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The Aftermath of Suffrage

Women, Gender, and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945


Edited by Julie V. Gottlieb & Richard Toye


Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013

Paperback. vii + 254p. ISBN 978-1137015341. £19.99


Reviewed by Sarah Browne

University of Nottingham



The granting of the vote to some women in 1918 and then to all women over 21 years of age in 1928 produced a seismic change in British politics in the inter-war period. Not only did it swell the numbers of eligible voters, but it also forced political parties and politicians to consider the ways in which they framed their policies and how they could appeal to this newly enlarged electorate. Until relatively recently little was known about the ways in which women negotiated their new political identities in this period. However, since the late 1990s a flurry of publications have drawn our attention to the range of political and civic organisations women were involved in during this period, and what this can tell us about gender and citizenship. This has been an important development in the historiography allowing historians to fill important gaps, but, more importantly, also highlighting the political agency of women. Yet as Gottlieb and Toye, the editors of this collection argue, there is more to be done. While historians have moved away from the understanding that after the granting of the vote women gave up their political interests, and these interests were not picked up again until the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s, our understanding of the ways in which voters and political institutions reacted to the extension of the franchise is still limited in a number of ways. This collection draws our attention to the fact that all too often histories of this period look at men’s and women’s politics as separate topics and more must be done to adopt a gender approach. Although this volume does not fill this gap (and indeed the editors point this out in the introduction) it is an important publication in encouraging historians to consider this point. Indeed, while arguing for the importance of a gender perspective, this collection focuses mainly on women. However, it is evident, that the lack of chapters on men and masculinity only serves to strengthen Gottlieb and Toye’s argument that historians have not considered this period in terms of gender, and especially draws our attention to the urgent need for more studies of masculinity in this period.

While mainly considering women and femininity, the contributors to this collection all deal with the ways in which gender and politics have been understood in this period. Major themes of the collection include the ways in which the ‘woman voter’ was discussed, how female MPs were portrayed in the press and the problems they encountered in political institutions, as well as the ways in which historians can usefully write about gender and politics in the aftermath of the suffrage campaign. It seems appropriate that this collection begins by looking at Emmeline Pankhurst, a central figure in the campaign for the vote, and what happened to her after the vote had been granted. Purvis’ chapter, which deals with this theme, highlights how international and national issues shaped Pankhurst’s politics during this period, including debates about Empire, feminism and women’s role in society. These themes are then explored in the following chapters, which focus on popular and political cultures, political institutions, the policy process, and the ways in which women and politics have been understood in this period.

One of the central questions of this collection is, what did political parties and institutions do to appeal to women voters and what does this tell historians about the ways in which women and femininity were understood in this period? Adrian Bingham’s chapter considers these issues in terms of the reactions of the popular press. This is a very useful chapter in reminding us that press reactions were more nuanced than previously understood and that in fact they were often an important vehicle for discussions about women’s citizenship. Chapters by David Thackeray and Richard Toye consider these themes from the perspective of ‘traditional’ politics, especially political parties and formal institutions such as Westminster. Takayanagi and Cowman focus on women engaged in politics; Takayanagi looks at Parliamentary Committees and Cowman discusses Women MPs. Both describe the often hostile environment women operated within and Cowman’s chapter is especially useful in reflecting on the personal aspects of women’s politicisation.

The women’s movement is also considered in this book. Thane explores British political culture during this period. She focuses on the issue of why after the extension of the franchise, many people failed to join political parties, instead opting to pursue their political interests through non-party organisations. Karen Hunt and June Hannam’s insightful chapter urges historians to adopt a new approach to discussions of these non-party organisations. They argue for the importance of looking at the theme of women and citizenship from the perspective of the local level. As they rightly point out, women tended to be more politically active at the local level. Their chapter is also useful in reminding us of the importance of the history of the emotions and how they played a role in the formation of women’s political identities. They also conclude that historians should move away from looking at individual organisations in this period, a dominant approach in the historiography thus far, and instead produce accounts which look at a range of groups within the local context. Laura Beers’ useful chapter on the Women for Westminster group considers one such organisation, and using this example she raises questions about the ways in which women negotiated their gender and party political identities. Dissenting voices are also considered in this volume with Vervaecke’s chapter on those who opposed suffrage, charting what happened to them after the right to vote had been granted. Finally, McCarthy and Gottlieb consider the area of foreign policy and women’s contributions. They remind us of how important gender perspectives are to the history of international relations and the ways in which the policy process worked to exclude women (and indeed working-class men).

There are many important themes discussed in this book. From the perspective of a historian of the women’s movement this book makes an important contribution in highlighting the need for more research into ideas about gender in this period, and the role the extension of the franchise played in contesting these ideas. While many of the chapters focus on women and femininity, collections such as this will hopefully shed light on the gaps in our understanding and encourage historians to consider this period of political history from the perspective of gender.


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