Sunday, 17 February 2008

Women and Politics: Into political parties after 1880

One result of the widening of the franchise in 1884-5 was the rapid growth in the number of women’s political organisations. Historians have suggested that, because the Third Reform Act 1884 substantially increased the number of voters and led to a restructuring of constituencies, some form of new political organisation was necessary to ensure that the parties could maintain the support of the voters. It was in the 1880s that the main political parties began to make use of the time and energy that women who supported them were prepared to give.

Women were admitted to the mixed Conservative Primrose League in 1884, a year after its foundation, as Dames (the female equivalent of Knights) or, if of a lesser social standing, as associated members. They worked in the mixed local Habitations: the Ladies’ Grand Council of the League, subordinate to the male Grand Council, failed to develop any very clear stance of its own. The first local Women’s Liberal Associations was founded in Bristol in 1881. However, it was only after the success of the Primrose League that the growth of WLAs accelerated. In 1887, they were welded into the National Women’s Liberal Federation, a council of 500 delegates elected by the local associations with an executive committee of thirty chosen by the council. Liberals tended to come from a more socially mixed background, dominated however by nonconformity and with a higher proportion of women already engaged in philanthropic activities. The Liberal Federation was locally responsive and less hierarchical than the Primrose League: but both organisations undoubtedly effectively deployed the talents of women.

There was a difference, however, both in outlook and policies despite the shared concept of separate responsibilities held by both Conservative and Liberal women. The Dames of the Primrose League disclaimed unfeminine assertiveness and held fast to a ‘womanly’ ideal[1].  At the same time, they demonstrated effective and practical organising skills.  They were particularly strong in rural areas where the politics of deference still had a powerful hold and where philanthropic work was linked to the influence of property.Their role as unpaid canvassers and organisers was an important one, extending the boundaries of what was acceptable for upper middle class women, as they entered into electioneering and canvassing, were instructed in political issues and showed themselves to excel in public speaking.

The Liberal Federation and its active Executive were both assertive and determined[2].  They claimed that women too should shape and define policy, especially in areas of their special concern.  Much sprang from that nonconformist and liberal ‘morality’ already tested in campaigns for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, for social purity and other moral causes.  Liberal women aimed not only to drawn in others to serve a party cause but to preserve their own separate moral and political voice.

The Liberal women deliberately encouraged women to acquire political power, both directly and indirectly. In contrast, most of the Primrose League’s active campaigners took less interest in matters specifically affecting women with the exception of the women’s suffrage issue on which members split. Rosamund Billington suggested that the early Women’s Liberal Associations were set up to combat many Liberals’ indifference to women’s suffrage, but those that were set up later did not necessarily have a suffragist agenda. The Liberal Federation began to develop its own annual conferences that covered many issues of interest to women. Though it too split on the issue of suffrage, the Federation was by 1902 calling on the Party to accept adult suffrage. Perhaps as significant, the Federation worked with many other women’s pressure groups and trade unions to achieve their common objectives: labour legislation, legal reform, national insurance provision. Liberal roots in nonconformity, in pressure group politics and in the politics of moral reform perhaps offered women a basis for feminist claims.


[1] On the role of women in the Primrose League see Janet Robb The Primrose League 1883-1906 New York, 1968 and Martin Pugh The Tories and the People, Oxford, 1984 and the broader study by Beatrix Campbell The Iron Ladies. Why do Women Vote Tory? Virago, 1987.

[2] Less has been written on Liberal women but see H.J. Hanham Elections and Party Management, Brighton, 1959, revised edition, 1978.

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