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About this book

This account examines some of the areas of women's political activity in Britain from the Glorious Revolution to the election of the first female Prime Minister in 1979. It shows how women had worked in a variety of arenas and organizations before the suffrage campaign and explores the directions their political activity took afterwards.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Shaping the Narrative: Waves, Peaks and Troughs

Introduction: Shaping the Narrative: Waves, Peaks and Troughs

Abstract
These four quotations from four different centuries are each concerned with the relationship between women and parliament, the epicentre of political power in the British state. All respond to direct or indirect suggestions that women might participate in the political life of the nation by voting for and serving in Parliament by suggesting that such activity is in some way unsuited to them. The Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights was a legal textbook published some time after the reign of Elizabeth I had provoked discussions about how much political power women could exercise. The second quotation emerged from an eighteenth-century public debating society as members considered whether women might vote or sit in a democratised parliament. Gladstone’s response to Samuel Smith reflected a growing interest in the question of women’s suffrage in the late nineteenth century, and Sir Hedworth Meux was voicing his opposition to the bill that would allow women to become MPs in the early twentieth century. The time that elapsed between each quotation shows that women’s place in national politics has been a recurrent theme in British history, both within Parliament and beyond it in the realm of print and debate, where public opinion is formed. Discussions of women’s relationship to politics are as old as discussions of politics itself.
Krista Cowman

Forging a Political Presence

Frontmatter

1. From Glorious Revolution to Enlightenment: Women’s Political Worlds, 1689–1789

Abstract
This chapter examines aspects of women’s political activity from the Glorious Revolution to the closing years of the eighteenth century. Until recently this approach would have seemed unusual: early modern political history concerned itself with ‘high politics’, the narrow world of court and government where men held sway, with occasional attention paid to groups such as the Levellers.1 Lately this has been challenged by research that has argued the need for a broader definition of the political in an age when few men had access to governmental institutions. Studies such as those by Wrightson have demonstrated alternative sites for political activity in the everyday world of the early modern parish.2 Women’s historians have expanded these approaches to query the gendering of early modern politics. Women, it has been shown, took part in politics at all levels of society.3 Their participation was not always separate. Lower-class women joined with men to voice concerns over religious, economic and social matters in popular demonstrations and riots throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yet, as Mendelson and Crawford have noted, early modern women developed ‘their own objectives in political action,’ which were not always identical to those of men.4 Sometimes these linked directly to their role as wives or mothers. On other occasions religion gave women a public platform. Again this was not unique in a period when state and church were inseparable. Nevertheless, religion ‘authorised women in public political action’, and they often exceeded men in public expression of dissenting beliefs.5 This included direct action; a woman was credited with sparking the rioting against the Scottish Prayer Book which opened the Covenanting Revolution of 1637. Recent research suggests that Jenny Geddes, the servant whose attack on the Dean of Edinburgh initiated the protest, is better understood as a composite of several women, confirming female participation.6 Religious protest was not without risk for women; Covenanting activities led to a number being executed in the 1680s.7
Krista Cowman

2. Organised Politics before Suffrage

Abstract
According to Ray Strachey, ‘The true history of the Women’s Movement is the whole history of the nineteenth century’.1 Many historians suggest that an identifiable ‘women’s movement’ did not appear until the mid-nineteenth century, when the suffrage campaign gathered momentum (although its concerns were far greater than the simple aim of the parliamentary vote). Yet this movement did not come from nowhere. From the early nineteenth century, women combined independently or alongside men to make political demands. This chapter outlines some of the main areas of women’s collective activity prior to the point when a distinct women’s movement emerged. It shows how their experience brought them invaluable political skills as well as helping them to develop analyses of a range of social questions relating to sexual inequality. These skills and analyses facilitated the coalescence of what we might consider feminist demands into a women’s movement which lasted beyond the First World War.
Krista Cowman

The Women’s Movement Organises

Frontmatter

3. The Campaign for Women’s Suffrage

Abstract
In Ray Strachey’s account of the origins of the British women’s suffrage movement, a young Emily Davies visited her friends Elizabeth and Millicent Garrett. Sitting in front of a bedroom fire, they discussed the problems and inequities they faced as women. Emily suggested a three-point strategy to overcome these:
‘Well, Elizabeth’, she said, ‘It’s quite clear what has to be done. I must devote myself to securing higher education, while you open the medical profession to women. After these things are done,’ she added, ‘we must see about getting the vote … You are younger than we are, Millie, so you must attend to that.’1
Krista Cowman

4. Women and the Liberal Party

Abstract
The nineteenth century brought changes in British politics which altered the practices associated with political involvement and activity. Successive Reform Acts in 1832, 1867, 1868 (Scotland) and 1884 expanded the electorate. Although the parliamentary franchise remained exclusively male and was based on a property or residency qualification, around 60 per cent of adult men could vote for Parliament by the end of the century. The political map altered, mirroring Britain’s pattern of industrialisation, with more constituencies, reflecting population shifts towards larger urban centres. The two-party system which had been a feature of British politics since the end of the seventeenth century also began to change. Liberals and Conservatives dominated elected offices before the First World War but were challenged by the success of a small number of socialist candidates, particularly at local level. This suggested that party affiliation could no longer be assumed, particularly in urban districts where many working men voted after 1884. Urbanisation also meant that levels of support could not easily be predicted from old allegiances based on familial networks rooted in generations of residency. New electors required courting and canvassing. Votes were now considered as something that had to be won.
Krista Cowman

5. Women and the Conservative Party

Abstract
From 1918 until 1979 women were in the majority amongst Conservative Party members and voters, and their support has been widely credited with the Party’s electoral successes in this period.1 Yet while political scientists have attempted to interrogate the factors underpinning this support and its later decline, historians of women’s politics have shown less interest in conservative women.2 Compared with the literature examining varying strands of liberal, socialist and radical feminism and the differences between them, ‘conservative feminism’ remains an under-discussed phenomenon. Olive Banks’ early survey of the social origins of first-wave feminism noted an ‘absence of any close tie’ between the two philosophies. Banks’ interpretation has proved extremely intractable leading, in Barbara Caine’s words, to a scholarly tradition in which the ‘very idea that feminism could be associated with some intellectual frameworks is … hard to accept.’3 Indeed, one rare attempt by a feminist scholar to grapple with the notion of a Conservative feminism was subtitled ‘Why do women vote Tory?’ suggesting that such an allegiance was best viewed as a problem which required investigation.4 Beyond feminist history the scant attention paid to women and the Conservative Party in political histories of the inter and post-war periods has replicated this position, presenting female conservatism as unexpected and perplexing.
Krista Cowman

6. Women and Socialism

Abstract
From the 1890s, women who wanted to work through political parties no longer faced a stark choice between Liberalism and Conservatism. A growing socialist movement drew in many women members, particularly at local level where they became active in party branches and participated in a wealth of cultural organisations. For women on the left, the newly emerging socialist parties offered full membership and distinctive opportunities. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) took self-conscious pride in its ability to attract and retain women members. Women were also active in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and, from 1906, in the Labour Party. The latter’s commitment to women’s suffrage encouraged the development of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) Election Fighting Fund, which established a formidable alliance between suffragists and Labour before the First World War. In more recent years, the interplay between labour history and women’s history has encouraged research on socialist women. Thus we have more information about their political work before the First World War than exists for their liberal or conservative contemporaries.
Krista Cowman

Women’s Politics after the Vote

Frontmatter

7. Women Members of Parliament

Abstract
The Representation of the People Act of 1918 redefined the political status of British women. Their involvement in formal party-political structures had altered throughout the nineteenth century as parties responded to the demands of industrialisation, an expanding electorate and a rise in contested elections. Women had played an important role in shaping party responses through their work in auxiliary organisations, or, if they were socialists, also as equal members. The numbers of women involved in local government grew and their involve-ment became more formalised as the state took over many of their traditional charitable and philanthropic roles. During the First World War, government increasingly expected women to pay a role in administration and set up bodies such as the Central Committee for the Employment of Women to enable this. Yet despite suffragists’ best efforts, Parliament remained closed to women.
Krista Cowman

8. Women in Political Parties, 1918–45

Abstract
After the Representation of the People Act (1918) political parties were swift to take account of a new female constituency. While no party sought to promote women MPs, all assumed that women would vote as a bloc for the party that represented their interests. Politically active women noticed a change in attitudes, as Ray Strachey recalled:
The [1918 Act] had not been on the Statute Book a fortnight before the House of Commons discovered that every Bill … had a ‘women’s side’ and the Party Whips began eagerly to ask ‘what the women thought?’ … Letters from women constituents no longer went straight into wastepaper-baskets … and the agents of the women’s societies were positively welcomed at Westminster.1
Krista Cowman

9. Beyond Party Politics — the Reconfiguration of Feminist Organisations, 1920–79

Abstract
Suffrage dominated the women’s movement for half a century, but most campaigners never saw their work as being limited to the vote alone. They hoped voting would enable women to overturn sexual inequalities themselves, and transform the gendered structures of the Edwardian state. After the 1918 Representation of the People Act, feminists followed different paths towards achieving their wider goals. For those whose feminism was shaped by conservative, liberal or socialist ideology, the possibility of equal membership convinced them to put their energies into the political parties which were attempting to integrate women into their structures. Others rejected mixed-sex organisations in an effort to retain the autonomy of the suffrage movement by working collectively with other women beyond the confines of party politics. The failure of the Woman’s Party experiment in 1918 confounded hopes for a feminisation of politics via an autonomous sex-based party. This left the women’s movement working on several demands across a number of different pressure groups, often with overlapping memberships, which lacked the coherence of the suffrage movement. Some of these were reconfigured versions of older suffrage organisations; others represented new developments responding to broader societal changes. Shifts continued after the Second World War, when the groups that formed in 1920s were confronted with an emerging generation of activists with no experience or memory of the Edwardian women’s movement.
Krista Cowman

Conclusion

Abstract
On 4 May 1979, Margaret Thatcher paused on the steps of number 10 Downing Street to talk to journalists before starting work as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. One journalist asked her if she had ‘any thoughts at this moment about Mrs Pankhurst’, a question which Thatcher chose to ignore.1 Women’s groups were similarly ambivalent about her appointment: while some welcomed the symbolic potential of a woman Prime Minister, others demonstrated with placards demanding ‘women’s rights, not a right-wing woman’.
Krista Cowman
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