Tuesday, November 6, 2018

DAY 77: Jennie Churchill Was Allowed to Vote Only Once in Her Life...

Jennie Churchill campaigning for her son Winston, aged 25, in his first parliamentary election, Oldham, Manchester, 1899.
...But she knew how critical elections were. And she did everything she could, in politics.

The first time an unknown Winston Churchill ran for Parliament, in the early summer of 1899, the twenty-five-old rookie’s biggest draw on the campaign trail was his mother. Jennie had campaigned for years on behalf of her late husband, Lord Randolph Churchill. In fact, during the monthlong 1886 General Election, Randolph hared off on a fishing trip to Norway and left Jennie to give his speeches. He was returned for South Paddington in a landslide and made Chancellor of the Exchequer—the equivalent of our Secretary of the Treasury. It was the first time Lord Randolph received a salary, something he greeted with even more relief than his Cabinet post. “It seems we want the five thousand pounds a year very badly,” he wrote Jennie when the election results came in.

Dandy Randy, as he was called in the House of Commons, had been dead for four years by the time Winston stood for the Oldham borough in 1899. But forty-five-year-old Jennie threw herself into her son’s campaign, joining Winston for his first public speech and giving one of her own, to the local women’s chapter of the Primrose League, a Conservative Party voter-organization she had helped her husband found decades earlier. Jennie insisted that the Primrose League needed women members, something no male politician had bothered to cultivate before: Women talked politics at the dinner table and in bed. Women reared future voters. Women shaped opinion.
Winston Churchill, 1899, South Africa
Winston had just returned from South Africa where he'd escaped a Boer prison camp to huge acclaim. Jennie showed up on the campaign trail in Manchester at small gatherings in supporters’ homes, mass meetings in huge halls, and raucous open-air events characterized by brawls and drunkenness. She drove door-to-door in a blue carriage gown (Winston’s campaign color) with her horses trimmed in blue cockades and ribbons, asking men one by one for their votes.
Why just men? Because the women’s chapter of the Primrose League, and all women for that matter in 1899, were denied the right to vote.

A British Suffragette, downed in the Black Friday protests
of 18 November, 1910, London
Two years before Winston’s Oldham campaign, the Woman Suffrage Bill had gone down to defeat in the British Parliament, and it would be another twenty years before limited voting rights were granted to British women after World War I. Back in America, where Jennie Jerome had been born in New York, a similar situation prevailed.  Jennie's childhood friend, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, would become a leader in the fight for women's voting rights. But Suffragettes were derided as unhinged and unfeminine. Full suffrage was not passed in the United States until 1920, and in Britain until 1928. So why did Jennie give a damn about politics, or the hearts and minds of non-voting women?
Jennie understood that life for herself, and every other person in her adopted country, was determined by the beliefs and political actions of those who governed it. Elections determined the state of public health, the economy, and her children’s future. Elections determined personal freedom, and its limits. Jennie’s entire life was a monument to personal freedom and individual choice; lacking a vote, she made sure that her time, energy, and intelligence were spent influencing people whose policies dictated the terms of her existence.

Jennie came by that political awareness in the midst of the
American Civil War. Her childhood was lit up by the Draft Riots of 1863 New York, in the days after Gettysburg, when local politics was dominated by Union League members like her father, who supported Abraham Lincoln, and the ward politics of Tammany Hall that supported the rioters. Leonard Jerome was part owner of the New York Times in those years, and defended the paper from a firebomb-wielding mob by mounting a Gatling gun on the Times’s front steps, and using it. He raised Jennie to trust her mind and voice over the accepted conventions of “polite” Society, and gave her the financial backing to do it.

When she married the younger son of a duke at the age of twenty, Jennie immediately plunged into partisan British politics with an independence that surprised her peers—helping Randolph write his speeches, attending Parliamentary debates, lobbying influential politicians on his behalf, and hosting key figures of warring parties for what she called her Dinner of Deadly Enemies. Even political rivals like Joseph Chamberlain and William Gladstone proved civil, and on occasion had a meeting of minds, when seated opposite each other at Jennie Churchill’s table.

Punch caricature of the Lobby of the House of Commons. Left to Right, the central grouping: Joseph Chamberlain, Charles Stewart Parnell, William Gladstone, Randolph Churchill, and William, Marquis of Hartington

Jennie understood as well that politically active women shaped the minds of their children. Winston Churchill was a poor student, and spent much of his years in school in a protracted rebellion against the vagaries of Latin and French, but he was a voracious reader—and Jennie was his book dealer. In the few years Winston wandered the British Empire as a cavalry officer and journalist, it was Jennie who sent him crates and crates of books in the holds of ships bound for Cuba and India and South Africa, supplementing the education Winston had avoided. Winston became an enthusiastic autodidact, much as he would follow in Jennie’s footsteps as a writer--she founded the Anglo-Saxon Review, a briefly-published but ground-breaking magazine, at a time when almost no women acted as editors or journalists; contributed articles to American magazines; and published a volume of memoirs in 1908. Winston shared her love of oil painting as well--the two of them were eager companions in the pursuit of perfect light. As he matured, Winston looked every inch the Churchill, but much of his mind was stamped with Jennie’s influence.

Winston lost that novice campaign in 1899, but tried again for Oldham a year later, and won. He was continuously in Commons and in various cabinets for the next two decades—only losing his seat briefly in 1922. That campaign was described as badly organized, perhaps because Jennie was not there to run it. She had died the year before—having voted only once, after 1918, in her lifetime. 

Winston Churchill as the Member of Parliament for Oldham, 1900, age 26

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.  

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