Sunday, 7 March 2010

International Women's Day

By invitation, and in commemoration of International Women's Day (8 March), Christine Jesman has kindly contributed the following post on women in local government, highlighting the public service in Elmbridge of Helen Rowley Lambert (1836-1900):

The Municipal Housekeeper

Local government rarely generates the same amount of interest as parliamentary affairs and whilst efforts to redress gender imbalance in parliament, through Labour’s Emily’s List and the Conservative’s Women2Win, are well recognised, the work of the Women’s Local Government Society, who held their AGM in London last Friday, remains relatively unknown. The organisation had its origins in the 1880s when it campaigned for women to be allowed to sit on local boards, existing in various forms until 1925. It was reformed in 2007 to mark the centenary of women winning the right to stand as councillors. With the number of women councillors in the UK remaining stubbornly at around 27% for almost three decades, this cross-party society has resumed its campaigning for greater female participation in local government.

As March is Women’s History Month, with its theme for 2010 of ‘writing women back into history’ it seems appropriate to raise the profile of a long forgotten ‘municipal housekeeper’, as the early women pioneers of local government were often called. In doing so we highlight the little known fact that for almost half a century before women gained the parliamentary vote, some women could vote, and be elected, in local government elections.

Few women chose to undergo the ordeal of standing as a candidate for the school boards, Parish and Rural District Councils or as Poor Law guardians and after 1907, as Town Councillors. Of those that did, historians have linked many with networks of temperance, social purity, liberalism and the women’s suffrage campaign. In Surrey the picture was slightly different with a Conservative woman from Thames Ditton achieving greater electoral success than almost any other woman in the nineteenth century.

Helen Rowley Lambert (1836-1900) was motivated by a sense of personal duty and deep religious commitment, compounded by the grief of sudden widowhood and childlessness. Her public life began in 1880 following the death of her husband. She eschewed a political identity but occasionally attended Conservative meetings. She was a member of Thames Ditton School Board from 1881 until her death. She became a Poor Law guardian in 1891 and continued this work as a Rural District Councillor from 1894 onwards. In 1896 she was elected to Esher and the Dittons Urban District Councillor, a position held by few women at the time. As a local newspaper reported towards the end of her life, when it was widely known that she was suffering from terminal cancer, yet continued her public service:

'While many gifted ladies have been eloquently advocating the rights of their sex by voice and pen, others have been quietly, but none the less effectively demonstrating the great value of women’s work in various public capacities. Among the latter Mrs. Rowley Lambert stands out as an ideal example'. (Surrey Comet 3 Feb. 1900)

Mrs Rowley Lambert has been lost to history. Her story is re-told today - on International Women’s Day.

Christine Jesman lives in Esher, and holds a D.Phil from Sussex University on Conservative Women in the Late Nineteenth Century


Susanne said...

You can also send a message of solidarity to women across the world for International Women’s Day at

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