Much recent criticism of politics has focused on the representation of women. Despite his Shadow Cabinet containing more women than ever before, new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was still criticised for the lack of women in his ‘big four’ (PM, Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary). By contrast the Conservatives have a female Home Secretary (Theresa May) as the leading figure amongst several prominent women in the cabinet. But, the Tory party still has an image problem when it comes to women.
Cabinet women are labelled ‘Dave’s Darlings’; Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd are just ‘girls’ to a Downing-Street photographer; and, most importantly, the party still lags behind Labour in numbers of female MPs. The sexist preconceptions are all too visible, and Tory stereotypes tend to exacerbate gendered assumptions. But when we look more closely, it becomes clear that women have played an active and changing role in the Conservative Party’s recent history, a story which is far more complex than standard narratives which tend to focus heavily on Margaret Thatcher as the ‘female Conservative’ par excellence.
Challenging this narrative is one of the core aims of the University of Sheffield’s Rethinking Right-wing Women project, and over the summer I was employed as a research assistant to investigate just this topic. My brief was to review papers in the Conservative Party Archive at the Bodleian Library that concerned women and the Tory party, and to give an overview of the material relating to women and gender issues generally.
It became clear from my research that women’s organisation remained absolutely subservient to the interests of the party: but also there was a definite evolution over time in the image of Conservative women. In the half century between the full adult franchise in 1928 and Thatcher’s last election victory in 1987, we can see Conservative women within the party looking to transform their public perception, from dutiful housewife to modern woman, despite the indifference or opposition of the mainstream party organisation.
A cartoon from the Conservative party pamphlet Home and Politics in the 1920s reinforced the dominant image of the time as the Conservative woman as no nonsense housewife. It showed St Stephen’s Tower (which houses the ‘Big Ben’ bell) with an apron, scrubbing a screaming child in a tin bath. The caption read: ‘The Mother of Parliaments has to take the Socialist MPs in hand, as their leader cannot manage them.’
A further cartoon from June 1928 depicted a young woman vacuuming up left-wing slogans (Communism, Nationalisation, Wild Socialist Schemes) with a machine marked ‘Women’s Vote’, unpacked from a box labelled ‘Baldwin’s Electoral Machine’. It was captioned: ‘Conservative and Unionist Woman Members (to new young woman voter): “I will show you the right way to use it, my dear”.’ Clearly again the imagined Conservative woman was an authoritative housewife.
In the years leading up to the Second World War, whilst it was felt ever more important to win female votes, there was little evolution in the idea of the place of women in British society. The minutes of the Women’s Advisory Committee (WAC), both the national body and its regional branches, show that attitudes towards issues such as corporal punishment and the role of women had not much changed. Particularly prominent were laments for the decline of women in domestic service, and the WAC spoke of ‘the need to change the attitude in certain schools which discouraged pupils to take up domestic work’.
However, this is not to say that the women of the Conservative party took no interest in feminism, nor had no agency in constructing their own identity, separate from that attributed to them by Tory men and socialists. They were quick to take exception to any appropriation of feminism and femininity, and there was a great deal of anger at a post-war circular by American feminist and journalist Dorothy Thompson. This pamphlet highlighted certain prominent British women such as Vera Brittain and Oliva Manning, all of whom were on the left. Marjorie Maxse thundered at the ‘impertinence’ of Thompson to say who ‘our’ most prominent women are, and advised her fellow Tories to have ‘nothing whatsoever to do with [Thompson]…Vera Brittain is a Communist and Mrs Manning has now identified herself with Communist activities’.
The 1960s witnessed a shift in the image of a Tory woman, from the matronly housewife of the first half of the twentieth century to a more independent-minded and ambitious young woman. This caused some consternation from some of the elder stateswomen of the party, including criticism of the behaviour of photographers at the 1964 conference:
Lady Brecon who had watched the Conference on Television thought there had been a tendency to show shots of the oddities rather than the more normal representatives. Miss Sturges-Jones asked members to pay particular regard to their posture when being televised. When skirts were so short it was essential to sit well.
By the 1970s, there had been a sea-change in Tory women’s concept of themselves, with Baroness Young and Angela Hooper condemning Jilly Cooper for her Sunday Times article, ‘Look, I am a Tory Lady!’ which, with its evocation of tea parties and immaculate tailoring, they felt was decades out-of-date. They also issued a furious condemnation of the six anti-feminist Conservative students who were ejected from the 1981 NUS conference for distributing a leaflet titled ‘The Fallacies of Feminism’, featuring a naked woman.
It’s clear then that the role of women in the Conservative party has changed with the times, and in ways that one might not have predicted. The Conservatives in the twentieth century were capable of accommodating different kinds of femininity and indeed feminism. Although the women’s organisation was always subordinate to the needs of the wider party, Tory women themselves were evolving and asserting their own identity. The records of Tory women’s organisation provide a crucial insight into gender and conservatism in the twentieth century, and should give pause to anyone who would think of modern female Conservatives and ‘Dave’s Darlings’ or mere ‘girls’. It is vital for the modern party to ensure such records are dutifully compiled and available for future historians.
David Swift has worked with the University of Sheffield’s ‘Rethinking Right-wing Women’ project with the Conservative party archive. His broader research focuses on Britain in the twentieth-century, particularly on left-wing patriotism and working-class conservatism. His first book, For Class and Country: the Patriotic Left and the First World War, will be published by Liverpool University Press in 2016. You can find David on twitter @davidswift87.
Image: Theresa May and Justine Greening speaking at #YouthForChange, 19 July 2014, ©Russell Watkins/Department for International Development via Flickr.