This is a guest post by Dr Sarah Richardson, Associate Professor of History at the University of Warwick. Her book, The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain, discusses the rich female political culture in Victorian Britain, including women’s participation in parish politics.
Women and the Politics of the Parish
The parish electorate in England and Wales was generally broad and inclusive. There was the potential for elections for a range of parish officers including constables, highway surveyors and overseers of the poor. Parishioners could also vote for parish servants such as beadles and sextons. Although there were attempts to reform and codify this system in the early nineteenth century, in reality, in many parishes, democracy was in the ascendant. What is less appreciated is the fact that women ratepayers were able to participate in these very local elections. There are many reasons for this oversight. First, two landmark pieces of legislation in the 1830s, the Reform Act and the Municipal Corporations Act, restricted the right to vote to ‘male persons’. Second, the story of female enfranchisement has been dominated by the women’s suffrage campaigns at the end of the century. And, third, there is little direct evidence of women voting, therefore, historians have assumed they were effectively barred from the polling booth.
The discovery, in a box of solicitors’ papers, of a poll book for the election of overseer of the poor for St Chad’s parish in Lichfield, provided the missing link between the theoretical right of women to vote, and their practical application of that privilege. The poll book listed over 300 voters and among them were the names of 30 women. Ironically, they were almost equally split between the Tory and Liberal candidates. The women came from all walks of life, from wealthy businesswomen to lowly paupers. The fact that they were able to participate and make choices in this parish election has important implications for our understanding of female citizenship in this period.
To learn more about the poll book and its implications, see the following:
BBC Radio 4, Document: Victorian Women Voters (available on iplayer)
The Victorian female franchise (Victorian Commons blog)
Women voted 75 years before they were legally entitled to in 1918 (Daily Telegraph blog)
Where are all the women in politics? (History and Policy policy paper)