THE WIT OF WINSTON CHURCHILL #7
From a book compiled by Dominique Enright
HENPECKED: WOMEN AND THE FAMILY
Churchill was probably typical of his time in his attitude
towards the family, women, and women's rights. He had been
brought up to believe that the women ran the household, tended
the husband and bore and looked after children. Family life and
motherhood, he once claimed, 'must be the fountain spring of
present happiness and future survival'. His pronouncement 'You
must have four children. One for Mother, one for Father, one for
Accidents, one for Increase' has a very Victorian ring to it -
although it could have been uttered tongue-in-cheek. Women were
not inferior beings but they were different beings, and he could
not see the point of giving women the vote - their husbands or
fathers handled that side of life for them. He at first found the
idea of women's suffrage hard to accept - being particularly put
off by violent demonstrations - and just as he was coming round
to the idea - 'I am anxious to see women relieved in principle
from a disability which is injurious to them,' he wrote - he was
almost pushed under a train by an angry suffragette in 1909 and
had to be rescued by his wife. It was not until 1918 that women
got the vote (those over thirty, the age lowered to twenty-one
ten years later). He would probably have said that, at home, his
wife Clementine ruled supreme - most of the time.
Other women in his life included his secretaries. He worked them
hard - to the point of making them stay up all night taking
dictation - ('I shall need two women tonight' he would say to his
Private Secretary at busy times, no doubt loudly enough to
startle any guest not in the know); and he was kind to them, if
sometimes irritable and impatient. Almost without exception they,
and also his male research assistants and Private Secretaries,
grew to love him - 'His secretaries adored him ... We were all in
love with him; he was such a lovely man,' said Maurice Ashley,
one of his research assistants.
In 1906, confronted by a banner-bearing woman calling for 'Votes
for Women', Churchill announced that with such constant
disturbance he would not give any such undertaking. 'Nothing
would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise. I am not
going to be henpecked into a question of such importance,' he is
supposed to have declared.
A couple of years later, when his engagement to Clementine Hozier
was announced, he was no doubt highly amused to receive a
punctuationless telegram reading: 'Hearty congratulations on
engagement have great hopes of your speedy conversion but you
said you would not be henpecked A Manchester suffragette.' (It is
sometimes said that this was Emmeline Pankhurst.)
'At Blenheim I took two very important decisions:
to be born and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on
both occasions.' Blenheim Palace is the home of the Dukes of
Marlborough, cousins of WSC, and was named after the Bavarian
village of Blenheim in which the first Duke, John Churchill, and
his Austrian allies, defeated the French and Bavarians at the
Battle of Blenheim in 1704, during the War of the Spanish
'I married and lived happily ever after' was how Churchill ended
his memoir, "My Early Life." Balfour once remarked to Churchill
upon 'the exaggerated way you tell the truth', which is an
excellent description of Churchill's statement.
He certainly could not have been an easy person to live with,
given his energy and the strength of his emotions, and the fact
that his wife had to share him with the public. Like all
marriages theirs had its ups and downs, but it was an
affectionate one. Clementine called Winston 'Pig' and he called
her 'Cat', or 'Kat', and in the many letters they wrote to each
other they called themselves by these nicknames. (There is even a
story - surely apocryphal - that some time during Churchill's
first premiership, the Archbishop of Canterbury called upon him
unexpectedly and was more than a little startled as he walked
into the room to find Mr and Mrs Churchill both on all fours on
the floor, saying 'oink, oink' and 'meow' to each other.)
That the affection endured is clear in that both the rows and the
drollery also endured. Anthony Montague Browne tells of an
occasion when, after a row, Clementine swept out of the room
saying softly, 'Winston, I have been married to you for
forty-five years for better - 'then, loudly'- AND FOR WORSE!'
Churchill looked at Montague Browne 'silently for a moment and
then observed solemnly: "I am the most unhappy of men." This was
so manifestly absurd,' continues Montague Browne, 'that I could
not help bursting into an unseemly peal of laughter, which WSC
did not seem to mind.'
'It's an extraordinary business, this way of bringing babies into
the world. I don't know how God thought if it.'
'My wife and I tried two or three times in the last few years to
have breakfast together but it was so disagreeable we had to
stop.' Could this be because Clementine liked to get up for
breakfast, while her husband's view was that 'Breakfast should be
in bed alone'?
In 1918 his mother, aged sixty-four, married a forty-one-year-old
archaeologist in the Northern Nigeria Civil Service called
Montagu Porch. 'Winston says,' remarked Colonel Repington, Times
correspondent in the First World War, 'that he hopes marriage
won't become the vogue among women his mother's age.' (This was
her third marriage and the second time, following WSC's father's
death, that she was marrying a man some twenty years her junior.)
Again typical of his time, and also typical of his type, Winston
Churchill could treat women with a somewhat heavy-handed
half-gallant humour, which would today receive short shrift as
bordering on sexual harassment - if the following three stories
are to be believed. Strangely, all these examples have something
to do with Richmond, Virginia, which seems to abound with large
At a reception in Richmond, Virginia, in the USA, his hostess, an
ample lady, led WSC, the guest of honour, to the buffet table.
When she offered him some cold chicken, he asked if he could have
a breast. As she helped him to a particularly succulent-looking
piece his hostess informed him genteelly that 'We Southern ladies
use the term "white meat".'
The next day a corsage arrived for her - with the flowers was a
card from Churchill on which he had written 'I would be most
obliged if you would pin this on your "white meat".'
While in Washington during a speaking tour of the States, in
1900, Churchill was introduced to a generously proportioned woman
- from Richmond, Virginia. Proud of her family's adherence to the
former Confederacy, and still not accepting the Reconstruction -
the process of incorporating the Southern states into the United
States - she declared, as she gave him her hand, 'Mr Churchill,
you see before you a rebel who has not been Reconstructed.'
'Madam,' he replied, gazing upon her imposing bosom,
'reconstruction in your case would be blasphemous.'
Getting on for half a century later, Churchill visited Richmond,
Virginia, where a sculpture of him was being unveiled. A
magnificently Rubenesque lady came up to him and cooed
enthusiastically at him: 'Mr Churchill, I want you to know I got
up at dawn and drove a hundred miles for the unveiling of your
Looking upon her generous endowments, WSC answered, 'Madam, I
want you to know that I would happily reciprocate the honour.'
Another transatlantic tale, this time from Canada where Churchill
was on a speaking tour. At a reception he happened to be seated
next to a very strait-laced Methodist minister, when a pert young
waitress came up to them with a tray of glasses of sherry. She
went first to Churchill, who took a glass, and then turned to the
minister. He was appalled to be offered alcohol: 'Young lady,' he
announced, 'I'd rather commit adultery than take an intoxicating
beverage.' Whereupon Churchill beckoned the girl: 'Come back,
miss - I didn't know we had a choice.'
Famously, one of his sparring partners in the House of Commons,
and out of it, was Nancy Astor (funnily enough, born in
Virginia), of whom he wrote in Great Contemporaries: 'She enjoys
the best of both worlds ... she denounces the vice of gambling in
unmeasured terms, and is closely associated with an almost
unrivalled racing stable. She accepts Communist hospitality and
flattery, and remains the Conservative Member for Plymouth.'
The first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament (which she
retained from 1919 to 1945), Nancy Astor was among other things a
champion of temperance (which Churchill is well known not to have
been). On one occasion WSC had just stood up to address
the House and was raising a glass of water to his lips when he
caught sight of her. 'It must be a great pleasure for the noble
lady,' he boomed, 'the member for the Sutton Division of
Plymouth, to see me drink water.'
Referring to her taking up her seat in the House of Commons,
Churchill remarked (admitting to the sense of discomfiture he had
felt at the time), 'Nancy, when you entered the House, I felt you
had come upon me in my bath and I had nothing to protect me but
During a debate in the House of Commons, WSC lost patience with
Nancy Astor and interrupted her, telling her she was an
undesirable alien who should go back home. Lady Astor gave as
good as she got, answering 'As for my Right Honourable Friend, he
himself is half alien and wholly undesirable.'
When he eventually came round to the idea of women holding
executive positions, he signed the order for their appointment
with a flourish and declaration: 'Let there be women!'
The following exchange some claim to be apocryphal, while others
suggest that the man in question was not Churchill but someone
else - possibly F.E.Smith (Lord Birkenhead); however, there is
support - from the Duchess of Marlborough herself - for the
argument that it was Churchill. It is said to have taken place at
Blenheim when the Astors and the Churchills were guests of the
Duke of Marlborough over a weekend, during which Churchill and
Nancy Astor apparently argued ferociously the whole time.
Nancy Astor. 'If I were your wife I would put poison in your
Churchill: 'Nancy, if I were your husband, I would drink it.'
Newly elected to the House of Commons in 1900, the young
Churchill thought that a moustache might add dignity and maturity
to his youthful looks. Not long after a woman came up to him, and
said forthrightly: 'There are two things I don't like about you,
Mr Churchill - your politics and your moustache.' Already then,
it would seem, he was never at a loss for the satisfying retort:
'My dear madam,' he replied, 'pray do not disturb yourself. You
are not likely to come into contact with either,'
Leaving the Commons bar one evening, it is said, Churchill ran
into another woman MP, the formidable Bessie Braddock. 'Winston,'
she said icily, 'you're drunk.' Churchill drew himself up:
'Madam, you're ugly. But tomorrow I shall be shober.'
'It is hard, if not impossible, to snub a beautiful woman - they
remain beautiful and the rebuke recoils.'
The question 'If you could not be who you are, who would you like
to be?' was making the round of the dinner table; eventually it
was Churchill's turn, and everybody waited expectantly to hear
what the great former wartime prime minister would say. 'If I
could not be who I am, I would most like to be . . .' he paused
for effect, then, turning to Clementine: 'Mrs Churchill's second
'My most brilliant achievement was to persuade my wife to marry
Churchill's second daughter Sarah was first married - not for
very long - to an American-Austrian popular comedian called Vic
Oliver. Over twenty years older than her and twice divorced, he
was not considered at all suitable and the Churchills did what
they could to stop the marriage, but it went ahead anyway, and
they became more or less reconciled to it - though they did
consider Oliver 'common'. It is said that at dinner one evening,
Oliver, who had brought along a guest, wanted to draw out his
famous father-in-law. 'Who,' he asked, 'in your opinion, is the
greatest statesman you know?'
That was a mistake. Churchill emerged from his gloomy reverie and
answered smartly and unexpectedly: 'Benito Mussolini.'
'Mussolini is the only statesman who had the requisite courage to
have his son-in-law executed.' (Mussolini's son-in-law was his
Foreign Minister, Count Ciano.)
When, in 1960, a reporter from the London Evening Standard asked
Churchill what he thought about the recent prediction that by the
year 2000 women would be ruling the world, he muttered gloomily
in reply, 'They still will, will they?'
One day in 1953, five-year-old Nicholas Soames, son of
Churchill's daughter Mary Soames, was on a visit to Chartwell.
Hearing the way the grown-ups were talking about WSC, he
understood just one thing of what they were saying and hastened
out of the room to have it confirmed by the horse's mouth,
running upstairs. 'Grandpapa!' he cried, bursting into the Prime
Minister's bedroom, where he was in bed working on a speech.
'Grandpapa, are you really the greatest man in the world?'
'Of course I am the greatest man in the world,' growled
Churchill. 'Now bu-buzz off.'
Discussing with his friend, the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt the
violent action of some suffragettes he had recently encountered,
Churchill did not fail to appropriate the following comment on
what he saw as the absurdity of their habit of chaining
themselves to railings: 'I might as well chain myself to St
Thomas's [Hospital] and say I would not move until I had had a
It is noted by some that Winston never outgrew loving the beauty
of beautiful women. He thought the beauty of young Queen
Elizabeth 2nd was wonderful, and I will say as an eleven year old
boy being made by my parents to watch the whole coronation
service from beginning to end in 1953, which at the time I did
not appreciate. The one redeeming factor was that I also did find
Queen Elizabeth a nice looking lady, as much as an eleven year
old boy could ascertain. Winston Churchill was part of the
pageant in all his robes of glory, but at the time I did not know
who he was.
I do not know the details, but have seen the video clip of
Churchill at a dinner (a large room full of people partaking),
head of the table with Marilyn Monroe seated next to him, in her
glorious self. He did a number of times during the evening, look
at her and say, "You are indeed most beautiful my dear."
So overall, Winston grew in seeing the place for women was not
just in the home with the children. His wife often travelled with
him, was very personal and could indeed hold her own in any
conversation with her husband.
To be continued