady Randolph Churchill, his childhood nurse Mrs Elizabeth Everest and his wife Clementine.

Nurse, Mother and Wife

Lady Randolph (1854–1921) was the daughter of the buccaneering New York financier Leonard Jerome and his wife Clara. Jeannette, or Jennie as she was known, was thirteen when she moved with her mother and her sisters Clara and Leonie to the Paris of Louis Napoleon. With the collapse of the Second Empire, the Jeromes moved to England, where in August 1873 Jennie met Lord Randolph Churchill at a dance during Cowes week. They fell passionately in love, married in April 1874 and had two sons: Winston (1874–1965) and Jack (1880–1947). Jennie’s affection for her growing boys was genuine but, absorbed as she was in the activities of high society, she saw little of them. ‘She shone for me like the Evening Star’, wrote Churchill in his autobiography. ‘I loved her dearly – but at a distance’ (W. S. Churchill, My Early Life, 19). His grandmother, Frances, Duchess of Marlborough (‘Duchess Fannie’), always made him welcome at Blenheim, but it was his nurse Mrs Elizabeth Everest (1833–95) who lavished maternal devotion on him. ‘Woom’ or ‘Woomany’ as he called her, a spinster with the courtesy title of ‘Mrs’, was engaged by his parents when he was only a few months old. She gave him his first lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic, nursed him through childhood illnesses, listened to his complaints of parental neglect and took him on summer holidays to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, where he stayed with her sister and brother-in-law, a former prison warder. [ 1 ] When she was given the sack in 1893 he was outraged to see her treated so shabbily and her death two years later caused him lasting grief. [ 2 ] He paid for a headstone as well as for flowers to be placed annually on her grave. In light fictional disguise she lived on as the hero’s faithful housekeeper in his novel Savrola (1900) and he paid tribute to her again in a moving passage of My Early Life (1930). It was probably to Mrs Everest that he owed his emotional stability, his more kindly and humane qualities, and his lifelong sympathy with the underdog.

After the death of his father and his graduation from Sandhurst, Churchill entered into a new relationship with his mother. ‘We worked together on even terms,’ he wrote, ‘more like brother and sister than mother and son’ (W. S. Churchill, My Early Life, 76). Exiled in Bangalore, with his burgeoning ambitions frustrated by his absence from the metropolitan scene, he enlisted her as his literary agent and most important political ally. [ 3 ] As a society hostess she was in touch with most of the leading military, literary and political figures of the day. ‘In my interest,’ he wrote, ‘she left no wire unpulled, no stone unturned, no cutlet uncooked’ (W. S. Churchill, My Early Life, 167). She was instrumental in the publication of his first book, The Malakand Field Force, and likewise in his adoption by the Conservative Party as a parliamentary candidate. She campaigned alongside him in the Oldham by-election of 1899 and again in the general election of 1900 (Adams). During the South African war she chaired a committee of American women to raise the money for a hospital ship to treat the wounded, a first encounter for Churchill with the role of women in wartime. Exactly how much he owed to her exuberance, wit and strength of will is impossible to judge, but the debt must have been substantial.

Churchill was not best pleased when his mother, whose passion for the opposite sex was rarely satisfied for long, married George Cornwallis-West, a young officer only sixteen days older than Winston. (She divorced him in 1913 and married a third husband, Montagu Porch, in 1918.) Churchill’s own sexuality was less tempestuous and he was often gauche in female company, but he was entranced by female beauty, especially when accompanied by a sympathetic interest in the fortunes of Winston Churchill. One of the first to win his affections was Muriel Wilson, the daughter of a wealthy shipowner, but she turned down his proposal of marriage. In India he met and fell in love with Pamela Plowden, the daughter of the British Resident in Hyderabad, but she too rejected him. A third rejection followed at the hands of the actress Ethel Barrymore, but to Churchill’s credit he retained the friendship of all three in later life.

In March 1908, shortly after his entry into the Cabinet, Churchill was invited to dinner by Lady St Helier. Seated on his right was Clementine Hozier (1885–1977) who was 23, beautiful, intelligent, an earnest Liberal and a supporter of votes for women. She was much in need of the fidelity Churchill had to offer. Her parents had separated when she was six and she had suffered two broken engagements. Churchill was captivated. In August 1908 he proposed to her in the Greek temple in the grounds of Blenheim Palace and was accepted. They were married at St Margaret’s, Westminster, on 12 September 1908.

Unlike the marriages of many of his relations, Churchill’s marriage was strong and enduring. David Lloyd George and Lord Beaverbrook, two of his closest political allies, both kept mistresses. It is impossible to imagine Churchill doing the same. Although tolerant of infidelity in others, he was loving and faithful if also demanding and self-centred. He and Clementine had five children of whom only one, Randolph, was a boy. The four girls were Diana (‘The Puppy Kitten’), Sarah (‘The Mule’), Marigold (‘The Duckadilly’) and Mary (‘Maria’). Marigold was only two years and nine months old when, to her parents’ lasting grief, she died of septicaemia in August 1921. Churchill could be a doting father, playing games with the children and reading them bedtime stories, but he was absent more often than not. As Mary Soames writes: ‘Clementine was a devoted and conscientious mother, but her priorities were never in doubt: Winston came first – always’ (Soames, Clementine Churchill, 236). In the long run the lives of Sarah (1914–82) and Diana (1909–63) were to end unhappily. Sarah’s career as an actress was wrecked by two failed marriages and a descent into alcoholism. Diana, a vivacious but mercurial personality, suffered in 1953 a severe nervous breakdown from which she never fully recovered: she committed suicide in 1963. The most firmly grounded of the children, and the most effective guardian of her parents’ memory, was his youngest daughter Mary (1922–), who unlike her siblings had benefited from the attention throughout her childhood of a dedicated nurse and companion, Clementine’s impoverished cousin Maryott Whyte (1895–1973).

Clementine accepted that her own interests must always be subordinate to those of a husband who described himself as ‘devoured by egotism’ (Soames, Clementine Churchill, 180). When Churchill fell from office in 1915 she helped sustain him through a phase of near despair and acted as his political agent in London while he was serving on the western front. [ 4 ] When he was out of action with appendicitis in the general election of 1922, she spoke on his behalf during a rowdy campaign in Dundee. It was Churchill who, against Clementine’s inclination, insisted on purchasing Chartwell Manor in the autumn of 1922. She rightly feared that the cost of maintaining and refurbishing it would strain their finances to breaking point. In the long run the marriage imposed emotional stresses on Clementine of which Winston had only a limited understanding. It was no wonder that she suffered long periods of nervous exhaustion at intervals from 1920 onwards.

Although Clementine was a dutiful wife, she was not a passive one. Husband and wife spoke their minds to one another about everything from international crises to political gossip and family affairs. If Churchill’s outlook was that of a swashbuckling cavalier, there was a puritan streak in Clementine that prompted her to rebuke him for his gambling and his friendships with louche companions like Lord Birkenhead and Lord Beaverbrook. Churchill’s favourite holiday destination was the French Riviera but Clementine found the company there ‘shallow, vulgar and boring’ (Soames, Clementine Churchill, 257). After 1918 they often holidayed apart. On a cruise to the Far East in 1935 she enjoyed a shipboard romance with Terence Philip, the director of the London branch of a New York art dealer. It was transitory and no doubt platonic: Churchill seems not to have noticed, writing her a series of ‘Chartwell Bulletins’ in which he gave her the latest news of home, family and his collection of farm animals and pets. [ 5 ] This was Churchill at his most affectionate and domesticated, but Clementine disliked the more brutal characteristics he sometimes displayed in public life. In June 1940 she warned him of the risk that his ‘rough sarcastic and overbearing manner’ would alienate colleagues and subordinates’ (Soames, Speaking for Themselves, 454). During the general election campaign of 1945 she begged him in vain to delete from his first broadcast his warnings of a Labour ‘Gestapo’.

Friends, Relations and Staff

Politics and war were Churchill’s passions: intensely masculine spheres in which his most intimate friends, like his enemies and rivals, were male. Although he recognised the importance of great women in history – Boudicca, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I and, of course, his ancestor Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough – no women were included among his biographical portraits of Great Contemporaries. He nevertheless enjoyed the social life organised by the great hostesses of the Edwardian and inter-war years, and the friendships he did make with women tended to endure. Perhaps because his sex drive was moderate he had no interest in exploiting or manipulating women, nor could he be exploited or manipulated by them. In the sexual jungle he was a safe and loyal friend for a woman to have. ‘I think,’ wrote Violet Bonham Carter, ‘he divided women into two categories – the virginal snowdrops, unsullied by experience, or even knowledge, of the seamy side of life, who should be sheltered and protected from its hazards; and the mature who were at home among the seams, had scrambled in and out of pitfalls and adventures and to whom he could talk without protective inhibitions in his own language. The second class was of course incomparably the most rewarding and it was amongst these that he sought – not his romances, but his female friends’ (Bonham Carter, 148). Venetia Stanley (1887–1948) and her sister Sylvia (1882–1980, later Sylvia Henley) were friends from the Edwardian era for the rest of their lives. So, too, was the American actress Maxine Elliott (1868–1940), another tie formed in the years before 1914. Churchill was her guest at Château de l’Horizon, the house she had bought near Cannes, on four occasions in the 1930s. In advanced old age he was befriended by another glamorous American, Wendy Russell (1916–2007). A former model, she was the companion and later the wife of Emery Reves, a Hungarian Jew whose press agency had syndicated Churchill’s journalism internationally in the 1930s. Between 1956 and 1959 Churchill was a guest at La Pausa, their villa at Roquebrune, on eleven occasions adding up to about 400 days in all. Churchill adored Wendy, who looked after him as tenderly in his second childhood as Mrs Everest had in his first. Clementine, though repeatedly invited, stayed only briefly on four occasions, after which her actions led to a rift between her husband and the Reves. Churchill felt a deep loyalty to family and kin. He always kept in touch with Lady Randolph’s sisters, his aunts Clara Frewen (1850–1935) and Leonie Leslie (1859–1943). Clara’s daughter, Clare Sheridan (1885–1970), angered him during his anti-Bolshevik campaign by taking up residence in the Kremlin and modelling busts of Lenin and Trotsky. However, amicable relations were soon restored and we find Churchill, in the middle of the Second World War, agreeing to sit for her for a bronze portrait bust. [ 6 ] His brother Jack’s wife, Gwendoline (‘Goonie’), was another favourite. The Mitford sisters – Nancy, Jessica, Unity and Diana – were second cousins of Clementine and family friends in the 1920s but estranged by the politics of the 1930s. Jessica became a communist while Diana, a fanatical admirer of Hitler, married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. One of the first actions of the Churchill government in 1940 was to lock up Diana and her husband under Regulation 18B.

The servants who kept house for Winston and Clementine are virtually invisible in the biographies. The 1911 census records them as follows: [ 7 ]

Elizabeth Jackson Cook
Ethel Higgs Nurse
Nancy Baalham Lady’s Maid
Ada Robjent Housemaid
Eva Knights Parlourmaid
Lilian Clover Parlourmaid (under)
Lilian Bradbury Kitchen Maid
Albert Brown Hall Boy

Neither they nor their successors left a record of their lives below stairs, with the partial exception of Mrs Georgina Landemare, the Churchills’ cook from 1940 to 1954 and author of Recipes from No. 10 (1958).

Better known are the private secretaries, most of them female, who took dictation from Churchill and filed his papers. Among the first was Annette Anning (1876–1939), who had previously worked for Arthur Balfour and for Lady Randolph. ‘Many an auction house,’ writes Martin Gilbert, ‘has sold as “Churchill manuscripts” long handwritten letters in Miss Anning’s neat script, in which Churchill’s only contribution was the words “Yours sincerely, Winston S Churchill”’ (Gilbert, In Search of Churchill, 154). From 1929 to 1938 his personal secretary was Violet Pearman (1901–41) who was allowed ‘great discretion in acting for him, covering for his absences, making plausible excuses, accompanying him on exotic working visits (whether to the Riviera or Marrakesh) and generally delivering the goods’ (Clarke, 131). When she could no longer carry on with her work after a stroke in 1938, Churchill continued to pay her salary, and after her death in 1941 he paid £100 a year for seven years towards the cost of her daughter Rosemary’s education (Clarke, 159). Violet Pearman was succeeded at Chartwell by Kathleen Hill (1900–1992) who subsequently accompanied Churchill to the Admiralty and 10 Downing Street. As his work expanded she was joined by other secretaries: Elizabeth Layton in 1941, Jo Sturdee in 1942 and Marion Holmes in 1943. Grace Hamblin (1908–2002), who had begun as Violet Pearman’s assistant in 1931, graduated to become Clementine’s private secretary and subsequently the first administrator of Chartwell. [ 8 ] Churchill was a hard taskmaster, expecting his secretaries to respond instantly to his demands, work late hours and endure his wrath when they made mistakes. They in turn – with few exceptions – were conquered by the excitement of proximity to an extraordinary character who was part Henry V, part Falstaff, and a creature of moods whose anger could turn suddenly to kindness. One day when he lost his temper with Elizabeth Layton he thought she was crying. ‘Good heavens,’ he said, ‘you musn’t mind me. We’re all toads beneath the harrow you know’ (Nel, 32). By this time, of course, there were many toads – not forgetting the typists and secretaries who staffed the Cabinet War Rooms and kept the Whitehall machine running.

The Woman Question

By the time Churchill entered the House of Commons in 1900 the ‘woman question’ was already on the agenda, if only on the periphery, of British politics. The campaign to give women the vote had been running in peaceful and law-abiding fashion ever since 1867, and women were already active in certain aspects of public life. Churchill’s first encounter with a woman campaigner, which occurred while he was still a cadet at Sandhurst, arose from a controversy over public morality. Mrs Ormiston Chant (1848–1923), a suffragist and social reformer, had persuaded the London County Council to introduce canvas barriers separating the audience of the Empire Theatre from a promenade frequented by prostitutes. With some of his friends from Sandhurst, Churchill joined a crowd of up to 300 young men who tore down the barriers. Mounting the debris he made his first speech. ‘Ladies of the Empire,’ he is said to have declared, ‘I stand for Liberty!’ (Gilbert, Churchill’s Political Philosophy, p. 1).

Lady Randolph had been one 104 eminent women who signed a manifesto in 1889 opposing votes for women. Churchill, too, was initially opposed on the grounds, as he wrote in 1897, ‘that it is contrary to natural law and the practice of civilised states’ (R. S. Churchill, 337). In the course of his transition from the Tories to the Liberals he voted in March 1904 in favour of a female suffrage bill, but he was never more than a lukewarm supporter. The suffragist demand was for women to be given the vote on the same or comparable terms as men. Since the main qualification for voting was the status of the householder, equal rights would only have enfranchised a minority of women, most of whom were likely to vote Tory. Many Liberals were therefore reluctant for party reasons to endorse this type of reform. The logical solution, universal suffrage for both sexes, was a course to which Churchill was firmly opposed when Herbert Henry Asquith first mooted the possibility in November 1911. [ 9 ] In January 1912 he explained to C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, that he favoured the enfranchisement of about 100,000 specially qualified women (Addison, 161).

Matters were also complicated by Churchill’s adoption in 1904 as the Free Trade candidate for North-West Manchester. Manchester was the headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union, a body formed the previous year by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) and her daughters. Frustrated by the slow and apparently futile history of parliamentary debates over the issue, the Pankhursts began to adopt less lady-like tactics by disrupting political meetings. With the formation of a Liberal government in December 1905, and Churchill’s appointment to office, he became one of the Pankhursts’ favourite targets, prompting him to declare that he would not be ‘hen-pecked’ into support for the cause. After this the Pankhursts adopted more militant tactics and mutual antipathy intensified. In 1909 Churchill was attacked at Bristol station by Theresa Garnett (1888–1966), who attempted to strike him with a dog whip and called out: ‘Take that in the name of the insulted women of England.’ Churchill managed to parry the blow (Addison, 130). His appointment as Home Secretary in January 1910 coincided with an uneasy truce between the government and the suffragettes. Churchill relaxed the conditions for imprisoned suffragettes, and gave his support in general terms, without committing himself to the detail, to a suffrage bill drafted by H. N. Brailsford. When the bill was debated in the House (12 July 1910) Churchill suddenly swung round and made a speech in which he ridiculed the anomalies of the proposed franchise: ‘It would be possible for women to have a vote while living in a state of prostitution, if she married and became an honest woman she would lose that vote, but she would regain it through divorce’ (Harrison, 52–3). Brailsford and his allies were outraged. [ 10 ] In November the bill ran out of parliamentary time, the truce collapsed and a deputation of 300 suffragettes laid siege to the House of Commons in protest. The brutal handling of the women by the police on ‘Black Friday’ (18 November 1910) led the women’s leaders to suspect, quite mistakenly, that Churchill had authorised more aggressive tactics. [ 11 ] Churchill, however, was determined to protect the police and refused an enquiry.

Churchill was now a bête noire of the suffragettes and remained so until the First World War. As Minister of Munitions from July 1917 until the end of the war he was the employer of tens of thousands of women workers and paid tribute to them in his speeches. He opposed without success the restoration of the craft privileges of male workers after the war on the grounds that it would ‘entrench a number of small and close corporations in restraint of trade, and would probably meet with the resistance of the great majority of the unskilled and women workers’ (Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, 402). However, the war had also removed most of the obstacles to female suffrage. In 1917 the House of Commons voted by a large majority, which included Churchill, in favour of the extension of the franchise to all men over the age 21 and virtually all women over the age of 30 – thus preserving a predominantly male electorate.

As a professional politician Churchill was alive to the importance of the new female vote. His interest in post-war housing and his sponsorship as Chancellor of the Exchequer of pensions for widows and orphans were in part reflections of this. But when in 1927 the Cabinet of the Stanley Baldwin proposed to extend the franchise to women on equal terms with men, Churchill opposed the measure, no doubt under the impression that it would benefit the Labour Party. [ 12 ] In off-the-cuff remarks to women students at the University of Edinburgh in March 1931, he warned them of ‘the shame that would be theirs’ if the extension of the franchise led to the decline of the Empire (Addison, 313).

Churchill was also uneasy with the presence of women in the House of Commons. When Nancy Astor (1879–1964), the first woman to enter the House, asked him in 1919 why he was so cold towards her, he replied: ‘I feel you have come into my bathroom and I have only a sponge with which to defend myself’ (Langworth, 320). The tale has often been told of an encounter between Churchill and Nancy Astor in which she is supposed to have said, ‘If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee’, and he is supposed to have replied, ‘If I were your husband I’d drink it.’ There is no firm evidence to support the story, which would have been out of character for a man who normally treated women with courtesy and respect. Women, however, played only minor parts in his political life. The one female politician in his own social circle was Asquith’s daughter, Violet Bonham Carter (1887–1969), a lifelong Liberal. Although often at variance with Churchill, she was a member of the ‘Focus’, the grouping formed to support his campaign against appeasement from 1936 to 1939. Churchill also found an ally in Eleanor Rathbone (1872–1946), the social reformer and Independent MP for Combined English Universities. She predicted in 1936 that only a truly national government led by Churchill and supported by Labour would stand up to the fascist dictators. Katharine, Duchess of Atholl (1874–1960), the Conservative MP for Perth and Kinross, was among his allies over India and appeasement. When she resigned her seat after Munich and fought a by-election in opposition to Chamberlain’s foreign policy, Churchill sent her a message of support but otherwise kept his distance. Of the handful of women MPs in the wartime House of Commons none obtained Cabinet rank, although Churchill did appoint Ellen Wilkinson (1891–1947), a crusading socialist of the 1930s, as a junior minister at the Home Office. With the wives of allied leaders – Eleanor Roosevelt [ 13 ] and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek – he was on his best behaviour, but neither made much impression on him. The only female minister in his peacetime government was his Minister of Education, Florence Horsbrugh (1889–1969), although she did not enter the Cabinet until 1953 and was sacked in a reshuffle the following year. The woman who made the deepest impression on Churchill at this period was the young Queen Elizabeth II, who dazzled his gaze and awoke his romantic sense of English history.

Churchill’s appreciation of the importance of women in war was enhanced by the activities of his own wife and daughters. After Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Clementine accepted an invitation from the Red Cross to lead an Aid to Russia campaign that raised substantial sums. Between March and May 1945 she toured the Soviet Union as an honoured guest of the regime. Diana served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), Sarah with the Photographic Interpretation Unit of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and Mary in mixed anti-aircraft batteries with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Mary attended the Quebec conference of 1943 as an aide to her father, and Sarah played a similar role at Teheran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945. ‘War,’ Churchill declared in September 1943, ‘is the teacher, a hard, stern, efficient teacher. War has taught us to make these vast strides forward towards a far more complete equalisation of the parts to be played by men and women in society’ (W. S. Churchill, Onwards to Victory, 224). He was certainly impressed by the participation of women in mixed anti-aircraft batteries, a wartime innovation introduced in 1941. [ 14 ] At the end of the war, however, he argued in a note to the Cabinet that women should be demobilised as quickly as possible from the armed forces: ‘the sooner they are back at their homes the better’. [ 15 ]

When the House of Commons discussed R. A. Butler’s Education Bill in March 1944 MPs voted by 117 votes to 116 in favour of an amendment, moved by the Conservative MP Thelma Cazalet-Keir, in favour of equal pay for women teachers. Churchill seized on the issue as a pretext for humiliating his backbench critics. By turning the matter into a vote of confidence in the government he compelled MPs to reverse their decision by 425 votes to 23. The Economist commented: ‘The leadership of the war is not in question but for every one elector who, two months ago, suspected that the Government was needlessly obstructing reform or who doubted whether Mr Churchill was the man to head the peace as well as in war, there must now be three or four.’ [ 16 ] The government did, however, appoint a Royal Commission on equal pay, which reported in 1946 in favour of the general principle but against action in the near future. One of the last decisions of Churchill’s peacetime administration, announced at the beginning of 1955, was to introduce equal pay into teaching, the civil service and local government. After his retirement from office Churchill lent his name to the foundation of Churchill College, Cambridge. At Clementine’s urging he proposed, at a meeting of the Trustees, that women should be admitted on equal terms with men. ‘When I think of what women did in the war,’ he remarked to John Colville, ‘I feel sure they deserve to be treated equally’ (Colville, 123).

Paul Addison, University of Edinburgh

Paul Addison is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh where he taught history from 1967 to 2005. He was a research assistant to Randolph Churchill on the official biography of Churchill and subsequently the author of Churchill on the Home Front (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992) and Churchill the Unexpected Hero (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Among his other publications are The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975) and No Turning Back: The Peacetime Revolutions of Postwar Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). He was the co-founder of the Centre for Second World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and its Director from 1996 to 2005.


  1. 1. Mrs Everest to Winston Churchill, 2 October 1891, CHAR 1/4/14
  2. 2. Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph, 29 October 1893, CHAR 28/19/24-27
  3. 3. See, for example, Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph, 18 November 1896, CHAR 28/22/26-27
  4. 4. See, for example, Clementine Churchill to Winston Churchill, 14 April 1916, CHAR 1/118A/136-138
  5. 5. Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, 21 January 1935, CHAR 1/273/14-18; Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, 13 April 1935, CHAR 1/273/139-145
  6. 6. Clare Sheridan to Winston Churchill, 23 January 1921, CHAR 1/138/5-6; Winston Churchill to Clare Sheridan, 12 November 1942, CHAR 1/368/43
  7. 7. ‘1911 England Census’,
  8. 8. Winston Churchill, testimonial for Grace Hamblin, 20 September 1937, CHAR 1/300/16
  9. 9. Winston Churchill to the Master of Elibank, 18 December 1911, CHAR 2/53/83
  10. 10. H. N. Brailsford to Winston Churchill, 12 July 1910, CHAR 2/47/23
  11. 11. Winston Churchill to Sir Edward Henry, 22 November 1910, CHAR 12/3/43
  12. 12. Winston Churchill, ‘Extending Female Suffrage’, Cabinet memorandum, 8 March 1927, CHAR 22/155/119
  13. 13. Winston Churchill to Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1 November 1942, CHAR 20/82/11-12
  14. 14. Winston Churchill to the Secretary for War, 18 October 1941 and 29 October 1941, CHAR 20/36/10
  15. 15. Winston Churchill, ‘Man-power’, Note by the Prime Minister, 5 July 1945, CHAR 20/232/10
  16. 16. Economist, 8 April 1944, p. 458.