Who was Margaret Elizabeth Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey?
Margaret Elizabeth Child-Villiers (nee Leigh, 1849 - 1945), Countess of Jersey, was a Tory political hostess and philanthropist who became Britain’s leading female anti-suffragist. She described herself as ‘unutterably opposed’ to suffrage but, despite her conservative views, worked as a journalist and playwright.
A leader of leagues
Child-Villiers chaired the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League’s inaugural meeting in 1908 and many subsequent meetings, being elected to their executive council in 1909. She later became deputy president of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, which included men and women.
An internationalist and imperialist, she co-founded the pro-colonialisation Victoria League and the Primrose League, the Tory organisation to which many suffragists also belonged.
Child-Villiers argued that, ‘What made her angry was the talk about women having the vote to purify politics. She thought that was almost a wicked thing to say; it was bad to set class against class, but it was worse to set sex against sex’.
The war did not shift her opinions. In November 1916 she co-signed a letter to The Times newspaper claiming that, ‘A large number of those who before the war were opposed to female suffrage, whilst fully recognising the very valuable services rendered by women during the present national crisis, are unable to admit that recent circumstances are of a nature to justify any serious modification of the conclusion at which they have previously arrived.’
Two trips to Number 10
Child-Villiers made her first deputation to Downing Street on the 21st of June 1910, on a day when the Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, received first a pro-suffrage group.
In a speech before the Prime Minister, she asserted that, ‘The opponents of woman suffrage did not think that women were more stupid than men, but they knew that their hands were overfull already. There was a large field for woman in social improvement, in the care of the schools, and in municipal affairs; and she hoped that the Government would do nothing to extend that sphere by giving women the Parliamentary vote’.
In December 1911, she once again joined the deputation from the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage which returned to 10 Downing Street to demand a referendum on suffrage from the Prime Minister.
A charitable woman
The Countess of Jersey epitomises the philanthropic political hostess whose public speaking, cultural capital and mobility were equalled by her opposition to suffrage.
Her primary charitable interest was child welfare, and she worked extensively for the Red Cross during World War One.
Her post-war philanthropy brought her into contact with women on the other side of the suffrage debate; at a charitable luncheon she attended on the 18th October 1920 the hostesses included Lady Rhondda, Laura McLaren, Lena Ashwell and Lillah McCarthy.