Eighty years ago this autumn, Alice Arnold became Coventry’s first woman mayor. Hers is a remarkable story of a woman who was never afraid to speak out wherever she saw injustice. It seems to me to be extremely important to recognise this today, at a time when so many women in public roles face harsh criticism for having and voicing opinions.
The young Alice and her family endured some tough times; her mother was admitted into the Coventry Workhouse in November 1880 with her three young children and in the late stages of pregnancy. Alice was born there on January 19th 1881. Later, the family lived in a rundown part of Coventry where houses were neglected and families exposed to all sorts of health risks, the result of problems from damp walls, leaking roofs, poor ventilation and inadequate sanitation.
Alice began work when she was just 11, perhaps combining factory shifts with school work in order to contribute much needed funds to the growing family’s unsteady income. Whether or not it was the experiences of poverty that led Alice into politics is unclear but by 1909, she was heavily involved with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), founded in 1884 and committed to the establishment of a socialist society. Alice was the Secretary of the Coventry SDF’s Women’s Circle, formed to encourage women to become activists in the cause. At the same time, she became involved in the trade union movement and by the start of the First World War, she was a member of the Workers’ Union. She became a shop steward at the factory where she worked, which had, like so many of the city’s firms, moved onto full war production. Here, her talents for recruiting women and supporting them in their workplace battles were recognised by union leaders and workers alike; in the 1980s, a former woman war worker recalled that Alice had been a wonderful person for working women, making sure that employers paid the correct rate and helping to protect workers against the dangers faced in munitions production. In 1917 she became a full time paid organiser for the Workers’ Union, able to leave her factory job to concentrate fully on her work in the labour movement, which, she later said, was where her heart and soul were.
In order to do her job, Alice, like so many union organisers, had to ensure that she was always visible and available, working constantly to ensure that women could find her whenever they needed her help. Whilst remaining in her union post, she also stood successfully as an independent Labour candidate in the first municipal elections after the War, becoming one of two first women councillors in Coventry. Despite many run ins with opposition councillors, which were always enthusiastically reported by a local press unused to women politicians – or women voters for that matter, for this was of course just after women over 30 had been granted the parliamentary vote – Alice held her seat and served for 36 years on the City Council, becoming mayor in 1937, the year when Labour first took control of the Council. At the mayoral ceremony, she assured men that women had no desire for sex antagonism but that they did feel that it was time for them to stand side by side with men in the work of the world.
Alice did not always conform. When she first became a councillor, she refused to wear her civic robes in the Council Chamber, emphasising her intention to serve her constituents rather than separate herself from them by appearing to be different. She was, after all, a working class woman who understood the daily battles many Coventry families faced, against a backdrop of inter war depression, to get decent housing, safe and affordable food and the chance for their children to be strong and healthy. Alice worked for change and social improvement all her life and in so doing often endured harsh criticism from those who professed they were offended by the outspoken manner of this pioneering woman. Many more Coventry people, however, were enormously grateful to her for her contributions to social improvement and by the time she died in 1955, there was a great deal of public affection for this woman who had done what it took to be seen and heard within the male dominated arenas of trade unionism and municipal politics.
For more on Alice Arnold see Cathy Hunt’s A Woman of the People: Alice Arnold of Coventry 1881-1955, published 2007 by the Coventry Branch of the Historical Association
Photo courtesy of Coventry History Centre