On Wednesday 13 July 2016 the Conservative former Home Secretary, Theresa May, became the 13th British prime minister of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and the second woman to hold that post in Britain.
Mrs. May has succeeded to the post almost 100 years after the first woman was elected to a seat in Parliament. It is interesting that the first British female Member of Parliament has been depicted twice on the stamps of Ireland but never on a British stamp.
Countess Constance Markievicz was in fact an Irish nationalist politician and a member of Sinn Fein and Inghinidhe na h'Eireann (Daughters of Ireland) and joined Connolly's socialist Irish Citizen Army after the Lockout of 1913.
Markiewicz participated actively in the Easter Rising of 1916 (see Blog 731) and is said to have shot and killed a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police at St. Stephen's Green. After the failure of the rebellion she was court martialed on 4 May 1916 and was sentenced to death but this was commuted to life imprisonment and she was freed in 1917 as part of a general amnesty.
In the 1918 general election she stood for Sinn Fein in the constituency of Dublin St. Patrick's which she won with 66% of the vote and thus became the first woman to be elected to sit in the British Parliament. However, together with the other 72 Sinn Fein M.P.s, she did not take her seat. In 1919, Sinn Fein met in Dublin at the first Dail, or revolutionary Irish Republican parliament, but at the time, Markievicz was a prisoner in Holloway Prison but she later served as Minister of Labour and then fought in the Irish Civil War of 1922. She died in 1927.
The Irish Post Office issued 2 stamps in 1968 - a 3p and a 1/5p - which commemorated the Centenary of Markievicz's birth (depicted above and below) and in 2013, Constance Markievicz was depicted on a 60c stamp which commemorated the Centenary of the Lockout (depicted below).
It is therefore only 2 years away from the centenary of her election to the British Parliament, a fact which provides Royal Mail with something of a dilemma. In this era of the quite reasonable need to commemorate the achievements of women it is really a "no-brainer" that Markievicz' achievement in becoming the first Woman British MP should receive philatelic recognition but Royal Mail will no doubt balk at that the thought of depicting a woman who supported Sinn Fein and may have shot dead a policeman. Get out of that one then!
I suppose the solution will be to say that as she did not actually take her seat at Westminster the woman who was the first to actually sit in Parliament is the person who should be commemorated but we will have to wait until 2019 to commemorate that centenary (see below).
It is arguable that the most important woman in modern British political history is Emmeline Pankhurst who led the Suffragette movement. She founded the Women's Franchise League but when that fell apart, as a friend of the socialist Keir Hardy, she tried to join Independent Labour Party but was rejected because of her gender. In 1903 she founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) which campaigned, sometimes violently, for female suffrage.
During the First World War her campaign was suspended and in 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave votes to women over 30 years of age (but to men over 21). Pankhurst developed the Women's Party out of the WSPU - this was dedicated to promoting women's equality in public life. Eventually, fearing the rise of Bolshevism, Pankhurst joined the Conservative Party and was selected to be the Conservative candidate for Stepney in the 1927 election but her attempt to stand for Parliament was ended by a public scandal surrounding her daughter. Emmeline Pankhurst died on 14 June 1928 just a couple of weeks before a new Representation of the People Act extended suffrage to women over 21 years of age.
Mrs. Pankhurst has been commemorated by 2 British stamp issues - one released in 1968 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of female suffrage and depicting the statue of her by Arthur George Walker erected in 1930 and which stands in Victoria Tower Gardens in London and the second issued on 18 July 2006 as part of a set of 10 stamps which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the National Portrait Gallery which depicted a painting of Mrs. Pankhurst by Georgina Agnes Brackenbury.
As the centenary of the granting of suffrage to at least some, if not all, women is only 2 years away, we may expect Royal Mail to issue a set of stamps to commemorate this immensely important anniversary. Perhaps the issue could fit in a stamp commemorating Countess Markiewvicz as part of it. One expects that Mrs. Pankhurst should make another philatelic appearance at the very least.
The Irish 1913 Lockout issue depicting Constance Markievicz:-
Police photographs of Constance Markievicz do not provide suitable portraits for a commemorative stamp!:-
And so to the woman who must surely be featured on a British stamp in 2018 or 2019 - Nancy Astor Viscountess Astor, the first woman to actually take her seat in the British parliament:-
US-born Nancy Witcher Langhorne married Waldorf Astor who later succeeded to a peerage having been the Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton. With his elevation to The House of Lords, Astor had to relinquish his seat in the Commons and his wife campaigned as a Conservative to take over the seat. She was elected on 28 November 1919 and unlike Constance Markievicz took her seat in Parliament thus becoming the first woman to do so. She remained Conservative M.P. for Plymouth Sutton until she stood down in 1945.
It will be impossible, surely, for Royal Mail to ignore Lady Astor as a candidate to be featured on a stamp either in 2018 as part of a commemoration of the centenary of female suffrage or in 2019 to mark the centenary of her election.
Margaret Wintringham, the second woman to take a seat in the Commons, was elected on 22 September 1921as M.P. for Louth, succeeding her husband as Nancy Astor had done though in this case, Mrs. Wintringham's husband had died and left the seat vacant. She was a member of the Liberal Party. Whether or not Mrs. Wintringham will ever feature on a Royal Mail stamp is dubious since there are usually no prizes for coming second.
The first female parliamentarian to actually appear on a British stamp was Barbara Castle, a senior minister in Harold Wilson's 1964 - 70 and 1974 - 76 Labour governments. She was a fiery, red-haired socialist, her hair matching her politics, and had been elected as Member of Parliament for Blackburn in 1945 holding the seat until 1979 making her the longest-serving MP until her record was finally broken in 2007.
When Wilson gave up power in 1976, Castle was quickly removed from government by his successor, James Callaghan - she claimed he told her that he wanted "somebody younger in the cabinet" even though she was 4 young years than himself. Castle became a Member of the European Parliament in 1979.
The stamp featuring Mrs. Castle was issued in 2008 as part of a set titled "Women of Distinction" and some saw it as being released to achieve political balance and preempt any complaints that might arise when a stamp was issued to commemorate the life of The United Kingdom's first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, after she died.
Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative M.P. for Finchley, became the first woman British prime minister after defeating Callaghan's Labour Party in the general election of 1979 after what is now known as "the winter of discontent". She was responsible for bringing about enormous social and economic changes including the bringing down of trade union power which had gripped Britain in the 1970s, and leading the country's armed forces in the liberation of The Falkland Islands after their occupation by Argentine forces. Britain split down the middle with half of the country admiring her devotedly and half loathing her. She was a leading international stateswoman, adored by the US President, Ronald Reagan, and named "The Iron Lady" by the leader of The Soviet Union. The French President, Francois Mitterand said of her, "She has the lips of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula".
Eventually her unpopularity became too great and despite winning 3 previous general elections, she was brought down by a coup of her own party and replaced by John Major in November 1990.
She died on 8 April 2013 and was given a state funeral. Royal Mail was too nervous of upsetting a lot of people by rushing out a stamp issue to commemorate her as it had done in 1965 after the death of Winston Churchill but eventually found a way of commemorating the first woman British prime minister by including a stamp featuring her in a set of 8 which depicted former prime ministers going back to William Pitt The Younger. The issue was released on 14 October 2014, about 18 months after Lafy Thatcher's death.
And so, to the second woman British prime minister - another Conservative - Theresa May. It seems unlikely that Mrs. May will appear on a Royal Mail stamp in the foreseeable future but it may not be too long before some country or the other finds an excuse to include her in a stamp design. After all Mrs. May's predecessor, David Cameron, was depicted on part of a miniature sheet from The Gambia (see Blog of 29 May 2012) so there seems little reason to doubt that agencies such as IGPC will find a reason to depict Britain's second woman prime minister on some of their philatelic products in the not-too-distant future.