#TBTMightyWomen - Katharine Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl

Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl - the first woman elected to represent a Scottish seat at Westminster.

The ‘Red Duchess’, Katherine Stewart-Murray MP.

The ‘Red Duchess’, Katherine Stewart-Murray MP.

Yesterday we celebrated centenary of The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act which allowed some women to stand for election to Parliament in the UK. It took five more years for the first Scottish woman to be elected. Katharine “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. Her story is quite extraordinary and what we know of her and her political journey seems so full of contradictions that I would love to have her over for a tea and a natter!

 She maintained that a woman’s place was at home with her family, and she was one of the key speakers at an anti-suffrage meeting in Glasgow arguing that suffrage movement became too militant, and yet she managed to gain a seat at Westminster as one of only eight women there – far away from the comfort of her own home.  She was not afraid to voice her opinions even if they were at odds with her party, and she embraced change too – later in life meeting with prominent suffragettes on a sisterly basis, and even gaining support from Sylvia Pankhurst in her electoral campaign of 1938.  

 She became known for her humanitarian work in 1930s and after a visit to war torn Spain she started her campaign to bring 4,000 children to the safety of Britain. She succeeded, and her efforts were applauded on the international stage, but at home she was accused of being an anarchist and communist and she earned a title she despised – The Red Duchess. Undeterred by all that, a year later she published The Conscription of a People in which she protested the abuse of human rights in the Soviet Union. Her mistrust of Adolf Hitler and his bestselling Mein Kampf led her to commission a more accurate translation of it, which she felt spelled the terrifying message in it more clearly. Not everyone agreed with her.

 Kitty resigned her whip in 1938 as a protest against Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of Adolf Hitler and prompted a by-election by applying for the Chiltern Hundreds. Her campaign received support from Winston Churchill and Sylvia Pankhurst, but it was dealt a deadly blow by no other than Stalin himself who also publicly endorsed her. Despite Chamberlain’s efforts who mobilised all of the resources of the Conservative Research Department and the Whips office against her she lost by just 1305 votes.

 After losing her seat she still remained an active campaigner for human rights and against totalitarian regimes and as the chairman of the League for European Freedom in Britain she spoke against the Soviet control of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.  She also became one of the first British campaigners against female circumcision in Africa.

 “To Socrates they gave hemlock. Gracoleus they killed with sticks and stones. The greatest and best they crucified. Katherine Atholl can hold up her head in good company. Let the victors when they come, when the forts of folly fall, find the body by the wall.”

- Josiah Wedgwood on the result of the 1938 by-election.

 

#TBTMightyWomen feature, selected and written by YWCA Scotland - The Young Women’s Movement Director, Patrycja Kupiec. Follow Patrycja on Twitter @PMKupiec, and @YoungWomenScot.

 

References: 

 Baxter, Kenneth (2011). "Chapter Nine: Identity, Scottish Women and Parliament 1918-1979". In Campbell, Jodi A.; Ewan, Elizabeth; Parker, Heather. The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Family, Nation and the Worlds Beyond. Guelph, Ontario: Centre for Scottish Studies, University of Guelph. 

Campsie, Alison (20 June 2017). "The "Red Duchess" – Scotland's first female MP"The Scotsman. Retrieved 19 November 2018.

 Quigley, Elizabeth (2 March 2010). “From political maverick to historical footnote”. BBC Scotland.  Retrieved 19 November 2018.

 (No author). Katherine Marjory Murray (Kitty) later Duchess of Atholl ~ Politician and Scotland’s First Woman MP. Made in Perth. Retrieved 19 November 2018.