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’.
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.
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 Astor, Katherine 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).