Paul Thomas, University of South Wales Keywords: Women, Politics, Recruitment, Conservative Party Introduction

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Women in Society

Volume 5, Spring 2013 ISSN 2042-7220 (Print)

ISSN 2042-7239 (Online)

Winning Becomes Habitual: The Conservative Party and Women During the Latter Part of the 19th Century
Paul Thomas, University of South Wales

Keywords: Women, Politics, Recruitment, Conservative Party


The relationship between the Conservative Party of the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and degrees of women’s suffrage is complex and multi-faceted; researching this piece reveals only limited examination has been undertaken and suggests it is poorly understood or neglected. This analysis of women’s history concerns itself with exploring issues that motivated women to participate in politics for the benefit of the Conservative Party. Firstly, it achieves this by identifying a sample of political and social factors that moved the Conservative Party to encourage women to cooperate and participate in its affairs, alongside historically contextualising their efforts. Secondly, it offers an overview of the legal framework in which they operated. Finally, it analyses the results of their work as activists and its subsequent impact on women’s enfranchisement. It concludes that this paper should be seen as a work in progress.


It is clear that there has been an appetite for both political ‘preservation’ and ‘reform’ in Britain from before the nineteenth century until the present day. This work concentrates chiefly, although not exclusively on the years between 1867 and 1886, which oversaw the development of Britain’s modern political system and the beginning of a Conservative ascendancy, which is still politically important today. This period saw the Second and Third Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 establish the principle of one man, one vote; alongside the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 (Adelman, 1997; McCord and Purdue, 2006, pg.305). Regarding women, John Stuart Mill’s 1867 Parliamentary amendment to enfranchise women was defeated with 193 votes against, compared to just 73 in favour (McCord and Purdue, 2006, pg.365). However, the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 extended the franchise to certain women who qualified as ratepayers in local elections. The 1870 Education Act allowed these women to vote in School Board elections and after 1875 to vote for and serve as Poor Law Guardians. Nationally, the Redistribution Act of 1885 divided the country into mainly one member constituencies of roughly equal populations and can be seen as laying down the present constituency system. Regarding men, the consequences of these reforms was a hugely increased (not universal) electorate of approximately 5,600,000 men (Auchterlonie, 2007, pg.11). This emerging mass political constituency presented contemporary political elites with particular problems if they were to achieve future electoral success. Key, as this investigation will demonstrate was the adversarial nature of British politics and the passing of the Corrupt Practises Act of 1883 in pursuit of electoral advantage produced a fair and transparent electoral system by limiting candidates’ expenses. This legislation unintentionally led to the emergence of the mass membership two party system characteristic of British politics up until the internet age and made women politically indispensible to the political success of the Conservatives (Adelman, 1997; Auchterlonie, 2002: pg.6-48; Auchterlonie, 2007, pg. 11; McCord and Purdue, 2006, pg.365).

Challenges and Solutions

Pugh’s studies suggest that the nineteenth century was largely uncomfortable for British Conservatives because they feared the ‘future’ and rarely exhibited ‘the optimism the Whigs, Radicals and Socialists commonly displayed’ (1985). He argues that the governments of the Liverpool-Wellington era were really ‘sharp reactions’ to internal and external revolutions; Peel’s administration reflected attempts to limit the consequences of the 1832 Reform Act and later Chartist agitations, alongside the Disraeli-Salisbury period, which was chiefly characterised by a combination of middle class and aristocratic cooperation in a time of growing democratic activism. He asserts that the Tory status quo faced four principal threats during this period. First, was rapid industrialisation, which produced a wealthy middle class ‘susceptible to alliance with the lower orders against the traditional rulers’ in pursuit of its interests. Second, was widespread religious dissent, which disputed the established Church’s status. Third, was the advance of democratic accountability, which one man one vote threatened. Fourth, were Irish national aspirations, which from Conservative perspectives augured possible ‘imperial disintegration’ (Pugh, 1985, pg.5).

Pugh asserts that they faced these challenges by organising their defences around traditional institutions; the monarchy, the House of Lords, the Anglican Church and the Union between Britain and Ireland in two ways. The first involved resisting each reform as it occurred and subsequently attempting to reverse it; the second on which this work concentrates, involved attempting to manage reform to obtain the most beneficial result from Conservative perspectives. His analysis suggests that as the rules of electoral conflict changed ‘support had to be won from larger and social groups’ and raised the question ‘would not their support in itself require some modifications in the Party?’ in order to win power. Their solution was to reorganise the Party gradually in response to events and it can be traced in these ways (Pugh, 1985, pg.4-11).
First, the Earl of Shrewsbury personally founded a National Conservative Register in 1863; followed by an official party list in 1866. Second, saw the setting up of the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations in 1867 and third, saw the founding of a Conservative Central Office in 1870. Lawrence supports Pugh’s argument that these bodies were designed to make the existing Conservative vote more effective and sought to widen the Party’s electoral appeal to new emerging voter groups. The Conservative hierarchy also proposed a National Union with a network of affiliated workingman’s clubs motivated to support their aims politically through the ‘sociability of a common cause’ rather than internal democracy. This support became manifest through the actions of populist Tory politicians who attempted to mobilise the ‘respectable working class’ by emphasising self-improvement, self-reliance and self-education (Lawrence, 1993, pg. 629, 638, 641; Pugh, 1985, pg.4-11). These developments are clearly indicative of a Party rapidly adjusting to new political realities. However, the subsequent General Elections of 1880 and 1885 saw further Conservative defeats; resulting in an increasingly divided Tory leadership as it attempted to counter its Liberal and Irish Nationalist political opponents (McCord and Purdue, 2006, pg.397-408).
Layton-Henry’s piece stresses that campaigns for the reform of the Conservative Party have occurred for two main reasons; electoral defeat and rising groups within, demanding a ‘larger voice’ to influence policy (Layton-Henry, 1978, pg.653-655). One way this was manifested during the 1880s was by the actions of a group of Conservative backbench MPs who came to be known as the ‘Fourth Party’. This group consisted of Arthur Balfour, Randolph Churchill, John Gorst and Henry Drummond Wolf. With Churchill as its most prominent member, they attempted to regenerate the party and effectively oppose the Liberal government by various means; he headed a campaign for Tory democracy, which aimed to harness working class support by introducing proposals to abolish the undemocratic central committee and transfer its functions to the National Union. Churchill’s campaign to control the National Union was successful and he became its Chairman in 1884. One important result of his activities was official Conservative support for a new organisation called the ‘Primrose League’ (Layton-Henry, 1978, pg.858-661) whose male/female/family centred activists and activities were to deliver a period of Conservative electoral ascendancy with a break of only three years until 1906.
Quinalt’s primary sources indicate Churchill’s association with the new League at its inception was selfishly motivated; it was a tactical move designed to improve Conservative organisation in order to contest future General Elections and he asserts must be associated with his personal ambition to become Party leader and ultimately Prime Minister (Quinalt, 1979, pg.151-152). They should be seen as part of other initiatives he and his supporters were promoting to influence public opinion in particular ways; all later displayed in Primrose recruitment propaganda. For instance, the Fourth Party’s protracted opposition to the secularist and atheist Liberal MP Charles Bradlaugh attempts to take his seat in Parliament was portrayed as defending the Church (Quinalt, 1976, pg.315-340) and attempting to paralyse the Liberal government’s legislative programme by supporting Irish filibustering tactics to exhaust available Parliamentary time indirectly defended the Union (McCord and Purdue, 2006, pg.398-399).These tactics portrayed the Liberal government as hopeless and the Conservatives as effective defenders of the nation’s heritage.
Women’s Involvement in the Primrose League

Pugh is uncertain how women became involved in the Primrose League. His research indicates that early recruitment concerned men only; he describes it as ‘no more than Churchill’s semi-secret society for Tory Gentlemen’ and states that it is not ‘entirely clear how Grand Council’s decision to admit women arose’. His explanation suggests it may have been ‘a result of dinner-table discussions’ at aristocratic homes; Quinallt supports this view citing Lady Dorothy Neville’s autobiography as his source (Pugh, 1985, pg. 26, 48; Quinault, 1976, pg.336). Alongside this, Auchterlonie’s assessment suggests that the 1883 Corrupt Practises Act was a key motivating factor for the Conservative elite (Auchterlonie, 2007, pg.31); her reasoning is supported by an early prominent supporter and activist, Lady Knightley who recorded in her diary ‘It all sounds rubbish, but the objects…are excellent. I can quite believe that the paraphernalia helps to keep Conservatives together – means, in short, an army of unpaid canvassers’ (Pugh, 1985, pg. 48). Whatever their origins; from December 1888 substantial numbers of men and women began to pay to join the Primrose League as members known as ‘Knights’, ‘Dames’ and later through a cheaper subscription called ‘tribute’ as ‘Associates’ (Pugh, 1985, pg.25, 27-28). The membership returns’ accuracy may be suspect and justifiably challenged, given the limitations of Victorian bookkeeping and political exaggerations, but are impressive nonetheless because they depict a geographic picture of huge social integration which certainly included women from all social backgrounds. Importantly there were also branches (all called ‘habitations’), which were set up by and run for women exclusively as far afield as Barnsley, Trowbridge, Brighton, Durham, Torquay, and Wellington. Women also served as officials (called wardens) and on each habitation’s executive council as Dame Presidents and if Pugh is correct with real and growing influence (Pugh, 1985, pg.49-50).

This influence began to be demonstrated in four main ways; promoting social inclusion to widen its populist appeal, active political canvassing, publicly recognising successful activism; all in order to marshal and build loyal support for the Conservative Party through female networking and finally, by establishing their competence as political operators. Social inclusion was demonstrated through acts of philanthropy which drew in many Victorian women and social events that had the effect of constantly consolidating and reinforcing these relationships. Jesman’s thesis argues that this took the form of practical female engagement in schooling, proposing women as Anglican candidates for school boards and as Guardians who administered the Poor Law (Jesman, 2008, pg.90-116, 122-144, 147-179). The majority of women activists in this field were from the aristocratic and gentry classes who had the resources and time to embed Conservative values into everyday life (Auchterlonie, 2002, pg.6-48). The League also sponsored an array of social activities which ranged from both amateur and professional theatricals, dances, teas, fetes and excursions all underpinned with patriotic songs, which included rousing choruses so ‘the audience may join in’ (Pugh, 1985, pg.28-29). All of these activities were targeted at entire families and communities and were clear attempts by Conservative activists of which at least half were female to ‘socialise’ politics in order to engender loyalty to the Party.
The League was especially effective in a campaigning role; an early example Louisa Knightley, methodically canvassed her husband’s Rainald South Northamptonshire constituency in the months leading up to the General Election of 1885. Pugh asserts this ‘pioneering image of a lady of the manor canvassing the tenants rapidly gave way to a much more modern pattern in which squads of thirty to fifty Dames systematically worked the streets of an urban or suburban constituency (Pugh, 1985, pg.53). The Primrose League Gazette reported Meresia Neville ‘As a rule I consider women to be the best canvassers’ because they were used to ‘district visiting’ and compared to men a lady canvasser stood a good chance of ‘gaining entry’ and acquiring knowledge of the voter’s ‘circumstances and interests’. If her assertion is correct, this would have led to the Conservative Party gaining access to electorates which may have previously been opposed to their views (Pugh, 1985, pg.53). Public recognition for their work was given by the Leagues’ national leadership in the form of certificates and Pugh highlights a successful example of their work in relation to the 1898 by-election in the marginal seat of Darlington by tracing out of a total electorate of approximately 7000, 720 missing electors who had moved home; they successfully traced 690 of them (Pugh, 1985, pg.55). These instances show these women thought highly of their own skills, clearly demonstrates their competence as activists and reveals how their work was recognised.

Many historians assert that these events occurred in part, because or in spite of Parliamentary legislation passed in 1882 and 1883. These were the 1882 Ballot Act and 1883 Corrupt Practises Act respectively and their consequences undoubtedly resulted in a measure of democratic accountability with other measures won in the struggle for suffrage at this juncture (House of Commons, 1872 (21); 1883(7)). This work agrees with their views; but all accounts fail to realise or report the degree of activity that occurred over the entire nineteenth century (Adelman, 1997, pg.vii, 20, 43; Cole and Filson, 1965, pg.373, 518, 520; Lee, 1994, pg. 60, 144, 146; McCord and Purdue, 2006, pg.148, 290, 292, 305; Pugh, 1985, pg.5,13,36-38; Smith, 2007, pg.12-14; Strachey, 1928, pg.279). What is clear, these Acts changed the traditional methods of organising the vote through patronage and corruption by allowing confidentiality and strictly limiting campaign expenditure; but must also be seen within the context of over 250 pieces of Parliamentary enquiries and legislation between the years 1800 and 1899. This huge legislative output and its detail shows irrefutably that political life in Britain was corrupt, whether from the Whig or Tory side during these years. Gladstone’s Liberals expected their 1880s reforms to advantage their political situation and this is why they certainly proposed and supported them (Matthew, 1995, pg.1-4). This strategy clearly did not deliver the expected electoral results of continuing Liberal hegemony and may have been viewed as ‘more of the same’ as the Liberals had previously been the dominant party for much of the nineteenth century by the new emerging electorates which reform brought forward.

However in summary, the actual result of reform was a Conservative Party adopting flexible and accommodating responses to circumvent these restrictions in its pursuit of power which ultimately produced a Conservative ascendancy (with one break of just three years when it was still the most popular party) until 1906 when it was conclusively defeated. This is confirmed in terms of the Tory share of the national vote and seats won between the years 1880 and 1900 when their share of the popular vote steadily increased from 42.0% to 50.3% and an increasing House of Commons representation of 237 to 402. This electoral success must be directly attributed to the huge membership and canvassing activities of its auxiliary body the Primrose League of which approximately half were women who consistently demonstrated their competency and loyalty in what before had been exclusively a male preserve. Without doubt, the Conservative Party became a massively popular movement through its auxiliaries’ activities which were influenced (although not controlled) by a large number of women and these factors must have been to the fore of Conservative calculations when Parliamentary legislation was passed after the First World War extending the franchise to women.

In conclusion, this study raises many questions, all worthy of further study; these could include undertaking detailed analysis of female participation on School Boards or as Poor Law Guardians. Such research should unequivocally prove female competence and demonstrate its subsequent effects politically in terms of the universal franchise or otherwise. This particular investigation has been hampered by lack of direct access to primary sources such as the Primrose League Gazette or contemporary diaries. If these became available they could provide avenues for profitable research in order to understand particular aspects of the relationship between the Tories and women. They may reveal the League should not be viewed as an institution that promoted women’s rights through democratic activism but rather provided a degree of upward social mobility for women which was established and consolidated by women’s ability to network effectively all of which bound them together and found voice through a set of common values associated with, or contained inside a Tory wrapper.


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