Skip to main content Skip to navigation

British Parliament

Women and Politics in the Eighteenth Century

Traditional view emphasises the restrictions imposed on women, e.g. the author of The Laws Respecting Women written in 1777. Realities are very different:

Women’s enthusiasm for politics: egs Ann Clavering, sister-in-law to Lord Cowper; Princess Charlotte’s interest in liberty for Ireland. Much of women’s correspondence devoted to politics and women attended public events such as the trials of Dr Sacheverell and Warren Hastings in great numbers. Women also attended debates at Houses of Parliament

Debate about women and politics raged throughout the eighteenth century: some thought women unsuited for politics due to differences in male and female intellect egs Mary Berry, Lady Charlotte Bury and Countess Granville who noted Lady Jersey’s unfeminine actions. Some ascribed masculine traits to women involved in politics e.g. Lady Shelley on Mrs Arbuthnot. This view challenged by Susanna Centilivre, To the World (1761), Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Helena Williams, Letters from France (1790)

Royal favourites and mistresses: a few women could exercise some influence as ‘the power behind the throne’. They have attracted much attention but their influence has been exaggerated, egs Duchesses of Marlborough and Somerset and Abigail Masham and Queen Anne; Mrs Fitzherbert, Lady Hertford and Lady Conyngham and George IV

Salons and political confidants: women could play important roles behind the scenes eg Mrs Arbuthnot to Castlereagh and Wellington. Salons divided into so-called ‘blue-stocking’ where politics not discussed e.g. those of Mrs Montagu and Mrs Vesey and those where political discussion encouraged e.g. those of Mary Berry, Lady Holland and Madame de Stael

Women’s role in parliamentary elections: could control electoral interests in their own right e.g. Mrs Allanson and Elizabeth Lawrence at Ripon. Women also canvassed at election times egs Duchess of Marlborough at St Albans in 1705 and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire at Westminster in 1784.

Women of middling and poor status and politics: egs Peterloo, campaign for Queen Caroline, parliamentary reform

Historians debate about women and politics: some e.g. Catherine Hall and Dorothy Thompson argue that women were increasingly marginalised from all areas of politics as the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth and that 1832 was a turning point. Contrast these views with Linda Colley who argues that the mass of literature advocating that a woman’s place was in the home was symptomatic of the anxiety felt by men as women began to encroach upon their spheres of interest.