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2018 will mark the one hundredth anniversary of women gaining the parliamentary vote for the first time. The 1918 Representation of the People Act enfranchised more people than any reform act in British history, but it did so in a very uneven manner. Whereas nearly all men aged 21 and over now had the parliamentary vote, the franchise was restricted to women aged 30 and over. So what did this mean for women and their experience of politics in this age of partial suffrage?

The National Liberal Club (NLC) archive at Bristol University contains the oldest collection of election addresses in the country dating back to 1892. They reveal important insights into women’s engagement with elections both before and after the Representation of the People Act which enabled women (at least those over 30) to vote for their parliamentary representatives for the first time (although only if they fulfilled a property qualification).

Despite their very visible presence in public politics through campaigns for women’s suffrage and free trade, women’s exclusion from the parliamentary franchise meant that they had rarely featured in Edwardian election addresses, which often featured populist reference to the manly values of the local voter. Indeed, only two of the printed addresses in the NLC collection for January 1910 contain a photo of the candidate’s wife.

Women also made little impact on the culture of addresses in local elections, in which there were around a million female voters during the Edwardian period. References to specific issues concerning women are largely absent from the NLC’s collection of addresses for the 1907 London County Council (LCC) elections. In the LCC election for which records are held in Bristol, in 1913, the addresses of eight female candidates survive.

What  is  most  striking  about  the  language  of  these  texts  is  the  tendency  for  women  to  claim  that  they  would  devote  themselves  to  traditionally  feminine  roles  if  elected.  Of  the  two  Progressive  candidates  running  in  Dulwich  it  was  noted  that:

Mr.  Phipps  will  devote  himself  specially  to  Finance  and  Education,  and  Dr.  [Sophia]  Jevons  to  questions  affecting  women  ratepayers  and  the  medical  treatment  of  school  children,  housing  and  public  health  questions,  the  care  of  women  lunatics  and  the  mentally  deficient.

Only  five  addresses  from  women  candidates  survive  in  the  NLC’s  collection  for  the  1918  election.  However,  apart  from  occasional  references  to  equal  pay,  they  suggest  that  these  pioneer  women  did  little  to  challenge  conventional  assumptions  about  the  concerns  and  duties  of  the  female  politician.  Edith  Phipps,  Independent  candidate  for  Chelsea,  produced  a  separate  appeal  to  women  voters  focused  on  housing,  mother’s  pensions,  endowment  of  motherhood  (child  benefit)  and  equal  pay.

Women  candidates,  like  their  male  counterparts,  devoted  much  attention  to  the  treatment  of  discharged  servicemen  and  soldiers’  widows.  Margaret  Corbett  Ashby  (Liberal)  even  included  an  image  of  her  husband  in  military  uniform  in  her  address  with  the  slogan  ‘A  soldier’s  wife  for  Ladywood’.

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We  should  be  careful  not  to  exaggerate  the  extent  to  which  electoral  culture  was  ‘feminised’  after  the  vote  was  won.  Following  the  novelty  of  the  1918  election,  few  printed  addresses  had  substantial  sections  directed  specifically  to  women,  and  by  1929  the  separate  address  to  female  voters  was  becoming  rare.

Even  in  the  1923  election,  when  the  consumer  issue  of  tariff  reform  was  a  key  concern,  only  twelve  of  the  seventy  addresses  sampled  from  the  NLC  had  more  than  a  short  paragraph  of  text  directed  solely  at  women. While  there  was  little  new  about  the  rhetorical  appeals  made  to  women,  male  candidates  became  noticeably  more  keen  to  depict  themselves  in  family  scenes  in  their  election  addresses  after  1918.

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Although  it  had  been  common  for  male  candidates  to  be  photographed  in  military  dress  for  their  addresses  in  the  early  post-war  elections,  this  trend  had  become  much  less  common  by  1924.  For  Conservative  and  Liberal  candidates,  playing  up  their  family  man  credentials  was  a  ploy  which  could  be  used  to  imply  that  their  Socialist  opponents  threatened  the  safety  of  the  home  (although  such  attacks  had  become  rare  by  the  1935  election,  and  Labour  also  sought  to  make  use  of  family  imagery  in  election  addresses).

Given  that  the  party  leadership  and  individual  male  candidates  were  keen  to  present  themselves  as  the  champions  of  home  interests,  it  narrowed  the  opportunities  for  women  candidates  to  develop  a  distinct  role  as  Conservative  parliamentary  candidates.  Many  of  the  early  Conservative  women  MPs  such  as  Nancy  AstorKatherine  Stewart-Murray  and  Gwendolen  Guinness  took  over  seats  that  had  been  held  by  their  husbands  or  other  male  relatives. Other  women  struggled  to  get  selected  for  winnable  seats,  with  less  than  a  third  of  female  Conservative  candidates  being  elected  MPs  at  each  contest  between  1918  and  1929  apart  from  1923.

Julie Gottlieb, one of the organisers of the Rethinking Right-Wing Women project, commented on the significance of David’s research:

This is as live an issue as ever. How has the ascendancy of women in politics, on both the Right and the Left, changed the way we govern and are governed? Why do we still talk about a ‘women’s vote’ and why has the Right been as successful as it has been in capturing it? Thackeray’s fascinating research on election addresses is particularly sensitive to the ways in which the political culture was ‘feminized’ after the Representation of the People’s Act gave women over 30 years of age the vote. Indeed, he argues here that historians have possibly overstated the process of feminisation in the aftermath of suffrage, or at least that is what this specific source base suggests.

What is immediately striking is how all the main parties were vying for the ‘women’s vote’ and trying out new techniques and strategies to ‘woo’ the new female electorate. What is perhaps less surprising is how traditional and non-feminist these approaches were, offering some clues as to how and why the Conservative (Unionist) Party survived and thrived in the inter-war years, due to a deeply embedded small ‘c’ conservatism in British political culture and cultural politics.

David Thackeray is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter. He contributed to the Rethinking Right-Wing Women conference. This research forms part of a wider chapter on women’s participation in the Conservative party in the early twentieth century and will appear in a forthcoming collection edited by Clarisse Berthezene and Julie Gottlieb, Re-writing Right-Wing Women: Women, Gender and the Conservative Party, 1880s to the Present (MUP), to be published in 2016. You can find David on twitter @d_thackeray.

Cover image: Poster: ‘Support the men and women who gave you victory. Vote Labour.’ [Wikicommons].

In-text image 1:  Margaret  Corbett  Ashby  1918  election  address,  NLC,  DM668.

In-text image 2: Family  politics  1923 –  Morrison-Bell  (Honiton,  Conservative);  Wedgewood  Benn  (Leith,  Labour).

Tags : feminist historyhistory of women's suffragepolitical historyRepresentation of the People Actrethinking right wing womenRight-Wing womenrightwing women
David Thackeray

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