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Women's involvement in electoral politics and local government

Politics not beyond the reach of 18c and early 19c women

Women’s ‘virtual representation’ in this period = a form of political identity for women (Gleadle & Richardson)


Aristocratic/upper-class women

Chronology for aristocratic influence

18c = ‘aristocratic century’ - patronage vital part of political and public life

French Revolutionary period – aristocratic dominance in Britain threatened

1815-1880s revival of aristocratic confidence BUT widening of male franchise

Chronology for aristocratic women’s influence

1832 Reform Act – all women specifically excluded from franchise

1832 – 1860s – dominance of domestic ideology but

1841 Bedchamber Crisis (Queen Victoria could not retain ‘Whig’ ladies in waiting during a Tory administration) – private sphere not necessarily a depoliticised one for aristocratic women (Reynolds)

1870s/1880s aristocratic women leading women’s party political auxiliaries

1885 General Election - new style of political canvassing by upper-class women


Participation of women

debate amongst aristocratic women about their involvement in politics

some argued women not suited to politics because their intellects different from men’s

some believed political commitment was unfeminine


when aristocratic women supported the family interest, they did so by

  • promoting family prestige, influence and economic position
  • exercising patronage
  • involvement in politics


‘social politics’ – aristocratic women supported male relatives by

  • holding receptions and social events
  • electoral ‘treating’ in family-held constituencies
  • visiting electors
  • canvassing electors to obtain their support of family’s candidate
  • supporting the family interest
  • deemed acceptable way that women could engage in public sphere BUT
  • public support of candidates who were not relatives was not, e.g. 1784 Westminster Election – Duchess of Devonshire canvassed strangers (not her tenants or employees) on behalf of Charles James Fox, who was not her relative

self-generated political activity – women demonstrating their own interest/involvement in politics

  • direct intervention in electoral politics by 18c and early 19c women landowners – controlled unreformed boroughs which were part of family estates
  • influenced selection of candidates (Reynolds, Richardson)
  • pressurised workforce/tenantry to vote in favour of their
  • candidate (Richardson)
  • 18c aristocratic women observed debates in H. of Parliament
  • 1834 rebuilt H. of Parliament – special galleries for women observers
  • political salons, e.g. Lady Palmerston, Duchess of Devonshire
  • offered social setting where political discussions could take place outside of Parliament
  • salonnieres often acted as unofficial party whips (Forman)
  • family and kinship networks between women – could discuss
  • politics and ideas (Gleadle & Richardson)


party politics

aristocratic women became patrons and leaders of women’s party-political auxiliaries, eg

Primrose League (1883) – Conservatives

Women’s Liberal Federation (1887) - Liberals

Corrupt Practices Act 1883 – canvassers for political parties could not be paid – opportunities for upper-class

women to campaign for their male relatives

very different from ‘Lady of the Manor’ style visiting of

tenants or workforce

new style of canvassing developed by Primrose League women

behaved with complete propriety

systematically worked electoral wards

between elections:

  • worked as unpaid assistants to paid Conservative agents
  • visited Conservative supporters
  • kept canvass books recording known Conservative supporters
  • kept electoral registers up-to-date

Middle-class women

witnesses to electoral procedures – called as witnesses into Parliamentary investigations into corrupt practices in elections

women’s evidence called for

spoke in a public sphere

seen as authorities on community custom and practice

local office-holding – women’s capacity to hold posts in community connected with their property ownership

single women and widows could exercise rights to act as vergers, sextons, parish clerks – rights lost in 1835

18c. widows and spinsters assigned to men their voting rights in local politics

electoral politics

contemporaries believed that women had important influence over the way their husbands voted

wives important – specifically sought by canvassing candidates

the vote seen as ‘a piece of family property’

how vote exercised was negotiated between husband and wife

if wife’s property ownership carried voting rights, these were exercised by her husband

alternatively, women saw themselves as stakeholders in their husbands’ vote – this gave them ‘virtual representation’

exclusive dealing – economic aspect of canvassing - wives supported/boycotted shopkeepers known to support a particular candidate


local politics

1869 Municipal Franchise Act

women ratepayers in England and Wales allowed to vote in local elections

1870s+ women could stand for election to local authority management boards, e.g. workhouses, school boards, Poor Law boards

women’s involvement in local government probably at its height in late 19c and early 20c


Older accounts of the ‘novelty’ of women’s political activity and suffrage campaigning in the late 19c and early 20c may be compared with recent research into women’s involvement in all sorts of political areas in the 18c and early 19c

More nuanced readings in this newer work

Continuities of custom and practice

Significance of community interests

New ways of looking at networks, domestic ideology, gender, sociability

On the other hand, how far women developed their own political consciousness remains an on-going debate

Power of women in political processes

Aristocratic women – still unenfranchised; influence derived from connections with men; influence indirect

Middle-class women – wives canvassed to exert influence over

their husbands’ votes

working-class women believed to have enormous influence over their husbands, including how they voted

Women’s participatory politics – from 1870s, still in the gift of men who passed the legislation allowing female property owners a limited, local franchise and entry to local office holding

Female suffrage – women’s political auxiliaries – party loyalty before suffrage? – hard to organise cross-class and cross-party agreements between women