Katharine Ramsay, the eldest daughter of Sir James Ramsay, was born in Edinburgh on 6th November 1874. She was educated at Wimbledon High School and the Royal College of Music. In 1890 she married John Stewart-Murray, the eldest son of the 7th Duke of Atholl to whose title he succeeded in 1917. (1)
A member of the Conservative Party, the Duchess of Atholl was elected to the House of Commons to represent Kinross and West Perthshire in 1923. She therefore became the first woman in Scotland to be elected to Parliament. In 1924 Stanley Baldwin appointed Atholl as parliamentary secretary to the Board of Education. Later that year she was the only female MP to oppose women’s suffrage at 21. Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take their seat in Westminster, derided her as “Canute trying to keep the waves back.” (2)
Atholl strongly disliked Joseph Stalin and campaigned against oppression in the Soviet Union and she published The Conscription of a People in 1930. This was followed by Women and Politics (1931), a book intended "to provide 'the facts' that women needed to exercise properly their duties as citizens". Along with Eleanor Rathbone she campaigned against female circumcision in Africa. (3)
Atholl moved sharply to the left as a result of her close friendship with Sylvia Pankhurst. She took a keen interest in foreign policy and was a strong opponent of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and Non-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War. In April 1937, Atholl, Eleanor Rathbone and Ellen Wilkinson travelled to Spain on a fact-finding mission. The party visited Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia and observed the havoc being caused by the Luftwaffe. (4)
In May 1937 Atholl joined with Charlotte Haldane, Eleanor Rathbone, Ellen Wilkinson and J. B. Priestley to establish the Dependents Aid Committee, an organization which raised money for the families of men who were members of the International Brigades. Later she became chairman of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. Atholl also wrote the book, Searchlight on Spain (1938) which made her extremely unpopular with the Conservative Party. (5)
Atholl grew increasingly concerned about Adolf Hitler and his government in Nazi Germany. She totally opposed the British government's policy of appeasement and joined a group of rebel Tory MPs that included Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill, Harold Nicolson, Ronald Cartland, Robert Boothby, Jack Macnamara and Jim Thomas. Major Joseph George Ball, who worked for Neville Chamberlain as his political adviser, made attempts to persuade local constituency associations to de-select rebel Conservative Party MPs. (6)
James Stuart, deputy chief whip, and the MP for Moray and Nairn, was placed in charge of the plot to oust Athol and organised a vote of no confidence in her by her local party. She responded by resigning and prompted a by-election. Athol stood as an Independent against the Conservative Party candidate, William McNair Snadden. She asked Winston Churchill to speak for her but he refused as he feared being deselected by his local party. Robert Boothby responded in the same way. (7)
Freida Stewart was one of those who helped her during the campaign: "Her Grace was very calm and dignified under the strain, which must have been considerable; she had never been seriously opposed before in the feudal area, and the challenge was for her as much personal as political. In fact it was not. The challenge was one of principle against a whole party-political machine; and the Tories were determined that they were not going to be put in their place by one dissident individual, whatever her title. The Perthshire Conservatives rallied as never before to the true blue flag, and made sure their labourers and employers did the same. their cars were everywhere, taking farm workers to the polls, with the hidden implication that they must vote the conformist ticket or else." (8)
According to Duncan Sutherland: "Fifty Conservative MPs travelled north to warn that a vote for the duchess was a vote for war, and in a more sinister twist local landowners were alleged to have offered their tenants bonuses - or threats - on the understanding that they vote against her. These various factors contributed to her narrow defeat by a Conservative opponent in a two-way contest. Subsequent events in Europe vindicated her position, and would have saved her political career had she remained in parliament a few months longer, but after Churchill assumed the Conservative leadership in 1940 she abandoned plans to return as an independent MP for the Scottish Universities." (9)
In 1945 Atholl became chairman of the British League for European Freedom. In this post she campaigned against the Soviet control of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Her autobiography, Working Partnership, was published in 1958.
Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, died in Edinburgh on 21st October 1960.
If hon. Members opposite saw the tinkers in the north of Scotland wandering about the roads all the summer and camping during winter in the woods, I do not think that they would be so ready to entrust them with the great responsibility of the Parliamentary vote. There are hon. Members below the Gangway opposite, whom I am sorry not to see in their places today, who represent constituencies in the North of Scotland where this class is particularly numerous, and I would ask these hon. Gentlemen if they are prepared to receive this section of the people among their constituents, or if they will be ready to send them their election addresses or ask their supporters to convey them to the roll? I do not think that the Post Office would be ready to undertake the responsibility of tracing the addresses of these people, and I do not think that there will be any overweening desire among the supporters of the hon. Members to whom I refer to convey these people to the poll on election day, Therefore I do not believe that those responsible for the Bill can have considered fully the very far-reaching implications of this proposal. If they had done so, I imagine that they would be ready to reconsider it, as already the Mover of the Bill has intimated his readiness to do in regard to another proposal.
I come then to this other proposal, which is a very far-reaching one. That is the proposal to make the Local Government franchise the same as the Parliamentary franchise. This proposal seems to me to be even more drastic than the one to which I have referred. The reason for the difference between the two franchises must be well known to hon. Members opposite. It is simply an embodiment of the principle that we must have no taxation without representation, and no representation without taxation: the one is the corollary of the other. I think that what I have said should have a good deal of support from hon. Members of the Liberal Party, for it is a sound Liberal principle. The reason why the franchises are so different is simply this; that the local funds on which local services depend are drawn from the rates, and the rates are levied only on certain forms of wealth, that is on land, houses and machines in factories. Local Government has rested on the basis that the local franchise is given only to those who contribute to the rates. The Parliamentary franchise can be very much wider because, while many people may escape payment of rates for the reason I have stated, the subjects on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer can levy taxes are infinitely more varied and greater in number. There can be comparatively few people who escape payment of national taxation in one form or another. Therefore, I think it will be generally recognised that we have been justified in having a very much wider Parliamentary franchise than the local one. But this Bill will bring every man over the age of 21 who lives in lodgings, or lives at home with his parents, on to the local register, though he will be contributing, in these circumstances, nothing to the rates.
The nerves of the ratepayer throughout the country have not been steadied by certain occurrences which were the occasion of a debate recently in this House. I shrink from thinking of what the effect on those same nerves, would be if the country thought that this House was seriously considering a proposal to assimilate the two franchises in the way that this Bill proposes. I was interested to see that even the Minister of Health, whom I do not think anyone would regard as a specially stalwart champion of the ratepayer, did agree that he had some sympathy for the non-resident ratepayers of a certain parish of which we have heard a good deal lately. I would very much like to know how the right hon. Gentleman views this proposal. If he is inclined to consider the non-resident ratepayer with sympathy, surely he must have an equally generous measure of sympathy to extend to the resident ratepayer. Under this Bill both the resident and the non-resident ratepayer will be swamped by all the young men brought in who are not contributing anything to the rates. I know that the Mover of the Second Reading signified his readiness to leave this proposal to the judgment of the House in Committee. I suppose he realises how this proposal is likely to jeopardise his Bill. It seems to me a rather odd thing that he should not have thought it out a little before he produced his Bill. Though I agree that a death-bed repentance is better than no repentance at all, yet I hope the hon. Member will forgive me if I say that his admission that this vital provision in the Bill received at his hands inadequate consideration, does not lead me to feel that I am ready to trust to the hon. Member's leading in other matters in the Bill.
I come next to the proposals in the Bill in regard to women. I quite agree that there are women voters who have grievances. There is the grievance of the woman university graduate who, though she may have taken a much better degree than many of the men of her year, finds she has to wait until the age of 30 before she can exercise the Parliamentary vote, while the young man who has taken an inferior degree gets the vote at the age of 21. There is also a grievance to which I do not think the Mover of the Second Reading referred. That is the grievance of the married women who are registered as voters in respect of their husbands, and who, if their husbands pre-decease them, are removed from the register until they make a fresh application to be enrolled in their own names. That is a grievance which would be recognised on all sides of the House. There is a further grievance of which I have seen something, and it is one of those to which the hon. Member has referred. It is the grievance of the single women over 30 in various professions, who find it difficult to get the vote because they are in lodgings and have not their own furniture. That is a grievance specially felt by many women assistant teachers in the country. These women often find it difficult to get lodgings, and if they took their own furniture with them they would have less chance than ever, and it would inconvenience them as they move on from one poet to another. They are entitled to have a vote.
This Bill, however, goes very much further than those grievances and very much further than the remedies to which the hon. Member referred. Whatever their occupation, whether married or single, women are to be given the Parliamentary franchise from the age of 21. In brief, the woman tinker is to be enfranchised. The hon. Member for Norwich (Miss Jewson) spoke of the general desire among women for this change. I agree that there are women's societies that are very anxious to see this change, but I would like to ask what evidence she has that there is a widespread desire for this among women in general, and, if she asks me why I doubt her statement, I point to the fact that at the last General Election not more than 62 or 63 per cent. of the electors recorded their votes. That does not seem to indicate a very widespread desire for a wide extension of the franchise. I should say that there are many women in this country, married women, the wives of wage-earners who, living their busy lives - I think the wife of a wage-earner with a large family of young children is the busiest person in the country, except, possibly, Cabinet Ministers - have had in the past very few opportunities of hearing about political subjects. They do not get the opportunies of going out to meetings that their husbands have. My experience is that the I men go to the meetings and leave the wives at home to manage the children. Women have not the opportunities of going to meetings that their men enjoy. I think that, particularly at the last General Election, many of them felt that they had not had many opportunities of hearing about the subjects that were before the country and many of them in consequence were diffident in recording their votes.
There is another point to which I attach great importance. I think Members of all parties will agree how invaluable is some experience of local government in helping people to form sound judgment and to take a broad outlook on political questions. I think Members of all parties, and men everywhere in the country, are very ready to give generous recognition to the value of women's services on public local bodies. The fact that a certain number of women are generally recognised as having given valuable services on these bodies, has tended to obscure the fact that the number of these women is relatively small. I do not know if hon. Members, generally, realise how small the number is, and I hope I may be allowed to give a few 872figures. In England and Wales on 62 county councils, only 70 women are serving. On 7,664 urban district, rural and parish councils there are 353 women. On 364 borough councils including London, there is a rather larger proportion, the number being 226: but out of 24,000 members of boards of guardians, there are only 2,323 women. Looking at the figures for Scotland we find that on 37 education authorities there are only 44 women and on 16 of these education authorities there are no women at all, leaving an average of a little over two women per education authority for the others. Turning to the parish councils, we find that on 869 of these there are 115 women, and on the 33 county councils of Scotland only two women are serving.
Yet these are bodies on which the services of women are not only invaluable but necessary. No public body can efficiently administer poor law, education, public health, or maternity and child welfare without the assistance of women. These local public bodies are not receiving the benefit of all the special service which women can render, and I feel sad to think that we have not yet entered more into our kingdom. I feel, also, that before we ask for so great an extension of the franchise as this Bill proposes, we ought to wait until we have made our position more secure on these local bodies, and through service, gained more of the experience and the knowledge which is invaluable in political life. It is said that this proposed extension of the franchise will mean an addition to the electorate of 3,500,000 women, or as some say, 5,000,000 women. Whichever be the correct figure, no one will dispute that the proposal means that women will be in the majority on the Parliamentary register. When I reach that point I cannot forgot that that preponderance, whatever the exact figure may be, will have been largely due to, or at least greatly increased by the fact that we lost 740,000 precious lives of men in the great War, and that that War is still taking its toll of the ex-service men. Therefore, I cannot help saying that I feel that to propose a great extension of this kind looks like taking advantage of the heroic sacrifices of those men. [Interruption.] Yes, I do feel that, though hon. Members may not view the matter in the same way; to me it looks like taking an advantage, and, therefore, I cannot associate myself with the claim to so great an extension of the franchise at the present time. But, as I have said, I recognise there are many women who have grievances under the present system, and it is on that account that my Amendment does not take the form of asking for the rejection of the Bill. Had the Bill contained only those other provisions from which the hon. Member who moved the Second Reading seems inclined to run away, I should have tabled a Motion for rejection, but because I recognise that there are matters in connection with the present franchise concerning women which require consideration, I ask that the precedent be followed which was adopted when the last extension of the franchise was made, and I ask the House to accept the Amendment standing in my name.
Ellen Wilkinson, who was keenly interested in Spain, asked me if I would consider a short visit there to see what was going on. She was going herself, as were Eleanor Rathbone and Dame Rachel Crowdie, whom I had met on a Red Cross Committee. We went by train to Toulouse, whence I took my first trip by plane to Barcelona, and in Barcelona we were warmly received at the beautiful old Generalitat by Senor Companys, President of Catalonia.
The seat of the Spanish government had by then been moved and our Minister there, Mr Ogilvie Forbes, was a former officer in the Scottish Horse. We found him both friendly and on good terms with the Spanish authorities, and we were soon presented to the President, Senor Azana. Azana was apparently friendly, but rather annoyed at some recent interference by British ships with ships bringing supplies to Spanish ports.
At Valencia the first thing we saw was one of the schools for refugee children, which showed clearly the interest in education taken by the Republican government. Next came a visit to a prison for political prisoners, until lately occupied by the present President and Prime Minister.
The prison consisted of a large well-lit building with a central hall from which radiated staircases to various galleries. Outside these there was a good-sized gravelled recreation ground in which some fifty men were standing about, looking well clothed and fed. We were allowed to call out for men who could speak French or English, and any who could do so were hastily pushed forward. In reply to our questions they said that little was wrong with the food, and that letters and gifts from friends were received regularly. The only complaint made to us was that no visitors had been allowed for a month.
In another prison we visited, two hundred Italian prisoners-of-war, Mussolini's so-called 'volunteers', were confined. We were allowed to talk to them freely and we asked them how they came to be here. Several replied that they had thought they were being taken to one of the Italian colonies. Others had come with their own officers, as a regiment. When we asked them how they were being treated, several ran off to fetch samples of the bread they were getting, which they obviously found satisfactory. They looked well cared for, and happy to be out of the fighting.
The Prime Minister, Senor Caballero, found time to see us, and in reply to a question I put to him, assured me that, in the event of a Republican victory, there would be full religious liberty. But by far the most interesting personality I met was the woman member of the Cortes, Dolores Ibarruri, commonly known as La Pasionaria. I had been reluctant to see her, as her nickname had suggested to me a rather over-emotional young person, but on Ellen Wilkinson's pressure I agreed to meet her.
I have never ceased to be glad that I did so, for the only person with whom I felt La Pasionaria could be compared was the woman I had always regarded as the greatest actress I had seen, Eleonora Duse. She had Duse's wonderful grace and voice, but she was much more beautiful, with rich colouring, large dark eyes, and black wavy hair. She swept into the room like a queen, yet she was a miner's daughter married to a miner - a woman who had had the sorrow of losing six out of eight children. I could understand nothing that she said, and she talked with great rapidity, but to look and to listen was pleasure enough for me.
Her Grace was very calm and dignified under the strain, which must have been considerable; she had never been seriously opposed before in the feudal area, and the challenge was for her as much personal as political. In fact it was not. The challenge was one of principle against a whole party-political machine; and the Tories were determined that they were not going to be put in their place by one dissident individual, whatever her title. The Perthshire Conservatives rallied as never before to the true blue flag, and made sure their labourers and employers did the same. their cars were everywhere, taking farm workers to the polls, with the hidden implication that they must vote the conformist ticket or else.
She was the Perthshire aristocrat who became Scotland’s first female MP and shook up parliament with her high principles and disregard for old school tribal politics. Katherine “Kitty” Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, joined the House of Commons in 1923 after winning the seat of Kinross and West Perthshire for the Conservatives.
Thought of as honest, incisive and serious, Atholl was to embark on a political journey that left her frequently at odds with her own party given her views on the Spanish Civil War and her opposition to the policy of appeasement against Nazi Germany.
Her career was also to be defined by humanitarian work, particularly during the military revolt against the Republican government in Spain.
Despite her dislike of the “Communist menace”, she was herself to become known as the Red Duchess by those superstitious of her support for both the families of those fighting in the International Brigades and victims of the conflict.
While casting aside the politics of left and right, Atholl believed in the right for the Republicans to legitimately govern and defend themselves. She had toured Spain in 1937 as part of an all-woman delegation that visited Barcelona, Catalonia, Valencia and Madrid. Later she became chairman of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief and wrote the book, Searchlight on Spain, in 1938.
The MPs interests were widespread and she was to become one of the first campaigners against female circumcision in Africa. The Duchess, who was also an accomplished pianist and composer, proved to be a heavy weight and fearless operator - but her profile today remains relatively obscure.
According to author Sheila Hetherington, Atholl had been encouraged to enter frontline politics by a number of high profile figures but faced reservations from King George V who was concerned about her ability to host her husband’s guests at Blair Castle should she win her seat. Hetherington, who earlier wrote a biography of the Duchess, said: “She did not herself seek to stand for Westminster, but was invited and encouraged by some prominent individuals: Lloyd George, Lord Haldane, the chairman of the Unionists association in her constituency, and her husband, the Duke of Atholl.
“She won the vote by a narrow margin. A local newspaper attributed her success to her own personal popularity.” By the time she had taken her seat in Westminster, the Duchess had already reported on the dire state of health provision in the Highlands and Islands as part of the influential Dewar Committee, whose findings became the blueprint for the NHS in Scotland..
But despite her interest in women’s and children’s issues, she was a lone wolf among her female peers on one particular subject - votes for women.
In 1924, she was only female MP to oppose women’s suffrage at 21, arguing there was no widespread desire for the bill and that the suffragette movement had become too militant. Lady Astor, the first female MP to take their seat in Westminster, derided her as “Canute trying to keep the waves back.”
Later, her position changed and the Duchess would befriend Sylvia Pankhurst who was to publicly endorse her as an independent candidate in the 1938 by-election which she triggered after losing the support of her local party over her views on Nazi Germany. Amid a policy of appeasement against Hitler, the Duchess argued intensely that action was required after reading Mein Kampf in German. She later distributed accurate English translations in order to raise awareness of its true contents and the danger posed by the regime.
Such was her belief that she resigned her seat and stood as an independent, fighting almost entirely on this single issue.
A telegram from Stalin supporting the Duchess' campaign inflicted further damage to a campaign that was set against the vast resources of the Conservative Party. She lost the election by just 1,305 votes.
Her friend and campaign organiser Frieda Stewart said: “The challenge was one of principle against a whole party-political machine; and the Tories were determined that they were not going to be put in their place by one dissident individual, whatever her title.” Murray, who authored several books, largely stepped away from the fray of public and political life following her defeat.
(1) Duncan Sutherland, Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, duchess of Atholl: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (6th January, 2011)
(2) The Scotsman (20th June 2017)
(3) Duncan Sutherland, Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, duchess of Atholl: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (6th January, 2011)
(4) The Scotsman (20th June 2017)
(5) Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (2003) page 591
(6) Chris Bryant, The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler (2020) pages 265-266
(7) Duncan Sutherland, Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, duchess of Atholl: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (6th January, 2011)
(8) Angela Jackson, British Women and the Spanish Civil War (2020) pages 175-176
(9) Duncan Sutherland, Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, duchess of Atholl: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (6th January, 2011)