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Women in British Politics, c.1689-1979

Krista Cowman


London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

Paperback. 218 pp. ISBN 978-0230545571. £18.99


Reviewed by Pat Thane

King’s College, London


This book provides an introductory survey of the roles of women in British politics from the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689 to the, perhaps less glorious, entry to no. 10 Downing St of our first ( and so far only) female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1979.

The relatively peaceful revolution of 1689 replaced the Catholic King James II with the joint monarchy of his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William, both Protestants. Importantly it also strengthened the power of the (undemocratically) elected parliament in relation to the monarch. Also importantly, and even more unusually, it placed a woman on throne, though she shared it with her husband. England was at this time the only country in Europe where a woman could reign, if there was no male heir, and two Queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor had already done so. William and Mary were to be followed on the throne by Mary’s sister, Anne. Mary ruled ably, during her husband’s frequent absences at war, as did Anne.

Other women could not wield such overt power, but Cowman demonstrates how, even in the 17th and 18th centuries, many women at all social levels were politically active: in riots and political protest among the poor; among the better off as political hostesses, financial supporters, party canvassers, writers of political pamphlets. But it was the example of the French Revolution which sparked the first calls for women’s direct political participation in Britain. This was a minority aspiration, but as the economy and urban culture expanded through the first half of the 19th century opportunities for women’s involvement in public life—whether in Chartism, local philanthropy or important pressure groups such as the anti-slavery movement— multiplied.

By the 1860s, enough women had gained political experience and built a network of connections for a women’s movement to begin to emerge, aiming explicitly to improve women’s position in political and social life through improving their education, legal and property rights and political involvement. The demand for the vote began in the 1860s, encouraged by John Stuart Mill. It was unsuccessful at national level, but from 1869 some, propertied, women could vote and be elected in local government in spheres deemed suitable for women, such as poor relief and education. Here many women were able to prove their ability, while others became indispensible organisers of philanthropic movements and growing political parties or advisers to government.

The more women were publicly involved with politics, the more absurd their exclusion from national politics seemed, at least to some. The impatience of many women burst out in the variety of suffrage societies and other campaigns in the earliest years of the twentieth century, again including women of all classes, though the leaders tended to be better-off women with means and time to devote to the cause. Here as elsewhere Cowman ably surveys the activities, and the historiography, of militants and non-militants and the complex relations among them before and during World War 1.

The vote came at last just after the war, though only to women aged 30 and above and, even then, excluding unmarried women without property. This was less a reward for women’s war work than an attempt by politicians to counterbalance the extension of the franchise, at the same time, to all men at age 21 (or less if they had fought in the war), enfranchising many poorer and younger men for the first time.

Historians used to believe that after fighting for the vote, British women stopped campaigning once they had got it, in 1918, until the ‘second wave’ women’s movement started in the late 1960s. This approach has increasingly been challenged in recent years. Women found it very hard to be selected for winnable parliamentary seats at any time until 1997 but Cowman surveys the growing evidence of women’s active involvement in political parties, non-party associations and in public life through the inter-war years, not least in campaigning for a fully equal franchise at age 21, which came at last in 1928. But she accepts too readily the political scientists’ assumption that women, since getting the vote, have persistently inclined towards Conservatism. For the inter-war years, we simply do not know, since there were no opinion polls. Since 1945, according to polls, women provided a higher proportion of the popular vote for Labour than men in 1945 and 1966 and male and female votes were evenly matched between the parties in 1950, 1997 and 2002.

She might also have given more attention to what the feminist Lady Rhondda dismissed in the inter-war years as the ‘heap of niggling little laws that need altering’. One of the ways that organised woman made an impact on politics between the wars was by campaigning and manoeuvring to reform‘ niggling little laws’ that prevented many women from gaining a divorce or custody of their children, ensuring that unmarried mothers received more support from the fathers of their children and widows received state pensions. Achieving these and other changes did much to improve the lives especially of poorer women.

Many women were active through World War 2 and after, for example in campaigning for equal pay. Cowman helpfully identifies the large gaps in our knowledge of women’s politics throughout the long period she deals with. We still know all too little about women’s organisations through the 1950s and 60s, which were clearly active, though attracting fewer younger women. About why women were finally admitted to the House of Lords in 1958 and what they have done since they got there. About the background to such changes as the legalisation of abortion in 1967; in the same year, local authorities were allowed to give women free birth control advice and supplies to women, even if they were unmarried; in 1969 easier divorce was introduced and in 1970 an Equal Pay Act, which was inadequate but a beginning. All of these were important changes for women and pre-date the ‘second’ wave women’s movement which did not become seriously active before 1970. Indeed it can be seen as a product of the same international cultural change as the legal changes themselves. How this all came about is still not really clear

When the Women’s Liberation Movement did get moving, it was unlike previous women’s movements in its preference for promoting the ‘personal’ over the political and its resistance to formal organisation and formal politics. Its importance lay, above all, in encouraging women’s consciousness and confidence, with much success, though there were also important practical and legal outcomes. Above all in making a public issue of domestic violence, achieving stricter laws against it, and also of rape and the relative protection of male rapists. Previously both had been shrouded in secrecy and not publicly discussed. The WLM brought them permanently into public view but sadly did not eliminate them.

By the end of the 1970s, as Cowman describes, the WLM was fragmenting. But, as she rightly points out, feminism did not die away. Many of the women activists moved into formal politics and had in the 1990s some influence on political parties, including in the new post-1999 devolved governments of Wales and Scotland. But Cowman ends her survey in 1979, though she wonders whether the election of our first female Prime Minister was the best place to do so, given how little Margaret Thatcher did to improve the lives of women, or their political involvement while she was in power. Women responded by voting against the Conservatives in larger numbers than at any time since World War 2.

As Cowman reminds us in her conclusion, for all that has changed for women since 1689, all too much has stayed the same. A short survey of so much ground cannot cover everything, but this is an excellent, accessible introduction to the key themes and issues in a central strand in modern history.




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