Episode 16: Women in 1920s London
(From Cowgirl to Congress)

In this episode, Hazel Baker (London Tour Guide) interviewed Mila Johansen about her grandmother on the front lines of the suffrage movement who lived in London for several years making friends with Lady Astor and rubbing shoulders with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Show and Emmeline Pankhurst. 

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Full Transcript

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to our London history podcast where we share our love of London, its people, places and history. In 20 minute espresso shot episodes served with a dash of personality. I am Hazel Baker, a qualified London tour guide and CEO of London Guided Walks providing private tours, treasure hunts, and live London quizzes to Londoners and visitors alike.

To accompany this podcast we also have hundreds of London history related blog posts for you to enjoy at www.londonguidedwalks.co.uk/blog

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Joining me from across the pond is author Mila Johansen. Very excited to talk about her latest book  Cowgirl to Congress. And this is all about her dear grandmother, Jessie, and her time in England, who was very good friends with Lady Astor and knew George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells. So Mila, this project has been really fascinating, understanding your grandmother's a world in which she lived both in the States and then again in London. So how did this project come about?

Mila Johansen: I was partially raised by my grandmother just to hear her brother who was a famous suffragette on the front lines in 1920, when women in the U S don't have the right to vote and I was closest to her than anyone. So when she passed away, all of her archives were sent to my house.

And I didn't really start going through them until a few years ago, because I was so busy having a child and writing plays and books and teaching. And when we went through it, My niece and I, we found 19 letters, probably the largest collection in the world from lady Astor to Jessie. They were best friends.

And after the women won the vote, Jessie went to England because her husband got a big job in the London embassy. And she met Lady Astor through the London embassy because Lady Astor, I didn't realize until I wrote the book was a woman from Virginia, an American. Yeah. And she became the first woman to sit in parliament and she sat there for 28 years.

And you know, it was an accident how she got in there. Her husband was sitting in the seat and his father died and he had to go into the house, appears you probably know this story. And he said, Nancy, just sit in my seat. I'm sure I'll be back in two years, I'll get out of this. And he never did. So she sat there for 28 years.

Hazel Baker: And it was amazing. She actually won the vote with 51% of the vote.

Mila Johansen: And they weren't very happy to have her there because they weren't used to women. And anyway, she, my grandmother attended many of her balls. She'd have like 2000 people she'd serve them dinner and everything. And Emiline pancreas was in line in front of my grandmother one day and she met the man who wrote Peter Pan.

So after this huge career, In Washington, DC. She had started the Pulitzer school of journalism with one other professor at Columbia. And she was the first woman lobbyist at the Capitol in DC. And she worked with Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt. And so when she came to England, she wasn't sure what she was supposed to do.

And so she and my grandfather attended, it was three summers at the Fabian summer school with George Bernard Shaw. Yeah. And they had a great time. They were so happy. They did that because they realized right away when they got to London, that people in England weren't really different from Americans and they didn't fit in and they had some big mistakes.

They made, like my grandfather said, can you imagine they stop everything at three and have tea? Well, I will stop that because it's not functional well, and Jesse said, well, whew, you know, you may enjoy tea later. So he did of course, but we couldn't change that. And so when they went to the Fabian summer school, they got a huge glance into really what was going on in England because they had all these lectures from people from all over the world.

But especially all over England and George Bernard Shaw became extremely interested in Jesse because. She knew all about prohibition. And as you probably know, George Bernard Shaw was a teetotaler and yes.

And Lady Astor really pushed for increasing the age limit for drinking, which was 14. And then, yeah, so she was on the same lines of this.

Mila Johansen: She wasn't. Jessie said that hardly any of them drank. So Lady Astor wouldn't serve drinks at her balls, except for once in a while, she'd have a separate room, or if people had to drink, they could go in there and do it.

Hazel Baker: Have you been round Lady Astor's house?

Mila Johansen: No, I have not been to Cliveden. I have pictures of it that Lady Astor sent on postcards to Jesse. Have you been there?

Hazel Baker: Oh yeah. So I've been to he's didn't book and I'm sure, but also while Lady Astor was in the house, she acquired a number for St. James's Square. But she's not too far from Y tool at all.

Mila Johansen: Well, half the Jessie are from that address. They are from that address and have her from Clive done.

Hazel Baker: Excellent. Yeah. So whereas St. James's Square and a lot of Londoners are, no, this is a blue plaque outside, and this is a beautiful building. And I have been to parties there. So I can imagine how fantastic it would have been for your grandmother to be standing in these rooms with perceptions up to a thousand in the London, one other than 2000 in the country.

Mila Johansen: Let me ask you, did you, when you went to the one on James, was the ballroom upstairs? That's what Jesse says in the book.

Hazel Baker: That's it? So you walk up these wide stairs and then you go back on yourself. And then there's like a smaller room on the left. And if you walk, but which is basically back onto facing the square, that is the large part or the room.

So you get all the evening line pretty, quite magical. So he'd say club now, so maybe you'll be able to you come over. Maybe you'll be able to have a little look round.

Mila Johansen: I would love to go there and climb then. And they also had their home and her contingency. Portsmith? Yes. Yes. She had a home there too. I don't have the book in front of me. Well, I have.

Hazel Baker: No. That's all right. All right. There's Portsmouth, but she was Lady Astor was a member of parliament for Plymouth, which isn't too far away.

Hazel Baker: Yes. Yeah. Oh, well, it's probably the scene starts with a P so you're close enough. Yeah, so, well, the house in St James's Square, if I kind of help it's, it's really quite exquisite. It also has a little garden, which people kind of don't realize because on the back of the house, it goes onto Haymarket. The Regency streets such as John Nash developed in the early 1800s. So this was a very accessible posh streets. And of course this house was already there had already been there for 50 years. And when they moved in, basically what you see now is what you would have seen then it's being kept intact really, really well.

Hazel Baker: And it's very exciting going in. You do feel that you're entering a year old world, so that's lovely.

So I have a problem with your grandmother when reading the book. It says that your grandmother describes us Brits as shy and modest and badly dressed.

Mila Johansen: Who was she describing at that point?

Hazel Baker: I think, well, she's saying in the daytime as Brits, so quite shabby and then in the evening, we put on our gltz show the world off.

Mila Johansen: And she has a story in her book, how she was invited to dinner to one of the Lord's houses and he seemed more down to earth and, and he said, this is just a casual dinner.

And so they went in very casual clothes, dress, dress in suit, of course. And when they got there, everyone is dressed to their nines for dinner, and they had a big lesson that when people say they're having a casual dinner in their shack, Proper dinner in a palace. So that's right. So they, I mean,

Hazel Baker: yeah, it's funny how we kind of dumb things down, but even when it's smart, casual, it's never the casual side  of it.

So you mentioned about James Barry. You also mentioned one of the parties were Winston Churchill's there as well.

Mila Johansen: Yes. And of course we know lady Astor and Winston Churchill had an ongoing battle at all times. To her balls because he could meet all his people who, all the political associates.

And Jessie always said that Lady Astor, ran it just like a political party almost. And she had so much own fun at her own parties. It's amazing stories about lady asked her, you know, later on Lady Astor, wrote the forward for Jesse's book that she wrote about public speaking time to speak up. And Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a testimonial on the back of it.

Hazel Baker: It's quite amazing really how all these women who have their own particular focuses on life were able to connect and strengthen each other's individual battles as well.

Mila Johansen: Yes. Well, and you know, I didn't realize this until I wrote the book or I was going through her book and rewriting it. That Ellis Paul and American, a Quaker from a very wealthy family in America, attended the London School of Economics and got her PhD there. And that's where she met Emmeline Pankhurst then became a radical feminist.

Hazel Baker: It's great to join these dots. Isn't it? I mean, when I was  reading your book I was thinking it's a bit like four weddings and a funeral, but the opposite! 

Mila Johansen: I named the chapter like that. Right. I went, well, I think four funerals and about three funerals in a ball.

Hazel Baker: Yes. You mentioned about Mrs. H G Wells's is a cremation, but also the wonderful Ellen Terry also cremated at Golders Green, which I didn't know about.  I thought it was really quite interesting how your grandmother's life seemed to split between Westminster, where the embassy and Lady Astor's house and that, and then  also Golders Green, where she lived and where the services were being held as well.

Mila Johansen: Yes. And I thought it was very interesting that she witnessed HD Wells' relationship with George Bernard Shaw, who she already knew. George was so impressed with her, that he had her speak with him several times all over London. I think you saw in the book, I have the actual announcement of her speaking at Essex Hall.

And then the article afterwards, there's an article. I, it was so old and so little, I, I didn't put it in the book, but I typed it in about how George loved the speech. And he loved anything about prohibition because he wanted his ideas to go forward with other people speaking about it.

Hazel Baker: Well, that's the best way though, isn't it? There's only so much you can do on your own soap box.

Mila Johansen: Exactly. And he promoted speakers. That's what the whole Fabian Summer School is about. There just be speaker after speaker and Jesse wasn't even the professional speaker. She became later at that point, she was good, but she became a much better speaker when she returned to America and she went and got her masters or something at Georgetown in DC. And then she wrote her book time to speak up because one of the premier speakers in America, a man said, we have no book for a woman and I'd love you to write it. So he kind of gave her an assignment to write that book. And this book that I've written From Cowgirl to Congress, one third of it does take place in England, which I love reading about England.

Hazel Baker: Yeah. And it's lovely from my point of view, seeing London in the 1920s, I mean her description of a queen Mary and her buttoned up blue dress.

Mila Johansen: With the turban.

Hazel Baker: Exactly. And then, and that, that hat as well, iconic hats.

Mila Johansen: Yes. And that story from the garden party is so funny that when I go and do public lectures, I always tell that story and get a big laugh. From everyone.

Hazel Baker: Yeah. I mean, it is that  kind of thing though. That's a really nearly a hundred years later and we're still saying, Oh, they did that because they're American.

Mila Johansen: Well, you know, I'm putting out another book later called Dear Lady Astor, and it's going to be the letters between Jessie and Nancy Astor. And the interesting thing is they both were trying to build bridges because there was a huge, and I didn't realize this before animosity between the USA and England, and their thoughts were  so similar we need each other, we need to do trade with each other. And you know, they were a lot about money and labour, and both of them were trying to give the parliamentarians on both sides. The idea that we need to build more bridges, not tear them down.

Hazel Baker: Yeah. The same could be said for today as well

Mila Johansen: Yes,  with everybody. Right. You know, a really great thing.

You probably read it, but I love the story in there when she goes to be presented at court. Of Course  the last court in 1928 that ever happened. She bought her dress. Four £40 and everybody else had probably spent $2,000 on their dresses and hers was the only dress that was written up and described in the London and New York Times.

Hazel Baker: That's got to say something, isn't it. She can't buy that. You can't buy a dress to get talked about.

Mila Johansen: I'm a big thrifter person. And so that story is one I have her big picture of her and Jessie being presented at the court of St. James's and I always bring my friends into the room and tell them the story about the dress.

Hazel Baker: Yes. Well,  there were so many rules to follow and how long you'll train is when and all the rest of it. So you've got to nail it. And then of course, everyone, as you said, has spent a huge amount of money investing in these girls  being presented so you've got to do something to catch the eye.

Mila Johansen: And she also heard, had been reading that the queen loved all of them, lilies calla lilies, we call them. And so she made her flowers calla lilies instead of the traditional types of flowers.

Hazel Baker: I think there's a marketer in there somewhere as well, you know, mentioning about the lilies and then also her comments about the housekeeping. She understood people didn't she?

Mila Johansen: Yes. And, you know, she, wasn't afraid to take advice and listen to people. She was a little bit of a bulldozer, my grandmother, in a way, because as a woman back then you kind of had to bulldoze your way into being a lobbyist in DC. Right? And so she was that way, but she was also a great parliamentarian.

She was the one person who lobbied for the first women and she had to go in and meet with a very gruff Senator. And she won him over because she went canoeing and he had gone canoeing. And so he became her friend for life and said, I will help you get any measure through you want. And he was her secret weapon at the Capitol.

And at that point, I can't believe this, but everybody could walk into any room and go to any meeting and even speak at them in the Capitol building. And so it was an amazing time back then. And so she could be, she was a great parliamentarian and she loved to listen to people. She loved to take classes and learn from everybody.

And she valued all her life. What she learned in England and in London, she thought she had learned more skills about living a life as a wife and a mother. And she hailed England all her life.

Hazel Baker: I mean, we're talking about her life lessons. What has been your life lesson with reading these letters and learning more about your grandmother?

Mila Johansen: Well, my grandmother raised me and she was a suffragette all the way to age 9. Her last speech she made at 94 in the early nineties. She took me along when she spoke with Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas  in Hollywood several times. And when she passed away, the NOW women, National Organization of Women came to me and said, Oh, are you going to march in her place?

And I was young, I was 18 or 20 or something. And I said, Oh, no, no, no, no, I'm already free. My grandmother told me I'm free from all the work she already did. I'm emancipated. I was kind of young and I didn't understand politics then. And so I walked my own way, but now. Now Hazel, I am just like her. I speak out against pesticide and GMO and  I'm a little unpopular because I really speak out for that.

And I'm in an organic farmer. I'm from, I grew up in LA in gang land, but I ended up marrying  an organic farmer up here in Northern California. And so I'm just like her now. And I know if she was still here, that would be her issue that she would take on as well.

Hazel Baker: Well, that's really awesome to have that connection it's lovely that you knew her so well, but it's also nice for you to know your grandmother as a woman in her own right. If you, if you don't mean rather than just your gran.

Mila Johansen: You know, it's funny because when she was my grandmother, she was an older woman who smelled a little funny, had big hats, a lot of jewelry. And as I'm reading the book, I'm realizing she was the hip person of her time, she was like the Amy Goodman of her time.

She was brilliant. And she was always on the edge of everything. As much as I knew her, I loved her and we were so close. I didn't know that side of her until I tackled this book.

Hazel Baker: Well, it's a good job that you have those letters and you were able to dedicate some time to unraveling some of her not secret, but her unknown life on that.

And of course, the book in itself is very easy and very pleasurable to read. And it's lovely reading through the eyes of a foreigner and seeing how quirky we Brits really are. And I'm rather proud of that!

Mila Johansen: Well, yeah, I know to be a fly on the wall and here we're having the hundredth anniversary on August 18th here of women winning the vote.

And as I was writing it, I realized that, I didn't realize it when I first started writing it, it was kind of iconic and synchronistic. And then I found out and I was too late. That Lady Astor had her hundredth anniversary of going into parliament last year. So I felt I missed it, you know?

Hazel Baker: Well, there's always an anniversary for something so I can, I'm sure we can.

And don't forget also in what, eight years time it will be Emmeline Pankhurst's funeral anniversary as well.

Mila Johansen: Oh. And also when British women got the vote right in 1928.

Hazel Baker: That's right. Yeah. It's a big year. So there'll be a lot to talk about then. So you'll have to get your second book out for them.

Mila Johansen: Hey, that's a great idea Hazel. You're exactly right. I'll get it up way before. The letters between them are fantastic. There's these really fun letters in there where Lady Astor says, stop talking to me about blackberries. I have a hankering for jam.

Hazel Baker: It makes my mouth water! Yeah. When I read Lady Astor's comment  it made me really want to read those letters and find out exactly what was going on. Cause I felt that I was missing out big time.

It's funny because it's fly on the wall. You know, I don't think there are that many letters. I looked at a museum and they had about five letters from her. And of course with her best friend, Lawrence of Arabia, he read a lot of letters from them back and forth, but 19 is a lot from Lady Astor. My grandmother, luckily she made copies of all her letters.

Mila Johansen: Yeah, no, that was wonderful. I mean, in Lawrence of Arabia, he also lived not too far from where Emiline Pankhurst's funeral was at St. John's church in Smith Square. He literally lived the next street down. And that was quite easy walking distance to where Lady Astor lived as well, through St James's Park.

So it's funny how all of these things become connected and you can start mapping people's lives out.

Yes. And I'm, I have a terrible interest in England. I wrote a novel called The Four Thieves, and it's all about Ludlow, the castle of Ludlow and what saved Catherine of Aragon and her husband who perished of course from the sweating sickness.

I love English history. Philippa Gregory has given us a glimpse into everything before Henry VIII. And I've studied very much Shakespeare. I teach a lot of Shakespeare, but I really love all the stories of the Queens and Henry, all the Henrys I'm well versed in it. And I, I love history. Like you do.

Hazel Baker: Excellent. I think we can learn so much from history. If we know where we've been, we know where we're going.

Mila Johansen: I wish more people knew that. Yes.

Hazel Baker:  If you've enjoyed this episode, then please do take a few moments and leave a review. It is very much appreciated. Thanks again, and see you next time.

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