Dr Anna Muggeridge, Lecturer in History at the University of Worcester, specialising in women’s social and cultural history, explores women’s politics in Worcester from the ‘Worcester Woman’ of the 1997 General Election back to those early pioneering women paving their way into local politics.


Nowadays many women take their right to vote as a given – but this was hard-won and only in 1918 did some women get this right. Eighty years on and the way that women in Worcester voted was something that occupied those vying for power at the highest levels of Government.

Politics came to the City’s doorstep with ‘Worcester Woman’, a term invented by pollsters as a voting weathervane; the archetypical person that the Labour party needed to win over for victory in the 1997 General Election.

But, despite the interest in ‘Worcester woman’ in 1997, Worcester’s women themselves have had varied success when it comes to politics. There has still been no female MP in Worcester yet.

So what was the ‘Worcester Woman’ and how is she connected to women’s political activism in Worcester?

Black and white illustration of hand placing ballot card in ballot box

“‘Worcester Woman’ was identified ahead of the 1997 General Election as the potential swing voter. There was this belief by pollsters that she was more likely to vote for Tony Blair’s New Labour party, having previously voted Conservative,” said Lecturer in History, Dr Anna Muggeridge.

“There had been attempts by pollsters before to create an archetypal voter, the swing voter who will decide the election. Before this there was ‘Mondeo Man’. ‘Worcester Woman’ is invented by pollsters as this median voter who might have voted Conservative in the past but was open to the Labour party and ideas they were coming up with in their manifesto.”

So, was there more to it than just the appealing alliteration in Worcester? Possibly. Dr Muggeridge says that when it came to voting patterns, Worcester as a city had been very predictable. Since the constituency was formed in 1885, it had voted Conservative in every election General Election bar one until 1997. Then, in 1997, there was a swing, mirroring the big swing towards Labour nationally.

Dr Muggeridge thinks the choice of gender is particularly significant. “I think it’s interesting that they used ‘Worcester Woman’ rather than ‘Worcester resident’. They were interested in women in Worcester as being likely to swing. It’s the creation of pollsters rather than a political party, but it prompted lots of journalists to interview ‘the woman on the street’ in Worcester to see what she was interested in.

“Interestingly when women in Worcester were interviewed in 1997, the topics of the day that concerned them were not too dissimilar to our own now – education, NHS and waiting lists, the cost of living.”

Since women first gained the vote in 1918, Dr Muggeridge believes there had been a growing focus by political parties on creating policies to appeal to women. “In the interwar years, women were appealed to as housewives almost exclusively. They referred to women as ‘the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the home’, managing household finances. So parties would try to appeal to women by perhaps talking about how they intended to reduce the cost of food,” said Dr Muggeridge.

“Throughout the 20th century, parties did try to appeal to women as voters, but I do think 1997 is interesting because it is one of those elections where certainly there was a focus on gender. Some of that is what New Labour, who probably controlled the media narrative in the lead up, was promising. Labour also introduced All Women Shortlists, for the first time, and around 100 Labour women were elected to parliament. While there had been a slow increase in the number of women MPs throughout the 20th century, 1997 suddenly saw huge growth.”

Dr Muggeridge believes that Labour’s 1997 manifesto focused on certain policies to attract women’s votes. “Education, education, education was Tony Blair’s famous line. Education policy had been recognised as important to women in politics as far back as the 19th century. The party also promised to bring in a minimum wage, which benefited all genders, but women were more likely to work in low-paid roles.

“Labour wanted to bring in a lot of social welfare reforms. It’s not that men don’t benefit from these things, but from the mid-19th century, issues which impacted on women, children or the vulnerable were categorised as ‘women’s issues’. Welfare issues were where women were seen to have an expertise.”

Although women were in the spotlight in the 1997 election, especially here in Worcester, the city has never elected a woman MP. But it does have a long history of women politicians in local government, as Dr Muggeridge has been exploring.

Polling station sign

Women were eligible to stand for election at local level in 1907, but it wasn’t until 1919 that the first woman, Labour Councillor Alice Edwards, stood in Worcester. By the late 1920s Worcester had six women councillors, out of 36 seats on the city council. “Today you wouldn’t say that’s a fantastic representation rate, but for the time it’s relatively high,” said Dr Muggeridge. “At local level Worcester was punching above its weight in the levels of female representation, and it has Conservative women, Labour women and Independent women, so it stretches across all politics. That’s interesting because you have a city without much of a suffrage movement, but which developed quite a strong female presence in politics after the vote was won.”

One of these pioneering women councillors was Diana Ogilvy, an upper middle-class woman, who was very involved with Worcester Infirmary. She was Commandant of one of the local Voluntary Aid Detachment hospitals in the First World War and stood for election in 1929. She became the first woman to be elected as Mayor of Worcester in 1931 and her portrait sits in the Guildhall today.

“These women were really keen to be involved in the local politics in the area in which they lived. Some had really specialist interests, such as Diana Ogilvy in nursing, while others were more interested in maternal welfare. One of the early Labour councillors in Worcester, Rosina Palmer, was really passionate about pensions for servicemen. But none of these women showed an inclination to getting involved in national politics and standing for parliament. How they do their politics is very much in their town, that was where they saw they could make a difference – and that’s true across England and Wales.”

The records aren’t there to reveal the reasons why, but Dr Muggeridge has her theories. “It could be at times that they desperately wanted to, but there were structures in place that didn’t allow them to do that. Women who did stand for parliament were often given ‘unwinnable’ seats. But also, women were more likely to have caring priorities. It’s more manageable to be involved in local politics in a way that it’s not to get to Westminster.

“I think as well that they saw local politics as being able to make a practical, tangible difference to the lives of ordinary people in their communities. Perhaps they didn’t always feel that national parliamentary politics would be able to bring about these kinds of changes.”

However even at a local level this was a significant commitment. Councillors sat on committees which dealt with specific issues, like Education or Health, as well as full council meetings. So most councillors would attend at one or two meetings a week, through the year, which they’d have to fit around their jobs and home life. “It’s not exciting, it’s not glamorous, but they’re there turning up month after month and deciding how money should be spent on ‘everyday’ things like schools, public toilets or streetlights, things that can make a real difference to people’s lives,” said Dr Muggeridge. “And in 1997, it was just these kinds of ‘everyday’ issues that were felt to motivate Worcester Woman.”