International Women's Day: The Woman who 'Left a Deep Impression' on Stalin
As a group of final year history students, we are all writing dissertations about Britain in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Our dissertations focus on a range of topics – attitudes towards sex and love, interwar politics, children’s experiences of the Blitz and the Black Market – and Winston Churchill features in quite a few of the books we have read so far.
This isn’t that surprising. Churchill was the UK’s prime minister during the Second World War and was a significant, if controversial, figure in interwar politics. Most of us studied him at school, and his image and speeches continue to dominate media accounts of the 1940s. To put it another way: what work on wartime Britain would be complete without discussing him?
Although Churchill died 35 years before most of us were born, his legacy has continued to have an impact. In 2002, he was voted top of a BBC poll to find the 100 Greatest Britons (the list included 13 women: six royals, Margaret Thatcher, Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, Julie Andrews, Jane Austen, JK Rowling and Marie Stopes). More recently, there has been a lot of discussion of his support for colonialism.
Churchill also featured heavily in the Netflix historical drama ‘The Crown’. The programme shows his wife Clementine as a very supporting figure, and one of the very few people willing to speak frankly to him. To mark International Women’s Day 2021, we want to fill in some of the details to show just how important she was.
More than Mrs Churchill
Clementine Churchill’s character in ‘The Crown’ follows an established trend. When Clementine died, her obituary in The Times was subtitled ‘Life devoted to career of a great statesman’ (The Times, 13 Dec 1977, 19).
However, the newspaper warned its readers not to assume that she simply lived in her husband’s shadow. Our research has found that she played a key role in shaping his career and was a public figure in her own right.
Clementine also had a life before she was Mrs Churchill. She achieved well at school and was known for her intellect and drive. She was also strong-minded, breaking off two engagements before marrying Winston Churchill after a short romance in 1908.
Clementine Churchill is described by her biographer, the historian Brian Harrison, as having a ‘shrewd political intelligence’ that ‘helped to ward off political mistakes’. This quality was especially valuable to Winston Churchill, whose career included periods of controversy and political isolation as well as his celebrated wartime leadership.
She was also better with people than her husband, winning friends during election campaigns and later accompanying him on tours of bombed cities during the Second World War. Her visits to air raid shelters to speak with those caught up in the Blitz may even have inspired the infamous scene in the Churchill biopic ‘Darkest Hour’, where Winston Churchill takes advice from passengers on the London Underground.
A public figure
The best example of Clementine Churchill’s public role was her leadership of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund. This was set up in October 1941 to send medical supplies to the USSR. To raise funds, Clementine rallied support from everyone: from the wealthy to factory workers who were willing to pledge a penny a week to help the campaign. The fund raised £1 million by Christmas 1941, and a massive £8m by the end of the war.
Clementine Churchill travelled to Soviet Russia in the late March 1945 to see for herself how the aid had been used. She told the Russian people that she had ‘long wished to visit your country’ and held ‘admiration and respect, awe and wonder and affection the great exploits of your wonderful army’ (The Times, 3 Apr 1945, p. 4). The Soviet leadership awarded her with the Red Banner of Labour as thanks for her work, and made her the guest of honour at an official lunch to celebrate victory over Nazi Germany.
The visit was deemed an overwhelming success on both sides. Josef Stalin later sent Mr Churchill a message to say that his wife had ‘left a deep impression’ on the Russian public. Her trip was seen as one of the most important instances of ‘cordiality’ between the Soviets and the British and came during a time of mounting tension between the Allies over the future of Europe. The impression she left shows that Mrs Churchill was far more than just her husband’s last name.