Many women have contributed to the civic life of the town, be it as Councillors, in the role of Mayor, or by being active in one of Abingdon’s civic societies.
The story of Abingdon’s female Mayors starts surprisingly recently, in 1950. That was the year in which Agnes Leonora Challenor was elected to the role, the first woman ever in the history of the Borough.
Agnes was born in Wales, but she had lived in Abingdon since 1914, when she married Bromley Challenor and moved with him into a house on the Faringdon Road. She first took on roles in public life as a fundraiser for St Helen’s Church, and as a founder member of the Abingdon Townswomen’s Guild. In 1939 she was asked to organize the Abingdon Women’s Voluntary Service. These last two organisations did important work during the war. For example, when thousands of gas masks were provided for the local people, they were delivered in kit form, and the members of the Townswomen’s Guild assembled them before distribution. The Women’s Voluntary Service also did a lot of war work, be it clerical work, driving or cooking.
It was this work for the community which led to her being co-opted onto the Council in 1941. She was glad to take this opportunity for a woman to get onto the Council, and it was the start of many years’ service as a Councillor. She also hoped that her example would lead other women to put themselves forward for the Council, particularly after she was elected as Mayor. However, it would be ten years before Abingdon got another female Mayor in Constance May Cox, and then another ten years before it got the third, Joan Gladys Harcourt-Norris.
However, the rise of women as Mayor was now unstoppable, even if it got off to a slow start. A look at the statistics is quite interesting here. Looking at the Mayors of Abingdon decade by decade, they show that during the 1950s and 60s, there was one woman in each decade. During the 1970s there were two, but during the 1980s there were four. From then the proportion of female Mayors rises decade by decade, from 5 to 6 to 7 in the period 2010-2020. Between 2012 and 2019, only women were Mayors of Abingdon.
How did this increase come about? The main factor is surely that, gradually and eventually, Agnes Challenor’s wish that more women should take up the role of Councillor came true. As more and more women were elected onto the Council, the chance of one of them becoming Mayor increased accordingly, since the Mayor is chosen from the Councillors.
But why did women enter the Council so relatively late? Part of the answer surely lies in the wider historical context of the different roles for men and women. For a long time, the public sphere was considered to be unsuitable for women. Their proper sphere was the domestic one. In creating a home for themselves and their families, women were thought to fulfil the task given to them by nature, whereas public life was restricted to men.
Samantha Bowring, who is currently Leader of the Council, recalled that when she was first canvassing for the local elections in 2003, many people doubted that she, as a young mother, should try to be elected onto the Council. Even at that time there still seemed to be lingering attitudes toward women which saw them as unsuitable for a public role. Interestingly, when she canvassed again in 2007, she did not encounter these attitudes. On the Council itself, it has become normal to have women as members, and nobody really doubts that they should be there.
A very slow rise in the proportion of female representatives can also be observed on a national level. Women first got the vote in 1918. That same year they could also for the first time be elected. The first female MP to take her seat at Westminster was Viscountess Nancy Astor in November 1919. From then on the number of female MPs crept up very slowly until comparatively recent times, and until the 1980s even the highest number of female MPs was below 5%.
Currently there are eight women serving on the Town Council: they are Gabby Barody, Samantha Bowring (who was Mayor in 2013/14), Ulrike Rowbottom, Margaret Crick (Mayor 2018/19), Helen Pighills (Mayor 2015/16), Cheryl Briggs (Deputy Mayor 2019/20), Lorraine Oates (Mayor 2007/08) and Grace Clifton.
As mentioned, it has become usual for local councils to have a number of female representatives. However, the picture changes as you go into the higher levels of government. On the District Council the proportion of women is already smaller than on the Town Council, and it shrinks further when you look at the County Council. On the national level, after the 2010 elections women comprised 23% of MPs.
The general trend seems to be for the proportion of women to rise everywhere. Judging from the past, it will be a very slow rise, and there will probably a step backwards occasionally, but the overall development is clear. Whether the proportion of women on any level of government will ever match the proportion of women in the general population is something that is impossible to predict.
In Abingdon, however, women are firmly part of local government, not just as Councillors but in leading roles, as Mayors and as Leader of the Council. The women of Abingdon are definitely here to stay.
Featured image: The Great Mace of Silver Gilt, which is present at all Full Council meetings at Abingdon Town Council.