The Sixties, Hereditary Sexual Discrimination and the Swingometer

Marlyn Glen

18 April 2014

This time next year, if the Scottish Referendum polls are right, we should be in the midst of a traditional UK General Election campaign.


And the month after the Referendum is the 50th. anniversary of Labour’s famous wafer-thin win over the Tories in the General Election in October 1964.

Just 29 women were elected in that election.

Men made up the remaining 95 per cent of MPs.

BBC Parliament has re-run the 1964 election night coverage, with the programme’s presenters being all men -  Richard Dimbleby, Robin Day, Cliff Michelmore, Ian Trethowan , the political scientist David Butler analysing the results, and Robert McKenzie with the now-famous Swingometer.

Just as this was the era of black and white TV, so it was also the time when a computer could take up the whole size of your living-room (whereas as today you can hold one in your hand )

The election programme computer produced the figures for the images that were displayed on TV screens giving the results for each constituency.

The images below from two constituencies show the differences in how men and women candidates were described.

Only a surname was used to identify a male candidate

However, a woman candidate was identified by her surname followed by (Mrs) or (Miss)

It was one example of how embedded was the idea that it was unusual for a women to think of a career in politics, as the period regarded as the Swinging Sixties had just begun.

In the previous decade, many women had been treated with disdain if they had sought to enter male political bastions.  

It had taken until 1958 for women, as life peeresses, to be allowed to enter for the first time the thoroughly undemocratic  House of Lords whose name unashamedly proclaimed its hereditary sexual discrimination .

One opponent of such a move was Baron Llellewin , the former governor-general of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography described him :

“He was a strong opponent of women in public life, particularly in politics. ‘They are always inclined to be so bossy’, he used to say, ‘and the ladies in the House of Commons have a tremendous amount of bees in their bonnets’. He strongly opposed the admission of women into the House of Lords.”

Lord Ferrers was of a similar mind – “A man’s judgement is generally more logical and less tempestuous than a woman’s …shall we follow the rather vulgar example set by the Americans of having female ambassadors? If we allow women into this House where will this emancipation end ? “ 

In his book An English Affair , Richard  Davenport writes of the second-class citizenship that women experienced in these times :

“ Married women’s signatures  were seldom accepted without their husband’s endorsement so that they were unable to raise loans or make contracts independently.

“When in 1961, the Cambridge graduate Jessica Mann underwent a Caesarean birth, it was her husband who was required by the hospital to give permission by signing the consent form .”

The Labour Goverment under Harold Wilson that was elected that evening in 1964 came to define the 1960s as a  time of progressive social measures and advances for women, particularly when viewed from the much more difficult times of today.

So returning to the 2010s, come the next general election night TV coverage next year, there will be no candidates referred to as “Mrs” or “Miss”.

And this September, another vote will be taking place.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews is holding its a vote, at last, calling on its members to abolish their men-only membership policy.

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