This month marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which received royal assent on 6 February. For the first time, virtually all the adult male population received the parliamentary franchise, whereas before this reform, around 40% of men were excluded from the electoral registers. Perhaps most notably, the Act extended the parliamentary franchise to some – although not all – women. Although females were excluded from the parliamentary franchise before 1918, it would be wrong to suppose that they were previously unable to play any part in parliamentary politics. Our research on the House of Commons, 1832-68 project continues to highlight the role of women in many aspects of Victorian politics, and we’d like to begin our 1918 centenary celebrations by revisiting some of our previous posts on this topic.
Although women were excluded from voting in parliamentary elections until 1918, some women were eligible to vote at local government level, even before the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act enabled female ratepayers to vote for local municipal councils. Dr. Sarah Richardson of Warwick University blogged for us on the Victorian female franchise, drawing on a rare parish election poll book from Lichfield. Concerns about the proposed disfranchisement of female municipal voters at Brighton in the 1840s were raised by the town’s former Radical MP, George Faithfull, who featured in one of our MP of the Month blogs. One of his supporters argued that
I consider it unjust that a man should have a vote simply because he is a man, and that a lady should be disfranchised because she is a lady and the weaker body.
One of our most recent blogs featured a woman who did cast a parliamentary vote before 1918, the Manchester shopkeeper, Lily Maxwell. Placed on the register by a clerical error, she cast her vote for Jacob Bright at a by-election in November 1867. Bright became one of the leading parliamentary advocates of female enfranchisement, taking on the mantle of John Stuart Mill, who had been active in promoting the women’s cause during his time as Liberal MP for Westminster, 1865-8. We have looked in our blogs at Mill’s presentation of the first mass women’s suffrage petition in June 1866, and his failed attempt the following year to include women’s suffrage within the 1867 Reform Act.
As well as acting as petitioners, women performed a variety of other political roles. In this blog for Parliament Week, we looked at women as electoral patrons, exercising influence over the representation of a constituency through their control of local property. We also considered the involvement of wives in their husband’s parliamentary careers, highlighting the role of Emma Oliveira in overseeing the corrupt expenditure which won her husband his seat at Pontefract in 1852.
Political wives have also featured in several other posts. Daniel Gaskell‘s formidable wife, Mary, played an important part in persuading her ‘reluctant spouse’ to stand for Wakefield in 1832, so much so that her nephew observed that ‘it is, in fact, my Aunt, that would be member of Parliament’. Another MP said to be ‘so completely under petticoat government, that he would not dare to vote on any question in the House of Commons without the sanction of his wife!’ was Wyndham Lewis, Conservative MP for Maidstone. After his death, his wife Mary Anne married Benjamin Disraeli, whose political career she helped to fund.
Despite the restricted franchise during this period, non-electors, both male and female, often took a keen interest in elections. Our blog on Peterborough’s elections looked at George Whalley’s tactic of targeting the wives, sisters and daughters of electors who, it was hoped, would persuade their male relatives to vote for him. At Lyme Regis, meanwhile, the Liberal MP, William Pinney, included the pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning among his supporters. The efforts of campaigning bodies such as the Anti-Corn Law League to attract female support were highlighted in our blog on George Donisthorpe Thompson, a charismatic orator who later became MP for Tower Hamlets. Finally, since we are the Victorian Commons project, we should mention our blog on Queen Victoria’s coronation, where MPs had a privileged view of proceedings.
We look forward to sharing more of our research on women’s political involvement in the nineteenth century in future blogs.