Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Women in Politics: 1

The symbolic importance of the vote to generations of feminists and subsequent historians has meant the obscuring of women’s broader political culture and history. The possession of the vote qualified women finally to enter that purely masculine and public world of national politics from which they had so long been excluded. Women’s interest in securing access to political rights was not limited to the campaign for parliamentary suffrage[1]. The growing powers acceded to various levels of local government in this period also attracted their keen interest and in the arena of local politics women were to play a prominent role as early as the 1870s[2]. We have already seen feminists agitate on a range of issues that affected public policy from education through official attitudes to prostitution to ‘moral purity[3].

Gender was not necessarily the primary factor determining women’s loyalties and interests[4]. There were other loyalties, most obviously to class and community. Nineteenth century England was a society in which class boundaries were increasingly complex. A landed class maintained its personal hold on the institutions of national government but acknowledged and compromised with the industrial strength of the manufacturing middle classes. The professional and upper middle classes grew in importance as shapers and leaders of public opinion. Yet the expansion of the middle classes at all income levels down to the suburban clerk confused both social aspirations and political loyalties for women and for men. Such shifts meant the erosion of long-established community patterns and could mean the creation of new ones with different male and female patterns of political and social association.

Nineteenth century women did employ the language of their own experience, of motherhood, of domestic labour, of religious commitment, whether their links were primarily with other women or when they were operating in more formal mixed institutions or political movements. While challenging injustice, many drew their considerable strength from what they regarded with pride as their most fulfilling tasks, as wives and mothers. Yet many, whether working women or middle class campaigners felt the justice also of the class for equality that recognised them as political beings.


[1] Christine Bolt Feminist Ferment: ‘The Woman Question’ in the USA and England 1870-1940, UCL Press, 1995 is a valuable comparative study. Marion Ramelson The Petticoat Rebellion: A Century of Struggle for Women’s Rights, Lawrence & Wishart, 1967 and J. Rendall (ed.) Equal or Different: Women’s Politics 1800-1914, Blackwell, 1987 are useful starting-points. Philippa Levine Victorian Feminism 1850-1900, Hutchinson, 1987 and Feminist Lives in Victorian England: private roles and public commitment, Blackwell, 1990, OUP, 1992, Jane Lewis Women and Social Action in Victorian and Edwardian England, Edward Elgar Press, 1991, Olive Banks Faces of Feminism: A study of feminism as a social movement, Blackwell, 1986 and David Rubenstein Before the Suffragettes: Women’s emancipation in the 1890s, Harvester, 1986 look at feminist protest before the Suffragettes. A biographical approach is adopted in Barbara Caine Victorian Feminists and M. Foster Significant Sisters, Penguin, 1993.

[2] Kathyrn Gleadle The Early Feminists. Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of the Women’s Rights Movement 1831-51, Macmillan, 1995 argues that the origins of Victorian feminism can be found in the 1830s and 1840s rather than in the 1850s. This is a major challenge to the established historical position.

[3] Women’s participation in public life is explored in Patricia Hollis Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government 1865-1914, OUP, 1987 and in collection of documents P. Hollis (ed.) Women in Public: The Women’s Movement 1850-1900, 1979 and in Pat Jalland Women, Marriage and Politics 1860-1914, OUP, 1986. Jane Rendall (ed.) Equal or Different: Women’s Politics 1800-1914, Blackwell, 1987 contains a variety of papers on the politicisation of women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

[4] On this issue see Dorothy Thompson Outsiders: class, gender and race, Verso, 1993.

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