Votes for Victorian Women.

"> Votes for Victorian Women.


Policy Papers

Where are all the women in politics?

Sarah Richardson |

  • RSS Feed Icon

Executive Summary

  • A recent survey by the campaigning body 'Counting Women In' has highlighted the exclusion of women from formal politics in 2013.
  • New findings about women's participation in politics in the nineteenth century reveal they were more active, in formal and informal spheres, than previously thought.
  • A broader definition of 'politics' allows us to understand how women have been politically active in the past, and how they could be supported today. A useful distinction can be made between 'hard' or 'mainstream' politics from 'soft', less formal politics. The former has been populated largely by men, the latter by women.
  • Despite most women's exclusion from voting in local elections until 1869 and in national elections until 1918, there is direct evidence of them exercising the franchise at a parish level throughout the nineteenth century. Women were also able to hold local offices and could perceive their activities as constituting a form of female citizenship.
  • Women engaged directly with Parliament by organising, signing and presenting petitions in the mid nineteenth century. Female petitions emphasise the specific concerns of women in this period. For example, women's petitions against the new Poor Law emphasise the potential harm caused by breaking up families on admission to the workhouse.
  • Politics also entered the home, for example, influencing the rearing of children. The home was important in shaping political identities and domestic roles gave women political agency.
  • Even nineteenth-century texts such as household advice literature, which seemed to restrict women to the private sphere, had subversive messages about women's rights, and their responsibilities to the community.
  • There should be as much emphasis on where women do participate in politics, as on their exclusion both now, and in the nineteenth century.
  • Women's contribution, activism and voices need to be acknowledged alongside the reform of political processes and institutions. There are often direct connections between the home and pressure groups such as those considering the environment, ethical consumption, or for action against poverty.


In February 2013, during a trip to Mumbai, Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that there were 'not nearly enough' women MPs and female members of the Cabinet. This admission coincided with the publication of Sex and Power 2013, a report by the 'Counting Women In' campaign, which found that the number of women MPs had increased by only 3.9 per cent since 2000 and the percentage of women in the Cabinet had decreased by 4.3 per cent. This account follows the publication of the House of Commons Speaker's Conference report in January 2010, which concluded that,

If there are not more than 25 per cent women MPs after the 2010 general election, there should be a debate in parliament on the way forward...

Only 22 per cent of MPs are women. Women face a hostile environment in national politics. The House of Commons has unsociable working hours, a lack of childcare support and an inflexible attitude towards parental responsibilities. Sexist attitudes are commonplace. Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, delivered a forthright attack on misogyny in public life in October 2012. There are parallels with the situation in the UK with the Liberal Democrats currently grappling with allegations of a failure to challenge sexual harassment at a senior level in the party. Controversially, the Conservative party vice-chair, Michael Fabricant asked via Twitter on International Women's Day 2013 why there is no International Men's Day, leading to accusations that he does not appreciate the challenges facing women in the world today.

Do these figures mean that women are not interested in politics, or that there are too many obstacles preventing them from fully participating? To explore these questions, it is helpful to examine women's engagement in the public sphere in the nineteenth century. Then, women were formally excluded from many aspects of political life, yet developed strategies to manoeuvre around the barriers and contribute to public affairs.

Hard versus soft politics

A central issue is that of the definition of politics. Are women absent from all political arenas or are they congregated in particular areas? In the nineteenth century, the formal political world largely excluded women. They did not obtain the vote at a parliamentary level until 1918, and then only for women aged over 30. It was not until 1928 that they were able to vote on the same terms as men. Thus traditional analyses have assigned women a peripheral role. However, to some extent this has been due to a narrow definition of politics and political culture - a definition that excludes women. By adopting a broader interpretation of political participation and identifying the sites where women were able to contribute to political affairs in the nineteenth century (as opposed to those where they were excluded) it is possible to paint a very different picture of female public engagement. Political scientists have compared so-called 'hard' and 'soft' politics. 'Hard' politics is defined as 'mainstream': the world of Westminster and the council chamber with issues selected and driven forward by men. In contrast 'soft' politics encompasses many areas of female interest, and these have been generally overlooked and marginalised. The 'soft' issues of the nineteenth century include the politics of 'lifestyle' including diet, health and ethical consumption, as well as education, philanthropy, and child-rearing.

This paper investigates examples from both 'hard' and 'soft' political arenas in the nineteenth century: women voters, female petitioners, political child-rearing and the politics of domestic economy. Although the distinction between hard and soft politics in some ways perpetuates the division between male and female participation, it does provide a methodological framework to explore women's contribution. Such an analysis throws light on women's interest in politics and the strategies they employed to participate in public life. It also provides a context for women's participation in politics today.

Victorian women voting

It has generally been assumed that women were unable to vote, or to hold office until the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869, which enfranchised them at a local level, or the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which allowed women over 30 to vote in national elections. This is largely due to two landmark pieces of legislation in the 1830s which restricted the right to vote to 'male' persons: the Reform Act of 1832 and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. This, and the emphasis on the women's suffrage campaigns of the later nineteenth century, has led historians to view early to mid-nineteenth century politics as becoming increasingly 'masculinised'. However, women retained the right to vote in parish and vestry elections, and could also vote for Poor Law Guardians and Town Commissioners. These were important local officials who collected local rates and determined how they should be spent.

Direct evidence of women voting is scarce, but some examples of poll books from parish elections in the nineteenth century survive, showing single and widowed female ratepayers exercising their franchise. For example, a list of voters for the parish of St Chad in Lichfield in 1843 gives details of around thirty female electors, the rates they paid and how they voted. This poll book is extremely rare. It was compiled by a local solicitor who was the Conservative party agent, probably to keep track of the preferences of parliamentary electors between national elections, as Lichfield was a highly marginal seat. It was unusual for parish offices to be contested, as elections were expensive and organisationally cumbersome. It is even more exceptional to find detailed evidence of voters at such polls recorded, and perhaps unique to see proof of women voting. The women have the right to vote as they are ratepayers. They range widely in wealth and status, from a wealthy widowed butcher to a laundress and even two pauper women.

Women were also able to hold a range of local offices including overseers of the poor, highway surveyors, and constables, as well as becoming paid parish servants such as beadles and sextons. These offices, which originated in the early modern period, delivered all the essential services of local and parish government. Thus overseers of the poor collected the poor rate, and decided how it should be spent. Highway surveyors were responsible for the maintenance of local roads. Beadles and sextons were minor officials who carried out various civil and religious duties. In May 1828, The Times reported that the parish of Minshull Vernon, Middlewich had appointed a female constable, a female overseer, and a female supervisor for the coming year. In April, 1854, the Hull Packet recorded that Miss Sarah Matilda George had been appointed as overseer of the poor of Misson, adding that 'we understand the appointment of a female, though unusual, is strictly legal'. The fact that women were routinely voting and holding office, albeit at the level of the parish, reveals much about the activism and confidence of female citizens in this period. Their contribution to parish politics has been overlooked and written out of the historical record.

Female petitioners

The nineteenth century saw a tremendous upsurge in an older form of political engagement with Parliament, that of petitioning for remonstrance and redress. Numbers of petitions had dwindled at the beginning of the century, with only a few hundred per year being presented to Parliament. However, between 1828 and 1858, the number of petitions per Parliamentary session averaged 10-15,000. Figures rose rapidly in the 1840s with the so-called 'monster' petitions of the Chartists and Anti-Corn Law League. In this decade petitions were signed by an average total of four million people per session of Parliament. Petitioning was a method enthusiastically supported by women as a way of initiating a conversation with Parliament. For example, petitioning by the anti-slavery movement started as an exclusively male activity before 1830, but this changed dramatically as ladies' anti-slavery associations asserted their rights to express opinions on the issue. In 1814, of the 800 petitions presented to Parliament requesting anti-slavery clauses be made conditional in European peace treaties, only two had female signatories. In contrast, in 1833, there were 129 petitions calling for the abolition of slavery, sent from women across the British Isles.

Women-only petitions added a distinctive voice to the important political campaigns of the mid-nineteenth century including anti-slavery, agitation against the Corn Laws, and the repeal of the Poor Law Amendment Act. Although women continued to sign petitions organised by men, often they were keen to frame their own addresses to the legislature, to arrange the collection of signatures, and to manage the theatricality of the compilation and presentation of the documents to the Commons. The first concerted attempts to coordinate women-only petitions were stimulated by the Evangelical campaigns against the Hindu practice of sati or 'widow-burning' in 1829.

Female supporters of the Anti-Corn Law League were also keen to organise separate petitions calling for the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws. They argued that, 'they considered truly enough, they were as much interested in the question as the men'. Women's petitions often emphasised the feminine aspects of a political issue. Thus, anti-Poor Law addresses drew attention to the separation of parents and children, and the attack on family life, whilst those against the Corn Laws argued that it was not the role of the state to regulate the price of basic provisions and so obstruct domestic economy. A meeting of the women of Elland, Yorkshire, held in February 1838 to urge for the repeal of the Poor Law Amendment Act, framed their petition to Queen Victoria around the impact of the legislation on women. Mary Grassby posed the rhetorical question, 'why women should interfere in public matters?' answering,

it was a woman's duty to be there; for women had more to fear from this bill than men.... The pangs of being separated from those to whom they had been used to look for support, and from their children of their own bearing were more severe, she believed, than it was possible for men to feel.

Political child-rearing

Women voting, holding office, and participating in petitioning movements may be classified as examples of them contributing to formal politics. In contrast, it is also possible to discern female political activism in informal spheres. In the nineteenth century, progressive child-rearing practices encouraged children to be more willing to debate, to lead, and to be creative. Whilst the educational context was important, the early political socialisation of children took place within the family, encouraged by conversation, reading, and debate. The commitment and consciousness of parents was a significant factor in the political socialisation of children and many mothers (and often fathers) took the political education of their children very seriously. Radical parenting was most common in middle-class, Nonconformist households but could be found across all echelons of society. Sources such as juvenile letters and diaries, autobiographies, and even novels reveal the significance of progressive child-rearing practices in shaping the development of political ideas and practices. Children were exhorted to spend their waking hours dedicated to education, self-improvement, and philanthropic work. For example, Marianne Thornton, daughter of the banker and Clapham evangelical, Henry Thornton recalled that:

As soon as I could do so intelligently I had to read the Morning Chronicle every morning whilst my father and mother breakfasted. Those were days of great interest, when we were all in hourly fear of invasion, owing to Bonaparte's successes, and as children we were all taught to care much about public events. My father wrote a paper on the duty of interesting young people in such matters, in the Christian Observer. He even tried to make me understand a little about paper-credit and the bullion question.

Radical parents insisted on all the children of the family being educated together. Susanna Taylor, the prominent Norwich Unitarian, provided both the girls and boys with an equal diet of philosophy, political economy, and proficiency in a range of classical and modern languages. She supplemented her tuition with education from visiting tutors and group reading projects. Politics were always at the forefront of the family's activities. Susanna had been a leading supporter of the French Revolution, and was nicknamed Madame Roland because of her resemblance, in looks and behaviour, to the French activist. The eclectic nature of the progressive education offered by Susanna Taylor was influential in shaping her children's future careers. Her daughter, Sarah Austin, was a renowned translator of works from French, German, and Italian and a campaigner for educational reform. Her sons were active in fields as disparate as mining, printing, music, and natural history.

A similarly advanced education was experienced by the children of Robert and Maria Were Fox who were prominent in the Cornish Quaker community. Their three children, Anna Maria, Robert Barclay, and Caroline, were educated together at home by both parents supplemented by three tutors who between them covered French, Italian, mathematics, history, and poetry. The bulk of their scientific education was provided by their father who schooled them in magnetism, astronomy, and geology together with chemistry. Part of their science course was devoted to discussing the works of Mary Somerville. In addition, each week the children had to write a piece on a 'theme'. Sometimes these were philosophical on subjects such as humility, forgiveness, tolerance and curiosity. On other occasions they were in applied subjects for example, mining, engineering or glass-making. The precociousness of the Fox children was demonstrated in a variety of ways. Caroline was proficient in science not merely from the tuition of her father but also from frequent private lectures given to the family circle by eminent visitors to the house such as Sir Charles Wheatstone, Humphrey Lloyd, Sir David Brewster, and William Whewell. She regularly attended British Association for the Advancement of Science meetings using 'extraordinary muscular exertions' to gain entry if women were excluded. She visited London prisons with her cousin, Elizabeth Fry and was active in the anti-slavery movement.

In April 1833, when Caroline was 14 and her sister, Anna Maria was 17, they established the Falmouth Polytechnic. The idea had emanated from Anna Maria after visiting the family's iron foundry at Perranarworthal. She had been impressed that the men of the foundry kept coming to her father with inventions and suggestions regarding their work and considered their enterprise should be encouraged by an institution. Anna Maria went on to found the Horticultural Society in Cornwall which together with the Polytechnic was one of four key scientific institutions established in the county in this period, both receiving royal patronage. The pivotal role of the Fox sisters in establishing and nurturing this intellectual milieu is due, in part, to the progressive education they received at home which encouraged their public enterprise and activism.

The politics of domestic economy

Perhaps surprisingly the works of 'domestic economy' that graced many a kitchen shelf in the nineteenth century shed light on women's engagement in politics. These texts contained recipes and advice on managing households. They were very popular, running to many editions, with separate manuals aimed at middle and working-class households. The tension between the private and public spheres is a constant thread in many of the texts. Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management has a particularly dramatic opening, equating the female householder with the commander of an army. It would be difficult to imagine a more masculine public office that could be employed. However, she countered this image by quoting from Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, 'The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens.'

A more overtly feminist approach was taken by Frances Parkes in Domestic Duties. In her preface, Parkes outlined her view of partnership in marriage:

It is not the desire, nor the intention of the author, to maintain unmodified the doctrine of passive obedience in the married female to the will of her husband. Such a doctrine may be regarded as incompatible with that spirit which woman assumes as her right...

To present her advice on domestic management, Parkes uses the technique of a conversation between a newly married woman, Mrs. L., and an older mentor, Mrs. B. The topics discussed are wide-ranging, including social relationships (with subsections on gossip, scandal and flattery), household concerns, the regulation of time, and moral and religious duties. Parkes accepted the central role of women in the household but she also stressed the importance of women's influence in wider society. For example, she balanced a conversation 'On the Danger and Disappointment attending a Mere Pursuit of Pleasure and Amusement' with one arguing 'The Opposite Extreme to be also Avoided'. She explained this concern in more detail:

I mean the abandonment of a woman to household concerns, and to the over-solicitous care of her children, involving her in an entire neglect of the duties connected with social life and good neighbourhood.

Thus, she carefully negotiated the boundaries between women's public and private role. Each was given an equivalent status and Parkes gently, but steadfastly, challenged and subverted existing discourses on the domestic ideal which confined women to the home.

Interwoven with the recipes, advice, and tips on household management in these texts were discussions and debates on key public policy matters of the day: the role of the state, the treatment of the poor, the care of the sick and elderly. Much of the discussion was fully referenced, drawing on classic political and economic texts, and alluded to issues of class and gender. This was apparent in their preoccupation with providing guidance on the welfare and management of the poor. As there was little state welfare, middle-class women were expected to support poor families in their neighbourhood. Most supplemented practical advice with 'appropriate' recipes that were nutritious yet cheap. The attitude to the poor presented in these books hovered between pity for their poverty-stricken state and fear of their immorality, disease, and squalor. A quote from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management provides an apt summary:

We turn to the foetor and darkness that, in some obscure court, attend the robust brood who, coated in dirt, and with mud and refuse for playthings, live and thrive, and grow into manhood, and, in contrast to the pale face and flabby flesh of the aristocratic child exhibit strength, vigour, and well-developed frames...

Women were aware that indiscriminate charity could not be justified in a climate where an ideology of self help and non-intervention were dominant. Visiting the poor was considered an opportunity for the middle-class advisor to inculcate principles of domestic economy and best practice in household management more widely in the community. Maria Rundell, for example, emphasised the economical nature of her recipe for 'Baked Soup': 'I found in time of scarcity ten or fifteen gallons of soup could be dealt out weekly, at an expence not worth mentioning.' She also advised that 'the fat should not be taken off the broth or soup, as the poor like it and are nourished by it.' In fact there is little evidence that the poor welcomed either the soup or the inference that they were ignorant in the 'cooking art'. William Hazlitt, in a review of cookery books, noted that Esther Copley's Cottage Comforts, which was aimed directly at the poor, was not read by them. Instead, it was purchased by middle-class ladies for the libraries and reading rooms of working-class districts, where it languished on the shelves, unopened.


What does all this tell us about the place of women in politics, both in the nineteenth century and today?

First, the emphasis should be on measuring and assessing where women are active, as well as counting their lack of progress in some formal political institutions. The Conservative candidate for the Eastleigh by-election in 2013, Maria Hutchings, entered 'mainstream' politics after personally lobbying Tony Blair about the proposed closure of a local special school educating her autistic son. The marginalisation of campaigns like this, as 'soft' politics, overlooks the contribution that women make to political life as well as the importance of giving them experience in public affairs.

Second, even where women play a full part in political life, such as by voting or holding office, they tend to be written out of the official record. They are assumed to be absent from politics, when in fact their voices are unheard and their actions unrecognised.

Third, a broader definition of politics and political culture needs to be established. By considering unlikely sources such as the politics of domestic economy books, it is possible to reveal the extent to which the home was a formative site of female political action. This holds true for contemporary politics as well as for the nineteenth century. There are often direct connections between the home and pressure groups such as those considering the environment, ethical consumption, or for action against poverty.

Fourth, it should be recognised that whilst most female political activity is unacknowledged and ignored, now and in the nineteenth century, there are real barriers to women's full participation in public life. The invisibility of politically active women means that political parties and institutions need to be much more proactive, for example by recognising women's contributions and reforming processes and practices which exclude them from political life. The Speaker's Conference report of January 2010 made specific proposals for reform including using positive action measures to increase women's representation, reforming practices such as introducing child-friendly sitting hours, and introducing maternity, paternity and caring leave for MPs. These proposals should be urgently prioritised by policy makers.

Further Reading

Centre for Women & Democracy on behalf of the 'Counting Women In' coalition, Sex and Power 2013: Who Runs Britain? [pdf 3.08MB] (2013)

Gleadle, Kathryn, Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (Oxford, 2009)

Gleadle, Kathryn and Richardson, Sarah, Women in Politics, c. 1760-1860: The Power of the Petticoat (Basingstoke, 2000)

Morgan, Simon, A Victorian Woman's Place: Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century (London, 2007)

Speakers Conference (on Parliamentary Representation): Final Report (London, 2010)


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme

Digital Download

Download and read with you anywhere!


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More