In the recent General Election campaign, Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cyrmu, received a significant amount of air-time not just in the Welsh regional and local media, but from a national perspective too. She took part in the ITV seven-way television leaders’ debate, and the BBC ‘opposition’ debate. She got a turn on Andrew Marr’s sofa, and generally had a real opportunity to boost both her personal, and her party’s, profile. Wood is a Republican left-wing nationalist from the Rhondda Valley, and her politics and style adds much to the perception of the Welsh political woman as a radical lady of the left.
This image stems particularly from the miners’ strike of 1984-85, when a large group of miners’ wives and other women joined – in many cases, for the first time – the political world of picket lines, strikes, and nation-wide tours, learning about and soaking up the experiences of others in similar situations. This awoke a real and significant passion for left-wing politics and activism in a new generation of women.
Throughout the last century, however, there have been other political women in Wales who have engaged in a quieter but no less powerful form of right-wing, Conservative politics. Despite their real and significant presence, these women have been side-lined by historians and a contemporary commentariat who tend to look at Wales through a left-wing or a nationalist lens. By doing so, those who write about Welsh history and Welsh politics tell a story which is often fascinating, accurate, and entertaining. But it is also a one-sided narrative which feeds into misconceptions and stereotypes.
Historians and political scientists are familiar with the concept that women provide the majority of votes for the Conservative Party. This is very much true of Wales. Open-air mass meetings organised exclusively for Welsh women’s branches of the Conservative Party in the 1950s and 1960s attracted well over a thousand attendees on each occasion. These women offered something more crucial than votes: political, financial, and social support. In the grass-roots organisations and Local Associations it is clear that women not only contributed to the day-to-day running of Conservative politics, but they were often the driving force behind it. Such women included Mrs Lilian Stevens of Cardiff, who died in 1953, a vociferous campaigner, who in her capacity as a member of the Welsh Area Speaker’s Panel travelled to every Welsh parliamentary constituency to promote the Tory cause – and there were many others like her.
Women usually provided the social stimuli for events, which often meant laying on food and drink. Through social activities and fundraising events like the slightly obscure ‘Bimbo’ themed social nights, knit-ins, and balloon blowing competitions, as well as the more conventional fayres, bazaars and bingo evenings, Welsh women’s branches continually provided considerable funds to the local Conservative Associations. Considering that some Conservative branches in Wales needed all the help they could get in order to survive, time and time again the women were given special thanks for being the reason why constituency branches continued to exist. I regularly interview people associated with the local Conservative politics of post-war Wales, and not one of them so far has failed to mention the vital importance of women.
The key dichotomy when it comes to women and the Conservative Party is that their over-representation at the local level has never been reflected in the higher or parliamentary echelons. Between 1945 and 1997, 13 women stood for election to parliament for the Conservative Party in Wales, (with around 36 constituencies being contested by the party at each election) which actually means that in nearly half of the General Elections during this period there was no woman standing for the Conservative Party in Wales at all. Nor did any of these individuals have the opportunity to contest one of Wales’ handful of winnable seats. This must go some way to explaining why the notion of the Right Wing woman is alien to many people.
What is key to our understanding of those Welsh women who did stand for parliament in this period is that they reflected something very distinctive about the nature and social make-up of female Conservative parliamentary candidates. They all came from either very wealthy, or comfortable, middle-class backgrounds. All of them, as far as I can tell, were single, or without a family and children at the time they stood for election. Beata Brookes, who entered the European Parliament in 1979 for Wales was certainly not cast from the maternal mould. She was often known as the ‘Celtic Iron Lady’. These women lacked the crucial role of organiser and manager of a household, and could therefore consider running for parliamentary office. Whilst that attitude would change within the Tory Party into the 1980s (with Mrs Thatcher herself making a virtue out of her role as a party leader and a housewife) the candidates in Wales reflected a very typical Conservative contemporary mind-set: women could only run for election if they did not have a family to support.
The most visible and prominent Conservative women in Wales were neither the backroom staff making cups of tea for fêtes or addressing envelopes at election time, nor were they parliamentary candidates. They were actually the wives of senior figures and politicians, who represented the kind of image of womanhood just described. As was commonplace in the decades after the Second World War, a Conservative candidate standing for election in Wales would regularly have a picture of his wife on his electioneering material, with a message from said wife ‘to women voters’. The themes of such addresses were almost always the cost of living, stable prices, and the challenges of managing a household. Two of the MPs for Cardiff seats, Ian Grist and Gwilym Jones, still used their wives in their correspondence to talk about food and clothes budgets well into the 1980s.The Labour Party did this as well, but not to the same extent. The Conservative Party, therefore, is a useful case study for analysing the extent to which ‘separate spheres’ remained an attitude in political rhetoric with some longevity in certain quarters of Wales, and indeed Britain.
Understanding this may alter many preconceived stereotypes of the left-wing nature of Welsh society and politics. There have been many radical and left-wing women in Welsh history. But perhaps their role and importance has been overstated. Leanne Wood, after all, led her party into fourth place in terms of the share of the vote in Wales in May’s General Election. The Conservatives came second, as they have done for the vast majority of the twentieth century. They would not, and could not, have done so without the quiet determination and support of the Welsh Right Wing women.
Sam Blaxland is a PhD student and tutor at Swansea University, researching the history of the Conservative Party in post-War Wales. You can view his blog here and follow him on Twitter: @SamBlaxland
Image: Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Wales in 1978 via walesonline.com