Rethinking right wing women , ed. Berthezene and Gottlieb

‘Shy Women Tories’ in the History of Suffrage and Beyond

Guest post by Dr Julie V. Gottlieb (University of Sheffield)

It is truly remarkable how so many organisations, institutions, media outlets and individuals have been coming together to mark the centenary of (partial) women’s suffrage. This promises to be a ‘year of the women’[1]  due to the widespread awareness of the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act coinciding with the cresting of a new wave of the international women’s movement, propelled by what has felt like a tidal wave of assaults on women’s rights, their bodies, their reputations, and their dignity.

From the heart of the UK government, non-partisan initiatives likes 50:50 Parliament, #AskHerToStand, and VOTE100 are leading the way in bringing more and more women into politics. Another group is Women2Win, founded in 2005 by Anne Baroness Jenkin of Kennington and Theresa May to campaign to increase the representation of Conservative women in Parliament. At our moment in history there is such an electric synergy between the exceptionally creative ways in which women’s history is being reflected on and represented and the initiatives to awaken and equip women to fulfil the promise of the franchise.

To think that this is all happening when for the second time Britain has a woman Prime Minister! Yet the fact that Theresa May is a Conservative somehow works to diminish her achievement as a woman.  There is a disconnect between the understanding of Conservative women’s activism and the more familiar figures and narratives of the women’s emancipation story in Britain. So where are Conservative women in the story of women’s suffrage and in its aftermath? And where might Conservative women belong in the centenary celebrations?

Prime Minister Theresa May speaking in Parliament, 6 February 2018. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Prime Minister Theresa May speaking in Parliament, 6 February 2018. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

In many respects the history of Conservative women has been different and set apart from that of their counterparts in other parties or in the women’s movement. After pollsters failed to accurately predict the Conservative General Election victory in 1992, they– together with psephologists– came up with the theory of the ‘Shy Tory Effect’. Conservative voters were (and are) much less likely to publically admit their voting intensions. Are Conservative women therefore the ‘Shy Tories’ of gender and political history?

There are various analogies to be drawn between the ‘Shy Tory Factor’ and the history and the historiography of women in the Conservative party. First, Conservative women have been, comparatively speaking, hesitant about identifying themselves with feminism as a revolutionary, anti-establishment philosophy that aspires to overturn the patriarchy. That being said, some Tory women have belied expectation and been involved in various women’s rights campaigns – including suffrage, ‘woman power’ during the Second World War, equal pay, and agitation for more and fuller roles for women in public life. Many of these women called (and call) themselves feminists. Yet ‘Tory feminism’ looks rather different from Leftist women’s rights discourses. For Conservative women the emphasis has been on women’s duties and securing the legal and constitutional rights they require to actualise their performance of citizenship. This has been pretty consistent over time.

It is also true that histories of the Conservative party have been shy of women. It is plain to see that the institutional or heavily biographical histories have been written mainly by men, with varying degrees but usually limited interest in gender as a category of analysis. This is not to say that some men have not written compelling and ground-breaking histories of women in politics (Brian Harrison and Martin Pugh immediately come to mind).

Until more recently, nor had many women’s historians opted to study Conservative women. This has been the case in spite of the fact that the Conservative party had been so successful at courting women voters at election time and relied heavily on women’s participation at all levels of the party structure. The advent of Margaret Thatcher as first woman PM, together with the frontal attack on Sixties radicalism inherent in Thatcherism throughout the 1980s, only reinforced the sense that Tory women were somehow ‘other’; that they suffered from false consciousness; and that –except for a few outliers– they espoused traditional ideas about women’s domesticity. Perhaps some Conservative women came a bit closer to a liberationist agenda by adopting a rhetoric of ‘equal but different’ but this hardly chimed with the radicalism of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Beatrix Campbell’s provocative Iron Ladies: Why Do Women Vote Tory? (1987) teased out these paradoxes.[2]

Margaret Thatcher. Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/727
Margaret Thatcher, photographed by Gerald Pudsey, 19 Dec 1969. Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/727

There are also structural and archival factors that account for the scholarly concealment of Conservative women. It is striking that the Conservative Women’s Organisation still exists and has done so since 1919. While the Labour Women’s Forum and Liberal Democratic Women are active today, the CWO is a gender-segregated grass-roots organisation with an uninterrupted history. And yet the CWO’s (going by the name of the Conservative Women’s Association in the 1930s) presence in the archive is elusive. Certainly for the inter-war period the status of women within the Conservative Party and the care or lack thereof for their legacy is evidenced by the patchiness of their records. Encouragingly, this is starting to change, and archival material revealing the extent and nature of women’s party activism is being deposited in the Conservative Party Archive (Bodleian, Oxford).

Indeed, on their website the CWO has been trying to modernise its image, retrofitting iconic suffragette figures as Conservatives. This has some plausibility in the case of Emmeline Pankhurst and even more so in that of Elsie Bowerman. Emmeline Pankhurst became the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for an East London constituency in 1927 but died before both the passage of the Equal Franchise and the 1929 General Election. Bowerman, a less familiar figure to most, was active in the WSPU and joined Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and Flora Drummond, on a definitively right-ward journey across the political map, while never losing sight of feminist goals. In contrast, Emily Wilding Davison, who also appears on the CWO website, had no obvious Tory affiliation.

The CWO could well have found less ambiguous examples of women who merged their Toryism with their overt support for women’s suffrage. A number of Tory women were prominent suffragists, and Louisa Knightley founded the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association in 1908,[3] and the Countess of Selborne took on the presidency in 1910. While Tories dominated the Anti-Suffrage League, Balfour, Lord Robert Cecil, Victor 2nd Earl of Lytton and the 2nd Earl of Selborne were all energetic supporters of women’s suffrage.

Rethinking right wing women , ed. Berthezene and Gottlieb

Conservatives were represented among the suffragettes as well, with Lady Constance Lytton as one example, and WSPU-donor Lucy Lady Byron (later Lady Houston), simultaneously a diehard feminist and ultra-Tory imperialist. Edith Lady Londonderry was an unequivocal supporter of women’s suffrage, a Tory grandee, and a decided feminist throughout her life. Thelma Cazalet-Keir MP and her mother had both supported the WSPU. Nancy Astor, the first woman MP, never shied away from the referring to herself as a feminist.

Indeed, it was a Conservative government that passed the Equal Franchise Act and, it was Stanley Baldwin who unveiled Mr A.G. Walker’s statue of Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst on 6 March, 1930, in London. The party’s internal publication Home and Empire described the event as follows:

However opinions may differ about the methods employed by Mrs Pankhurst and her followers in their fight to secure votes for women, no one ever questioned her honesty of purpose and self-sacrificing zeal.   It is appropriate that the Conservative leader should unveil the statue, for it was the Conservative Government, with Mr Baldwin at its head, which carried out the programme of the Women’s Social and Political Union by granting ‘the Parliamentary vote to women on the same terms as it is, or may be, granted to men.’  After the fight has been won. Mrs. Pankhurst realised that the Conservative Party held outmost hope of improved conditions for the women of the country, and became an energetic worker in its ranks.[4]

Together with the casting of Pankhurst’s statue, by 1930 Baldwin was only too ready to recast his party’s record on an issue that had been so fractured. Complex and contradictory though it is, we mustn’t shy away from the history of Conservative suffragism and, more broadly, the place of Tory women in the story of women’s emancipation. The centenary of suffrage is the optimum moment to rethink right-wing women.[5]

Dr Julie V. Gottlieb 

Dr Julie V. Gottlieb is a Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She has written extensively on women and British politics in the first half of the twentieth century, including ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain (2015). She co-edited The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics, 1918-1945 (2013) with Richard Toye, and edited Feminists and Feminism After Suffrage (2015). She co-edited Rethinking Right-Wing Women (2017) with Clarisse Berthezene, and they are co-editing a special issue of Women’s History Review on Conservative women (forthcoming 2019). She is involved in a number of public engagement projects around the centenary of suffrage, including acting as one of the historical consultants on the statue of Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square.


[1] (the last so-called ‘year of the woman’ was in 1992 in the USA)

[2] These assumptions were projected backwards to earlier in the 20th century, and, moving forward from Thatcher’s tenure in office, they have been difficult to shake off since.

[3] See Mitzi Auchterlonie, Conservative Suffragists: The Women’s Vote and the Tory Party (2007)

[4] “Mrs Pankhurst”, Home and Empire, March 1930

[5] See Clarisse Berthezene and Julie V. Gottlieb (eds.), Rethinking Right-Wing Women: Gender and the Conservative Party, 1880s to the Present (Manchester: MUP, 2017)

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