Friday, 15 February 2008

Women and Politics: Into Local Government

It is possible to assess the differences in male and female perceptions of politics in a practical way by looking at the impact of women’s contributions in the arena of local government. From 1869, a number of measures affected women’s participation in a whole range of municipal offices.  The Municipal Franchise Act 1869 gave women ratepayers the vote “in the election of councillors, auditors and assessors” from which they had been excluded since 1835 on the same terms as men. Despite the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, the courts ruled in 1872 that this vote should be confined to single and widowed women. It was not until 1894 that the Local Government Act extended these rights to married women and allowed women to serve as councillors.  In the Education Act 1870, (that established school boards to set up and manage state board schools) these women became similarly eligible to vote for and stand in elections to the new School Boards. Around 70 were serving by 1879. Similar provisions applied to Scottish women from 1872 onwards but it was not until 1882, following feminist pressure and representation from Glasgow’s MP, that they enjoyed the municipal franchise and the right to vote in burgh (town) elections.  It was unclear whether women were eligible for election to the poor law boards established in 1834. Both the electors and board guardians were required to possess property and women could not use the property qualifications of their husbands. In 1875, Martha Merrington became the first woman to be elected to as a Poor Law Guardian. It was harder for women to be elected partly because of the property qualifications required (until 1894) and because farmers, shopkeepers and the businessmen who dominated the boards and put financial considerations first, feared those women would be extravagant.  The Local Government Act 1894 allowed women to serve on parish rural district and urban district councils. By the late 1890s, they were in evidence in local government, on School Boards and Poor Law Boards, on parish, rural and urban district councils and on London’s vestries. Only the city and county councils eluded them. The Local Government Act 1907 admitted women to all local government authorities (including borough and county councils) and women ran their first candidates that autumn. By 1914, some fifty women were serving on borough and county councils in England and Wales.

The slow growth of direct female involvement after 1869 became a rapid rush after the 1894 Act. In 1892, there were some 136 women among the 28,000 Poor Law Guardians in England and Wales[1]. By 1895, women accounted for 800 or 900 of the total though a large number of Boards of Guardians still had no women members at all. By 1900, there were around 1000 women Poor Law Guardians, more than 200 women members of School Boards and about 200 women parish councillors. Women formed 13.7 per cent of the eligible local government electorate. Female involvement in many levels of local politics may be interpreted as an extension of philanthropic and improving work. The establishment of School Boards to supervise state schooling provision and of Poor Law Boards concerned with relief of the destitute, were clearly areas in which many middle class women found scope for quasi-public charitable work. Coming into local government from philanthropy, moral reform, suffragism and party politics, the elected women shared a feminist perspective which they deployed, quite explicitly, on behalf of women and children, the old and sick, the morally, mentally and physically deformed. Patricia Hollis argues, “They spoke to the moral community”. They also linked the local and parliamentary franchises, maintaining that the one led logically to the other.

The metropolitan and provincial school boards drew in many able women -- including Lydia Becker, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett -- who gave a larger commitment to their tasks than many employed male colleagues. They learned how to play politics, build support networks (which included male family allies), make policy and administer it, cope with demanding workloads, adapt middle-class attitudes to the working-class communities they frequently served and persuaded the working class to accept features of the educational system, such as compulsory schooling, that they viewed with dismay.

The 1869 and 1894 Acts did not given women access to all areas of local government, and in both the 1880s and 1890s, setbacks occurred. The London County Council Act 1888 resulted in three women candidates being put up for election, all of them active feminists. Lady Sandhurst’s success was short-lived and the Court of Appeal held that her sex made her ineligible to be a councillor. This prompted the founding of a committee to secure the return of women to the London County Council, a committee that widened its remit in time as the Women’s Local Government Society. The success of their adversaries was further entrenched by the London Government Act 1899 that replaced the older administrative unit of the vestry with new metropolitan boroughs. Women could sit on vestries (a by-product of the 1894 Act) but under the new act, they could vote but not run for election on the new metropolitan boroughs. In 1902, school boards were abolished, to the dismay of the women’s movement. Elementary education passed to borough and county councils to which women could not be elected, though they could be statutorily co-opted on to all local education authorities (LEAs). By 1914, seven hundred or so had been co-opted onto the LEAs and other committees.

The accent on the domestic and the setbacks in London should not obscure the significance of the public political context in which women were now required to act. The Local Government Act 1894, pressed for by women’s groups, created secular parish councils and rural and urban district councils for which women ratepayers and married women owning property separately from their husbands could vote. District councillors automatically became members of boards of guardians, while the Act abolished the £5 property requirement and ruled that any adult who satisfied residence qualification could be elected. As a result, the number of women guardians increased. The number of women elected to the new councils was modest: 200 on the 8,000 parish councils in 1896 and by 1900 about 150 rural and 10 urban district councillors. The elective nature of these bodies meant that women fielded as candidates would have a high public profile, a high degree of accountability when elected and, of course, be required to work in mixed gender committees. The stand taken by women on a range of issues -- from corporal punishment to sewerage and housing -- was generally less allied to political factions and more concerned with improving social conditions. Middle class women were particularly strong in local government in the great industrial cities of the North and Midlands, reflecting the dominance of the political structure by the liberal middle classes and women’s activities there in suffrage societies, philanthropy and liberalism. However, women were disappointed that so few of them had broken into the final citadel of local power, after all their struggles. It was difficult. Borough councillors needed a property qualification, just as guardians did before 1894 and this limited the field to the single and the well to do. There was the further hurdle of election. Most women candidates stood on the left, while local government after 1906 was swinging to the Conservatives.

[1] The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act set up poor law unions (groups of parishes). Each union was managed by an elected Board of Guardians.


Anonymous said...

I am doing a workplace quiz and asked: "In what year were married women allowed to vote in LOCAL elections (but not the House of Commons)".
I thought the answer was 1894 with the Local Govt Act but have received answers all saying 1907. Which is right?

Richard Brown said...

Both 1894 and 1907 are correct. The Local Government Act 1894 allowed women to serve on parish rural district and urban district councils. By the late 1890s, they were in evidence in local government, on School Boards and Poor Law Boards, on parish, rural and urban district councils and on London’s vestries. Only the borough and county councils eluded them. This was remedied in the Local Government Act 1907 and women ran candidates that autumn. By 1914, some fifty women were serving on borough and county councils in England and Wales.