In 1918 women were finally allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. Women over 30 that is. But that was not the end of the fight. Women needed to be encouraged to register to vote and to use their influence. In Dundee, a place where there was a lot of suffragette activity, an organisation was set up to encourage women to become more effective citizens. This was the Dundee Women Citizens Association.
The first Women Citizens Associations were set up in 1913 to prepare women for taking an active role in social and political issues when they got the vote. The majority of these groups were created in 1917/1918 when the extension of the vote to women became more certain. Dundee’s Association first met on 24th April 1918, two and a half months after the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed. It was explained what a WCA would do and the assembled women agreed to set one up in Dundee. The first proper meeting was in the Town Hall five days later. It was at this meeting that the constitution was agreed and we see what the group was aiming to achieve.
Any women over 18 could join, despite the fact that only those over 30 could vote. It is also important to note that the Association was non-partisan – women who supported any political party could join.
On 6th May the committee was elected. It was agreed to have 25 women on the committee, so that all interests across the city could be represented. It was also the aim that all classes would be represented. Looking at the list of the 25 women they appeared to have achieved this. Whilst there was Lady Edith Baxter in the chair (Edith was the wife of Sir George Washington Baxter, great nephew of Sir David and Mary Ann Baxter) there were also women who worked as a bootmaker (Miss Elizabeth Scotland) , a millworker (Mrs Margaret Mitchell), and a tenter’s wife (Mrs Abernethy). There’s also Dr Emily Thomson (one of Dundee’s first female Doctors), Miss Husband (one Dundee’s first elected parish councillors), Miss Spence Allan (Health Insurance District Inspector) and Miss Porter (Warden of the Womens Student Teacher Training College). Other women were the wives of doctors, solicitors, reverends, teachers, bakers, merchants and the Managing Director of Alliance Trust (Mrs MacKenzie). 12 out of the 25 women were also unmarried so there was a good representation there too.
Miss Henderson was elected to represent the Association at the National Women Citizens Association meetings. They noted that their key issues were
- Housing Reform
- Legislation on Health and Public Morals
- Equal Pay for Equal Work
- Education Reform
The group would have large meetings with discussions on these topics. In some cases experts we asked to speak and occasionally men were invited along too. They also sent deputations to Council meetings, including discussions on the new council housing in 1918/9. They also spoke to the transport department about drunks on the city’s trams and how this was unsafe for women. Before the 1918 election the sent a deputation to Winston Churchill (the sitting MP for Dundee at the time) to discuss their key issues (as numbered above). Whilst he was “not cordial” over housing reform and didn’t agree with equal pay for equal work (he did proposed reduced hours for women with proportional pay) he was in favour of educational reform. The Association also discussed whether to find and support a female candidate for the 1918 election, but it was decided that this was “not advisable at the present time”. Ahead of the election they put adverts in the local press encouraging women to register to vote and to use that vote.
Amongst some of the later campaigns the Association was involved in later was the restriction of access to films – they complained about the “low taste” in films – and the campaign to retain a female police officer.
Dundee City Archives holds minutes for the Dundee Women Citizen Association covering 1918 to 2003 (Ref: GD/Mus/113/1), when they disbanded due to lack of interest.