How Clementine Churchill Wielded Influence As Winston's Wife Biographer Sonia Purnell says Clementine once remarked that she "would have loved to have been a statesman in her own right if only she had been born with trousers rather than petticoats."

How Clementine Churchill Wielded Influence As Winston's Wife

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As presidential voting begins in the new year, two women are on the ballot. Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina symbolize change. You sense how much change when you consider the political life of a woman in an era before women commonly ran for office. She was the wife of Winston Churchill, who gave heroic speeches as British prime minister in World War II.


WINSTON CHURCHILL: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

INSKEEP: The woman who helped craft those speeches was Clementine Churchill - actually, (pronouncing differently) Clementine, as she said it. Sonia Purnell wrote a book called "Clementine."

SONIA PURNELL: I confess, like millions of others, I had absolutely no idea who Winston Churchill's wife was. But then I stumbled across this letter that she wrote to him in 1940 when he became prime minister. And France had fallen, the BeNeLux countries had fallen. Really, Britain was all alone, and everyone thought it was about to be invaded itself. But she realized that he was in danger of losing support with the very people he needed most. He was being brusque and rude and rather overbearing. So she wrote him this letter, and it just tells him how he needs to bring people alongside him to make them love him. His behavior changed as a result of this, and people changed their minds about him. So once I'd read that letter, I couldn't wait to find out more.

INSKEEP: Was that normal throughout their lives, that she gave him specific political advice?

PURNELL: Oh yes, I think she realized she couldn't be the ordinary wife. She would lose Winston. She would never see him. So really from very, very early on she threw herself into making herself the right sort of woman for him. She wanted to prove that she was up to it, and lots of people thought she wasn't when she first married him. She'd come from this rackety background. She was quite shy. And so she pushed herself to become this incredibly wise, measured, knowledgeable, well-read person.

INSKEEP: You just said rackety background, which is a word I think I will now start using myself here in the United States. What was her rackety background?

PURNELL: OK, well, she was the granddaughter of a Scottish earl. But her mother was something of a Victorian wild child, Lady Blanche. She was married off. It was a pretty loveless match. He didn't want children. She did. She went about this with some - enthusiasm, shall we say.

INSKEEP: Without him, I guess we should add.

PURNELL: Without him, absolutely. She had up to 10 lovers on the go at once. As a result of this, her mother was shunned by polite society, had very little money. They kept having to move house. None of this was the sort of life you would normally expect of the granddaughter of a Scottish earl.

INSKEEP: What was it about Clementine, when Churchill finally did talk with her, that attracted him?

PURNELL: I think because of her rackety background - she had no money - she was making her own living. She wasn't like the normal society women that he'd met who were interested in frocks and balls and not much else. So suddenly, here was a woman who was interested in what he had to say about all sorts of things, and he found that thrilling. She found it rapturous that here was someone prepared to talk about the great and exciting world events, events which she wished she could be a part of.

INSKEEP: Did she share his ambition to the extent of actually pushing him farther than he might have gone on his own?

PURNELL: I think he always wanted to be prime minister. She always wanted him to be prime minister too. I think the difference she made was that earlier in his career, he made countless mistakes. Take the Dardanelles for instance in the First World War, disastrous military campaign.

INSKEEP: Let's say the word Gallipoli - just to remind people - the Gallipoli Campaign...

PURNELL: Yeah, yeah, the name.

INSKEEP: Notorious defeat for the British, yes.

PURNELL: Exactly, and for many Empire troops, this was something that has, you know, stayed in history as a military disaster. You might argue it wasn't really Churchill's fault. Well, you might argue it was. In any case, he got the blame. And she saw that the way back - he had to redeem himself- that by volunteering to fight in the trenches at the Western Front, he could somehow show people that he wasn't this hothead. He wasn't just all about him.

INSKEEP: You describe a rather breathtaking moment in which Churchill has gone off to the Western Front. He's fighting with the British Army, and she writes him - does she not? - to effectively say don't come back too soon.

PURNELL: Yes, can you imagine? I mean, obviously she knew that she put - a wicked bullet could find him at any moment. But she wanted people to want him to come back. She knew that if he just came back, people would just say well, it's the same old Winston. He's not learned. If he stayed out there long enough that people realized that he was needed, then that would be different.

INSKEEP: You've already given us a glimpse of Clementine advising Churchill as Prime Minister during World War II. Did she also become a power in her own right, someone that people would consult directly, who had her own sources of information, her own ways of getting things done?

PURNELL: She did. She saw that all Britain had in 1940 and 1941 was a collective spirit and that that had to be fostered and nurtured and protected. And yet people were discontented. The air raid shelters during the Blitz were pretty horrible. They were cold. They were dark. They were scary. And so she went about ordering government ministers around. Please put heating in there. Please make sure there's a fire exit there. Please manufacture 2 million new beds so people can sleep alongside their children during the raids and stop them becoming too frightened. She saw that by dealing with these problems, you would foster that incredible Blitz spirit that people still talk about now.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, has this research affected the way that you think about modern political couples when you see them in the news?

PURNELL: Clementine I think found a way of doing some things on her own but in other ways supporting Churchill as prime minister that I would say is unique. And sometimes, I look at some of the political spouses today, and I wonder where their ambition is. I mean, obviously times are different now, but, you know, in Britain you very rarely hear anything about the prime minister's wife apart from what frock she's wearing or where she went on holiday. I'm amazed really that we're still in that position where we don't celebrate the fact that in many ways, we get two for the price of one - because with the Churchills, we did.

INSKEEP: Of course, here in the United States, we had a first couple who advertised themselves as two for the price of one in the '90s, and now the spouse is running for president.

PURNELL: Yes, and do you know what? I think Clementine would be absolutely thrilled if she was still around today. I mean, she once said in earlier life, you know, she would have loved to have been a statesman in her own right if only she had been born with trousers rather than petticoats. I think if she were alive today, I suspect very much that she would be in the British cabinet. She would certainly be an MP. And maybe, who knows, she might have gone for the prime minister's job herself.

INSKEEP: Sonia Purnell author of "Clementine: The Life Of Miss Winston Churchill." Thanks very much.

PURNELL: Thank you.

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