Ethel Snowden (1881-1951)
Ethel Snowden was born Ethel Annakin, in 1881, the daughter of a well-to-do Harrogate builder. She received a middle-class education and trained to be a teacher at Edge Hill College, Liverpool, between 1900 and 1902. In 1905 she married Philip Snowden, a Labour politician, who in 1924 became the first Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer. After her marriage she resigned from her teaching position to concentrate on helping her husband’s political career but continued to carry out propaganda for socialism, feminism and women’s suffrage, which increasingly became her main concern.
Ethel was obviously a young woman of very strong beliefs. She was beautiful, clever, talented and principled. She was a teetotaller, a Methodist, a pacifist and feminist, who identified with the Labour Party and women’s suffrage. Ethel played the piano to a high standard and was a wonderful speaker. She was an active campaigner for the vote, and wrote several books and pamphlets on many topics including on the suffrage question.
Ethel campaigned for women’s suffrage both before and after her marriage, lecturing on the subject as early as 1905. Increasingly from 1906, as a member of the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), she lectured all over the country and also attended conferences in Europe organised by the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. She was present at the banquet given at the Savoy by the NUWSS to celebrate the release of Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) prisoners from gaol. Ethel wrote to Edge Hill students and alumni in 1907 that of all issues ‘not one is more important, or is exciting more interest than the question of the political enfranchisement of women.’
Ethel’s views on votes for women and Socialism were part of one belief. As far back as 1909 she was convinced that suffrage for women would come and that nothing could prevent it. She wrote ‘There is no class in the community more in need of the vote than the women who work for their living’ and in one of her books she wrote ‘The nation cannot afford to go on losing the intelligence, the energy, the culture, the affection and the devotion of more than half its population’. She believed that that ‘each addition of voters to the register has seen an increase in the rate at which Acts of social and industrial legislation have been placed upon the Statute Book’, thus improving the life of the common man – adding women would continue that improvement.
As a confirmed suffragist Ethel disapproved of violence. She undertook successful lecture tours of the United States in 1907 and 1909 and her views about violent protest were reported in an American newspaper The Republican. The first line of the report read ‘The most effective reply to Mrs Pankhurst comes from Mrs Philip Snowden’ and her views were summarised as ‘A cause good enough for martyrs is much too good for victims’.
Ethel was friends with the leaders of the suffragist movement and this photograph shows her with Lady Frances Balfour, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emily Davies and Sophie Bryant, standing together at a suffrage demonstration, c.1910.
Ethel was campaigning all over England, including in Haslemere in 1912, well before she had a home in the county. In August 1912 she announced that she was fully booked for speaking at engagements up until May 1913. In July 1913 she was a speaker at the Hyde Park Rally held at the end of the NUWSS ‘Great Pilgrimage’ march. Harriet Blessley, who had marched all the way from Portsmouth and had kept a diary about the march. described Ethel Snowden as ‘my favourite of favourite speakers’.
She travelled and lectured world-wide. By 1914 she was speaking at least 200 public meetings a year. It was said that she ‘probably addressed bigger audiences all over the world on the suffrage question than any other living woman’. She temporarily resigned from the Independent Labour Party in order that her political allegiance did not cause problems with her campaigning on the issue.
The Snowdens left Britain for a long, world-wide, lecture tour in July 1914; while they were in Canada, news came of the outbreak of war. Philip Snowden asked whether he should return but was told not to, possibly because of his known pacifism, which Ethel shared. She joined her husband in campaigning for a negotiated peace in 1916. In 1917 she became the organiser and principal speaker for the Women’s Peace Crusade, estimating that she had addressed half a million people in the last year of the war; her main campaign speech was an appeal for men to ‘love’ one another.
Having visited Russia in 1920 Ethel Snowden became a vigorous critic of the Bolshevik revolution. This made her very unpopular with the left wing of the Labour Party and she was voted off the National Executive in 1922. Although invited to stand for Parliament she never became a candidate.
The Snowdens had given up their Leeds home in 1909 and moved to London. They came to live at Eden Lodge, Tilford Road, Churt, in 1923, almost the same year that Lloyd George and Frances Stevenson moved there. Their houses were about one mile apart and there are many references to the Snowdens visiting Lloyd George.
Ethel Snowden continued in public work well after women had won the right to vote. She was a vigorous supporter of the League of Nations and the Save the Children Fund. She rose up the social scale in the 1920s, much to her pleasure, and she welcomed appointments as a Governor of the BBC (as a representative of women and of Labour), and as a Director of the Royal Opera House. She also became a friend of Queen Mary. Ethel was involved in campaigns for free school milk, and for the London Society for Teaching and Training the Blind (Stanley Baldwin, John Galsworthy and Lord Lonsdale being the other signatories).
Ethel became Viscountess Snowden on 24 November 1931 when her husband was awarded a Viscountcy in the Dissolution Honours List. Philip was in poor health from 1931 and died in May 1937. Ethel moved to a flat in Dolphin Square, London, and continued campaigning for the rest of her life, especially for temperance. When war broke out in 1939 she supported it and expressed the view that Nazis were utterly evil, but she had reservations about area bombing. In August 1943 she denounced the BBC for ‘poor moral standards’ in regard to drinking, swearing, and marital fidelity.
Ethel suffered a severe stroke in 1947 which left her disabled, although her mind remained active. She died in 1951 aged 69.
Contributed by a local historian for The March of the Women project.