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‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy, and Appeasement in Inter-War Britain


Julie Gottlieb


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Hardcover. xii+340 p. ISBN 978-0230304291. £70


Reviewed by Robert Boyce

London School of Economics and Political Science



In July 1940, Guilty Men, a pseudonymously published tract, written in barely a week by three Fleet Street journalists, Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard, charged Neville Chamberlain and a small circle of politicians and officials with undermining Britain’s security by their craven pursuit of appeasement of the fascist dictators. The book attracted wide interest, coming as it did just when Chamberlain had stepped down in favour of his chief anti-appeasement opponent, Winston Churchill. The following year another journalist, Richard Baxter, singled out British women for attack in a tract entitled Guilty Women, claiming that it was their support for appeasement and in some cases actual support for Nazi Germany that was chiefly to blame for undermining Britain’s security before the war. By now, however, with the war fully under way, interest in the appeasement controversy had waned and Baxter’s book attracted little attention. Julie Gottlieb vigorously rejects Baxter’s ‘tabloid tone of paranoid fantasy’ and crude simplifications. Nevertheless she borrows the title of his book on the grounds that it holds an essential truth, namely that women occupied a central place in the making of appeasement policy, a fact that has been unjustifiably overlooked in the extensive historiography of appeasement.

Briefly summarised, Gottlieb’s account has it that in 1928 the full enfranchisement of women, who exceeded men by several millions, contributed to the increased influence of public opinion upon government policy-making. Once Britain found itself threatened by the rise of fascism abroad, British women engaged actively in debate over foreign policy. Their participation, particularly in support of appeasement, encouraged the National government to treat with Hitler and Mussolini. But by ‘feminising’ appeasement, they inadvertently intensified gender conflict in a society already disturbed by the rapid encroachment of women into various areas of public affairs, which resulted in a profound moral crisis. As she puts it,

The primary socio-economiccauses were feelings of male demoralization during the Great Depression and emasculation with the ascendancy of the woman worker, while the demographic imbalance of a generation with a superfluity of demonized women widened the gulf. Women scoring ‘firsts’ in politics, education, culture, and leisure were met with an equal measure of side-show curiosity and male defensiveness. …In spite of the efforts of a good many forthright women, appeasement was constructed as an effete policy that crowned a decade of intertwining sexual and international crisis.’ [265]

Contrary to Baxter’s claim, Gottlieb shows that British women did not act in unison, and indeed one of her main points is that politically active women were prominent on both sides of the appeasement debate. Nevertheless, she argues, their majority support for appeasement set them at odds with most men and made them partly responsible for the adoption of the policy. The failure of historians and biographers to include women in their accounts has thus perpetuated the prejudice that confronted them in the 1930s.

Gottlieb draws upon an impressive range of sources, writes with clarity and enthusiasm, and presents a great deal of new information about politically active women in the 1930s as well as the attitudes of leading male politicians towards women voters and activists, press commentary about women’s involvement in politics, and women’s own perception of their public roles. She includes a useful bibliography and twenty pages of illustrations, many of which will be unfamiliar to readers. Although her concluding remarks are surprisingly brief, the broad direction of her argument is never in doubt. The real shortcoming of the book is that it promises far more than it delivers. In fact, it must be said that only a small fraction of her thesis is borne out by the evidence she adduces.

As the international crisis intensified in the second half of the 1930s, British women contributed to an awareness of the issues as authors of fictional and non-fiction works, and activists in single-sex organisations as well as broader ones such as the League of Nations Union and Chatham House, and a number of well-placed and highly educated women participated in the debate over the appropriateness of appeasing the dictators. Gottlieb describes in detail the work of activists such as Nancy Astor, Violet Bonham-Carter, Eleanor Rathbone, the Duchess of Atholl, Ellen Wilkinson and Shiela Grant Duff, most of whom were members of parliament. But their numbers, while greater than before, remained very small. For example, of the roughly one thousand MPs between 1931 and 1939, barely thirty were women, and of them only a fraction engaged actively in foreign or defence policy debate. Gottlieb claims that many thousand other women engaged in the debate by writing to key decision-makers, notably Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill and above all Neville Chamberlain. But arguably this is to confuse debate with emotional expressions of fear of war or relief that war had been averted.

As Chamberlain’s decision to appease Hitler at the Munich conference on 29-30 September 1938 forms the centre-piece of the book, it is worth dwelling upon women’s alleged role in this event. According to Gottlieb, Chamberlain had become especially popular with Conservative women in the 1920s on account of his role in housing and other domestic issues of particular interest to women, and drew political sustenance from their support. He also confided regularly in his two sisters, his sister-in-law and his wife, and allegedly relied heavily upon their advice. Thus, Gottlieb claims, in late 1937, Ivy, his sister-in-law, played a ‘decisive’ role in restoring British relations with fascist Italy by befriending Mussolini and his foreign minister Ciano and enabling Chamberlain to visit Rome in January 1938 [71]. In spring 1938, Ida, his sister, ‘convinced him’ not to trust Hitler [72]. In September 1938 he received over 20,000 letters and telegrams, the majority of them from British women, and according to Gottlieb, ‘it was his sympathetic response to the sentiments expressed in women’s letters that inspired him to conduct face-to-face negotiations with Hitler in September 1938’. Remarkably, ‘this has never been taken into consideration in the vast historiography of appeasement’ [198].

Claims of this sort stretch the evidence well beyond breaking point. After all, we know that already by May 1937, when Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin as prime minister, he was determined if at all possible to remove the threat of another European war by appeasing Italy and Germany. Thus, although his foreign minister, Eden, was also very popular with Conservative women, he overrode Eden’s opposition to appeasing Italy in pursuit of his goal. Ivy’s private diplomacy in Rome that winter at most complemented the policy he had already adopted; it certainly did not inspire it or make it possible. Whatever suspicions Ida may have harboured about Hitler, she clearly did not discourage her brother from trusting him. As for the Munich ‘crisis letters’, they came long after, not before, his decision to appease Hitler, if necessary by face-to-face talks. By mid-July 1938 Chamberlain had appointed Lord Runciman to act as ‘mediator’ between the Czechoslovak government and the Sudeten Germans, and by the fourth week of September, when the ‘crisis letters’ began to flood in, Chamberlain had already flown to Berchtesgaden for his first meeting with Hitler. Gottlieb chides historians and biographers for disregarding the influence women wielded over Chamberlain. In so doing she overlooks the fact that appeasement was an established element of British foreign policy long before Munich. Paul Kennedy has written of a British tradition of appeasement. Kennedy may overstate it somewhat, but there is no doubt that Britain had consistently appeased Germany since 1918. The only substantial innovation in the later 1930s was that Chamberlain turned an essentially reactive policy under MacDonald and Baldwin into an active one. Gottlieb omits from her account any discussion of appeasement policy, its origins and development, in order to concentrate on the reactions of British women in particular through the ‘crisis letters’, which appear to have been sent largely by Conservative-leaning women. The result is to lose sight of the woods for the trees.

A rather different objection may be made to Gottlieb’s claims about the gendering of the appeasement debate and its contribution to the ‘crisis in the relationship between men and women writ large’ [64] or as she calls it on several occasions ‘the war of the sexes’ [173, 175]. Time and again she encourages the impression that it was women who sought appeasement in 1938 and men who opposed it. She writes that during the Munich crisis, ‘Conservative women worked hard to legitimize, rationalize, and promote Chamberlain’s policy’ [125], that ‘[a]rguably, it was their support at the party level that gave their mainly male political leaders in the National Government the confidence to proceed as they did’ [101], and that in the debate over appeasement a ‘neat bifurcation [emerged] between feminine pacifism…against masculine belligerence’ [122]. Gottlieb’s evidence largely confirms that women were more completely behind the government’s policy than men, but it is far from clear that the gender balance heavily favoured women. Duff Cooper, in his resignation speech a few days after the Munich conference, acknowledged that ‘the Prime Minister is more popular than he has ever been at any period’. The House of Commons then held a full-scale debate on the government’s appeasement policy, after which only 18 men (out of over 200) on the government side joined Cooper to indicate their opposition by abstaining in the final division. As for the aggravation of a broader war between the sexes or a moral crisis in the country, Gottlieb offers practically no evidence at all. This is hardly surprising given that appeasement policy was firmly favoured by a succession of governments and by the great majority of the press, all of them overwhelmingly dominated by men. Gottlieb points to Duff Cooper’s later gendered remarks, claiming that he ‘contributed a great deal to [appeasement’s] reputation as a feminine policy not worthy of men of courage and virility’ [91]. But appeasement policy only acquired this reputation to any degree after it manifestly failed with the onset of war.

To sum up, this book provides an enormous amount of information on British women’s interest in foreign affairs in the 1930s, but the author signally fails to make the evidence fit her central thesis. Readers interested in British women in the political arena will find plenty to draw upon here. Readers interested in the formation and application of appeasement policy would do well to look elsewhere.


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