Politics before Feminism

Elaine Challus

Bath Spa University College

21 October 2004

By concentrating on the largely unstudied women of the political élite and exploring their participation in 18th century English political life through an examination of their involvement in social politics, patronage and the electoral process, this paper revealed a society with a permanent undercurrent of politics, where the political and social spheres were inextricably intertwined and the political world was strongly familial. It drew on a wide assortment of personal, general and political correspondences to argue that commonly held assumptions about 18th century women’s political involvement are overly pessimistic and need to be revised. Women were not uniformly alienated from politics by gender and increasingly confined to a separate domestic sphere; politically active women were not by definition anomalies; nor was their involvement necessarily limited, indirect and secondary to men’s. It is not necessary to look ‘behind the scenes’ to discover women in politics. Instead, when political life is looked at in 18th century terms - when social politics is taken seriously, patronage is given due weight and the electoral process is considered as a whole - women’s political involvement is revealed as flexible and varied, direct or indirect, integrating the social and political arenas, and resting ultimately upon the twin foundations of women’s traditional, familial roles and the opportunities for involvement provided by parliamentary politics.

Political life encompassed more women in a wider array of politicised activities than historians have previously assumed. As members of a highly politicised society with traditions and expectations of élite female involvement, political awareness was inevitable and at least some degree of political activity almost inescapable. Gender was only one of a number of factors that determined and shaped women’s participation. By no means all women were directly involved: more women were active in social politics than in either patronage or electoral politics. Still, women’s involvement in both of these more traditionally political areas was significant and ongoing, generally overt and acknowledged by contemporaries. They pursued particular political goals and often achieved them. Most importantly, however, by fostering an intimate, political dialogue which encouraged a sense of self-identification that bound the political élite together, women were vitally important in creating and sustaining a remarkably stable and enduring politicised society: one that - arguably - survived at élite levels right into the 20th century.

This paper is generated from research that is situated at the point where women’s history, political history and social history should intersect. It seeks to fill the gap created by the diverging interests of historians in these fields, who have for too long accepted at face value that women’s subordinate legal status and their inability to vote or sit in Parliament meant exclusion from any meaningful involvement in politics. The more recent popularity of the model of separate spheres, with its presumption that women were being increasingly excluded from public life and confined to a private, separate, domestic sphere has only served to further discourage research. Thus far, what evidence of women’s involvement has been unearthed has come mainly from historians pursuing other quarry and has tended not to be taken seriously or examined on its own merit. Thus, general assumptions about the nature of eighteenth-century women’s political involvement - as personal, unaccountable and at least slightly salacious - and the notion that increasingly strict sanctions on female behaviour were inevitably to exclude women from political life stem chiefly from an uncontextualised and simplistic reading of the duchess of Devonshire’s participation in the 1784 Westminster Election which sees it as marking a watershed in women’s involvement.

In an effort to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship of women to politics in the 18th century, this paper focused on the previously unexamined involvement of female members of the political élite as revealed through extensive reading of political, personal and general correspondences between roughly 1754 and 1790, a period of significant social and political change. It was divided into three parts, each examining one of the interconnected and mutually reinforcing aspects of political life: social politics, patronage and electoral politics.

The first part of the paper placed women’s involvement in political life in context, demonstrating that women’s involvement in political life was, even if examined only in terms of narrowly defined electoral privilege, more complicated and more amorphous than has frequently been assumed. While custom prevented them from voting or serving in Parliament, other factors, including variations in franchises, differences in local customs and practices, and the tendency to view politics in familial terms provided them with an assortment of opportunities and reasons for involvement. In particular, it called attention to women’s electoral privileges in burgage and freeman boroughs, revealing not only that contemporaries recognized that women could have political influence and treated with them accordingly, but also that influence was not exclusive to exceptional or élite women.

In revealing a largely familial political culture, where the boundaries between the social and the political were blurred, and where some degree of female political involvement might be expected, it revealed that women’s roles were rooted in their traditional, familial roles. As confidantes, advisers, agents and partners, women’s roles extended, respectively, from the private and passive through to the direct, public and independent. While a small group of highly political women filled the most demanding role of partner, and women could — and occasionally did — fulfil only one role, it suggests that they were more likely to combine several, or to shift back and forth among them according to situation and circumstance.

By concentrating on women's involvement in social politics, the paper called attention to the interconnection of politics and society in the 18th century, and to the importance that contemporaries attached to the management of people and social situations for political ends. For women from politically active families, it argued that politicisation often began at home; moreover, society itself, especially in London, was permeated by politics. As guests or hostesses, women put social occasions, including visits and dinners, to a variety of political ends. Correspondence networks served similar purposes. When political issues dominated society, as they did periodically, they affected women as well as men. Manifestations of popular politics demanded ritualised responses and could be potentially dangerous. It was, however, when élite society became politically divided, as it did during the Regency Crisis, that women took a leading part. Then, everything from women’s clothing to events at private homes and public venues were politicised.

Patronage was ideally suited to women. Not only was it socio-political and non-institutional, but it also had multiple points of access and a range of levels of involvement. The paper argued that the women who took part in patronage came from a cross-section of society and did so in much the same way, and for many of the same reasons, as men. They also acted as clients, brokers and patrons, and their requests can be categorized into the same five ‘Ps’ - place, pension, preferment, Parliament and peerage. What's more, they seem to have achieved similar results.

The last part of the paper considered women’s electoral involvement. By considering electoral politics as an ongoing process that incorporated social politics and patronage, and not in terms of individual elections, the paper suggested that women’s inability to vote or serve in Parliament was not an insuperable barrier to electoral involvement. Indeed, women could take an active part in election-specific social activities, in formal as well as informal canvassing, and in administer-ing and managing people and political interests. Personal and family concerns outweighed ideological considerations for most, but not all, women. For women from political families, personal interest, family expectations and the demands of specific political circumstances all made it difficult for women to remain disengaged. When the demand for women’s participation conflicted with the mythology of the ideal woman, the former often won.


The subjects arising during discussion included: The Intimate Salons of Lady Harvey modelled on the French, to activate political influence; the activities of the Marchioness of Salisbury, friend of George Third and Pitt the Younger. These acted as a liaison, between the two. The Meetings were held at Hatfield House but unfortunately the letters were destroyed in a fire.

The interesting subject of franchise relating to property ownership was raised, and political influence at borough level. In answer to a question about the influence of ordinary underprivileged women, the speaker mentioned the bread wives who organised public protest meetings against food shortages and rising prices.

The speaker mentioned the Scandal of the Duke of York and the Wardle Affair and the way women used their influence corruptly to buy military commissions.

Women helped bring about Catholic Emancipation.

Men chose wives and mistresses for political reasons.

Parents groomed their sons for Politics by sending them on the Grand Tour. Similarly daughters were groomed in social nuances. To dress well and to flatter. To practice and indulge in Country dancing. Much bribery and corruption occurred, including nepotism, particularly in the Monarchy. Wealthy mothers were ambitious for their sons and this passed through the generations to the 20th century, as with Winston Churchill’s mother Jenny.

Peter Rex Valentine