Welcome to the first of our guest blogs. On BBC Radio 4 tonight Dr Sarah Richardson presents a programme about the discovery of an early Victorian poll book listing women voters (click here to listen). Female participation in non-parliamentary elections before the 1870s is often overlooked, not least because the evidence is patchy and subject to wide local variation. This guest blog by Sarah coincides with the publication of her new book The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain.
When did women get the vote? By Dr Sarah Richardson
This question appears straightforward. Many would point to the Representation of the People Act in 1918 which extended the parliamentary franchise to women over 30 years of age. Others may cite the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 which enabled female ratepayers to vote for local municipal councils (although a court case in 1872 restricted this right to single or widowed women). In fact, women had the right to vote and to hold office in a range of local and parish institutions from their foundation.
The reason that women were able to vote was due to the fact that many local franchises were based upon payment of poor rates, irrespective of the sex of the person paying those rates. This was effectively a household franchise, and single or widowed women who owned or rented eligible properties were able to exercise the vote. The organisation and powers of local government had arisen from immemorial custom and incorporated elements of the common law as well as combinations of by-laws and private and public parliamentary acts. Thus Beatrice and Sidney Webb termed local government ‘an anarchy of local autonomy’. However, this local autonomy allowed a high degree of public participation.
In theory, women could also vote in parliamentary elections before 1832 as county, and many borough, franchises were based on property ownership. The Great Reform Act, however, specified for the first time that the right to vote was restricted to ‘male persons’. In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act also excluded women, disenfranchising many who had previously voted for town councils. The focus on these two significant pieces of legislation has led many to conclude that the early to mid nineteenth century witnessed a masculinisation of the public sphere. The emphasis on the parliamentary and municipal electorates also means that it is easy to overlook the fact that women continued to vote and to hold office for a range of local bodies, including overseers of the poor, surveyors of the highway and constables, as well as for parish servants such as sextons and beadles.
A key factor determining the assumption that women could not vote or hold office in the early nineteenth century is the lack of direct evidence. There are some indirect references in local newspapers. For example, the Northern Star reported in 1843 that a notice was attached to the door of Birstal Church calling a vestry meeting to elect a churchwarden for the ensuing year:
At the time appointed, the wife of the assistant overseer entered the Vestry with the parish book in which the usual entry is made on such an occasion, and after waiting nearly an hour and no person making his appearance, either lay or clerical, the good dame took her departure and budged home with the book under her arm. On entering her dwelling, her husband eagerly enquired who was appointed warden, to which she replied, ‘why me to be sure’ – ‘thee’ ejaculated the astonished official, ‘yes, me’, reiterated the wife, ‘for there has not been another living soul at the meeting, therefore, I suppose, I must be the churchwarden.
A letter to the Ipswich Journal in 1837 defended the decision of the chair of a parish poll to allow two female voters, who were inconvenienced by the crowd, to vote and then retire. It was alleged that the two women voted against raising a church rate and the action of the chair (who supported that view) could have prevented those in favour from voting. However, he noted that he ‘was guilty of the same extravagant courtesy to two females who voted on the opposite side; and these four were all the females who voted at all’.
Direct evidence of women voting is more rare. Many parish elections were unopposed and even where there were contests the records of the votes seldom survive. However, occasionally poll books for parish elections surface in the archives. One example is from St Chad’s parish in Lichfield in May 1843. The poll book can be found in the papers of the solicitors who were the Conservative party agents and was probably used to canvass local opinion in between parliamentary elections. 30 women voters are listed including one plural voter, Grace Brown, who had four votes because of her wealthy status (see below).
It is important that discussions of female citizenship in the nineteenth century take more account of the politics of the parish. For it was at this very local level where women gained experience of political participation, honed their skills as office holders, and engaged in the practical activities of local politicians.
Sarah Richardson is an Associate Professor in History at the University of Warwick. Her new book discusses female political culture in the nineteenth century including women’s participation in local elections. She is the guest presenter of Document on BBC Radio 4 discussing the importance of the parish poll from St Chad’s in Lichfield with a range of experts including Dr Philip Salmon of the History of Parliament who discovered the source.
K. Gleadle & S. Richardson (eds.), Women in British Politics 1760-1860: The Power of the Petticoat (2000)