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New Research Reveals Time When Men Burnt Women Politicians' Petticoats

Buring effiges of women
political figures' petticoats
in 1760's England
Originally Published 10 September 2000

Women politicians today have significant symbols and weapons to help them fight their corner, such as the image of a handbaging from Mrs Thatcher or the threat of revelations from serialised biographies such as Mo Mowlam's, but new research, in a book published this week by historians Dr Sarah Richardson of the University of Warwick and Kathryn Gleadale of London Guildhall, describes a time when for 100 years women politicians were not feared for their handbags but were persecuted for their petticoats.

The worst moment of political petticoat persecution described in the book Women in British politics 1760 - 1860: the Power of the Petticoat, occurs when the authors describe how in years 1762-3 mobs hung burning petticoats from scaffolds to show their hate for the supposed political influence of the Earl of Bute's alleged companion the Princes Dowager.

In the following century the image of the petticoat was constantly used to deride the influence of women in politics. In 1832 Crompton Staveley, Liberal candidate for the parliamentary seat of Ripon, used it to attack the political influence on Ripon by local land owner, Elizabeth Sophia Lawernce, saying:

I now stand before you to do away with petticoat
influence. Men could no longer bear it that one
immense blue petticoat should cover the whole
town of Ripon and exclude from its inhabitants
those bright rays of light and liberty

Many political pamphlets of the period used the petticoat image to attack women - The Prerogative of Breeches: an answer to Petticoat-Government, Written by a true-born English Man (1702), The Petticoat Plotters (1712), and A Secret History of the Petticoat Plot against the Liberties of the People (1832). In 1849 Blackwood's Magazine even invented the collective noun of a "Petticoatery" to describe groups of women in politics.
The accession of Queen Victoria to the throne caused further concern about the political power of women. A comic balled was composed early in her reign (1837) entitled Petticoats is Master which warned British men of the threat posed by a female monarch to their liberties and suggested that women might even get together to pass laws restricting access to alcohol. The first verse ran as follows:

Now all married men, I'd have you look out,
Or the Petticoats surely will bang you about,
For the women have got the right side of the Queen
So success to the Petticoats wherever they're seen

For further details please contact:
Dr Sarah Richardson Sarah.Richardson@warwick.ac.uk
Tel: 024 76 523417 Office: 01295 690554 Home