Women as participants in elections

Though excluded from the franchise, women found many ways to influence the vote

[20-minute read]

Five months before the 1768 general election, Lord Breadalbane complained to his daughter, Marchioness Grey, that the ‘Rage of Electioneering’ had already infected Scotland, and that the ‘epidemical Madness’ of the upcoming elections was more virulent than ever. At the same time in London, Mrs. Sarah Osborn was observing wryly that, ‘Cards & Elections are the only Subjects’; and Lady Spencer, writing from Althorp, was remarking, ‘we are all Election Mad just at present’. As the polls approached, the subject of elections dominated élite society everywhere.

‘Elections is the subject of all conversation’, or, ‘We hear of nothing but Elections in this part of the world,’ form a refrain in women’s letters from London and the country during the election years in the second half of the eighteenth century. When elections swept the country, they dominated conversations, personal correspondences and the press. As national politicization was spurred by improvements in transportation and communication, and a steady stream of highly politicized events, the peaks of political excitement became higher and more all-encompassing. Particularly heated campaigns made the most impact and could generate interest well down the social scale. For the political élite, close family relationships and political connexions created an intimacy that had long encouraged periodic bursts of election-related political excitement. For women who were members of the political élite, electoral politics were a fact of life. The familial and factional nature of politics not only ensured their political awareness and encouraged their interest, but the personal and social nature of the eighteenth-century political world often required their active participation.

Contested elections generated viral excitement, at least in part because they were participatory events. As the following description of General Peachy’s procession through Taunton during the contested election of 1830 reveals, the arrival of a candidate in town during a pre-Reform election campaign was replete with ritual and sense of occasion:

Tuesday, the 24th of August, proved a day of considerable importance and gratification to the Blue party of Taunton; early in the morning the bells rang merrily, and persons were seen busy in decorating themselves and families in the favourite azure emblem; the managing supporters of General Peachy had considered it more prudent to avoid a public procession, but the importunities of his friends were so urgent, that the objection was cheerfully removed, and in a few hours the Blue Banners that were then decorating the walls of the banquet room at the Castle, were transferred to the pole. At two o’clock the procession was formed at the Eastern Turnpike, from whence it conducted the General through the principal streets of the town; the number of blue banners with the variety of devices, and each person of the numerous assemblage wearing a “bunch of blue ribbons” exhibited an appearance highly interesting. The General was warmly greeted from the windows as he passed, and from the hearty flourish of his proud colour from “fairer hands,” it was certain that the “more delightful portion of the creation” were among his strenuous supporters. (Dorset County Chronicle, 2 September 1830)

Voters and non-voters alike — men, women and children — were involved. They carried banners, marched in processions, lined the streets and gathered in the windows. They expressed their allegiances physically, visually and vocally. While the presence and approbation of that ‘more delightful portion of the creation’ was frequently commented upon by contemporary reporters, it would be vastly underplaying women’s electoral involvement if we assumed that women’s involvement in elections in this period — at any level of society — stopped at providing incidental colour or serving as appropriately bedecked political window dressing.

Women in the long eighteenth century were certainly members of the political crowd — the extra-parliamentary nation — but they were also active participants in the electoral process. Even in boroughs like Taunton, which did not see the involvement of aristocratic women as patrons, organisers or canvassers, as was the case in various boroughs across the country throughout the century, or give voters’ womenfolk the sorts of electoral privileges found in burgage and freeman boroughs up until electoral reform in the 1830s, women can be found taking part in elections both informally and formally. They participated in election processions and treats; they sewed banners and made cockades; they served copious amounts of bread, cheese, beer and cider to voters and non-voters alike; and they capitalised on the influx of business that the election brought to their taverns and lodging-houses.

Wifely Influence

Voters’ wives were often more directly involved, especially during contested elections. They were frequently canvassed by candidates and their agents, as they were presumed to have — and often did have — influence over their husbands’ votes. Coaxed, cajoled and ofttimes kissed, they might also be offered small amounts of cash or douceurs. Offers of drink, dresses (possibly in the candidate’s colours) and the payment of debts were not uncommon; neither were hints of (or threats to) future patronage. While some women were flattered, persuaded or cowed into agreement, others took open pleasure in resisting all blandishments, proudly proclaiming their personal or familial political independence. Lady Susan Keck, canvassing in Oxfordshire for the 1754 election, grumbled at being obstructed by just a such ‘Viper’, who ‘told me she always was of the high party’, whereas Lord Townshend, canvassing in Tamworth in 1765, noted several such wives ruefully in his canvassing book: ‘Wife governs, against us’; and then again, ‘wish’d us well, but his Wife govern’d’. The most formidable of voters’ wives might even use the election to settle old personal scores with the local men who canvassed them, or pointedly make depositions of bribery and corruption against canvassers whom they felt had been disrespectful.

Women as Witnesses

Local women could also be part of the country’s formal election machinery. Women, especially older women, can be found serving as witnesses during polls and at scrutinies. As the electoral memory of the borough, they drew upon their personal knowledge of people and places to challenge or confirm individuals’ rights to vote. They also accompanied tallies of voters to the hustings to oversee the process of voting. When an election was controverted, as it was in Taunton in 1830, women who often are otherwise completely missing from the historical record — female servants, tavern-keepers, laundresses, chimney sweeps’ wives, and the like — joined local men, at candidates’ expense, to testify in parliament. Ironically, the depositions of these women, who did not vote themselves and were outside the imagined (male) political nation, served to shape parliamentary decisions and determine election outcomes.

Familial Politics

It is important to stress that while eighteenth-century contemporaries presumed that the polity was male and that politics should be men’s business, there was a significant gap between rhetoric and reality when it came to women’s participation in electoral politics. As long as a woman’s electoral involvement could be rationalized as dutiful, dignified and familial — with the emphasis on familial — it was unlikely to be problematic, even if that meant supporting an unrelated man who was representing a family interest. The more hotly contested the election, however — and Frank O’Gorman has argued that up to three-quarters of all elections were contested to some degree, even if not all the way to the poll —  the more likely women at all levels of society were to be involved.

For the women of the political elite, participation in electoral politics varied according to personal circumstances, individual character and commitment, but was generally an extension of the family’s larger, holistic socio-political involvement in the local community. Politics was a family business and some degree of women’s involvement was largely accepted and even expected by contemporaries. It could even be demanded by male family members. As mothers, wives, sisters and daughters in political families, their politics was primarily familial, occasionally factional; it was not feminist. They were members of an élite that was English in political identification and orientation, but not exclusively so in terms of nationality. It included Scots, Welsh, and that small group of Irish who saw London and Westminster as the centre of their political world. Their activities became problematic only when they either threatened to dissolve class boundaries, especially between elite women and labouring-sort men, or when the women proved to be such charismatic political figures or successful canvassers that they emerged as political figures in their own rights and therefore implicitly challenged the established gender order. The Pittite press manufactured scandal around the duchess of Devonshire allegedly kissing butchers in the 1784 Westminster election offers the most notable example of the first; the criticism aimed at Lady Susan Keck for her high-profile role in the Oxfordshire election campaign of 1754 exemplifies the second.

Eighteenth-century electoral politics was not for the faint-hearted for men or women. The most successful female campaigners needed to be thick-skinned and self-confident, able to shrug off sexual slander and crass satire. Lady Susan Keck (a daughter of the duke of Hamilton and a former lady of the bedchamber to George II’s daughters) was ideally suited to the fray: she combined quick wit, a forthright tongue, a ready pen and a well-developed sense of the absurd with hard-headed political pragmatism. Despite declining health, she relished the challenge of the election and was so actively involved in treating, organising and canvassing in support of the (ultimately victorious) New Interest in the Oxfordshire election of 1754 that she became the target of many execrable ballads and satires. Criticised by the opposition’s hacks for her looks, her hair, her age, and the gusto with which she embraced canvassing, she was also charged with unsexing herself by being such an active canvasser — of becoming ‘my Lord Lady Sue’. Adeptly, and with humour, she and the New Interest hacks neatly turned the argument on its head, using her involvement to undermine the masculinity of the Old Interest candidates by pointing out that Lady Susan, while a woman, was the best ‘man’ for the job. Her primary goal in the election was to energise the New Interest and to get out the vote — and she did both successfully.

Electoral Privilege and Practice

What neither Lady Susan nor other eighteenth-century women did, however, was vote. While Vivienne Larminie has recently uncovered proof of two seventeenth-century women voting successfully in a parliamentary election and a King’s Bench ruling, Olive v. Ingram (1738/9), confirmed that women could vote for and hold minor parish offices, there is no evidence to date of eighteenth-century women voting in parliamentary elections. That said, variations in the franchise and in customary practice prior to Reform meant that there were always some women who had recognised electoral privileges. The widows or daughters of freemen frequently had the right to make their husbands into voters, whereas female burgage-owners technically had the right to vote in burgage boroughs. Taking these privileges in burgage, freeman and freeholder boroughs together, women had, at least in theory, a legitimate interest in elections in up to 62 per cent of all boroughs prior to Reform.

Burgage Boroughs

The most direct investment in electoral politics lay with women who inherited or purchased burgages in the country’s twenty-nine burgage boroughs. In these boroughs the vote was attached to the ownership of specific pieces of property and those women who owned burgages had the legal right to vote until 1832. In Horsham in Sussex, for example, 23 per cent of the burgages were held by women in 1764. By custom husbands voted in right of their wives, but single and widowed women appointed proxies to exercise their votes. Many of these were undoubtedly male relatives, but the avidity with which these women were canvassed during hotly contested elections (and burgage boroughs often saw repeated contests), and the amounts of money that women might be offered for their proxies or their property, speaks to their electoral importance.

Burgage ownership was also a way of establishing or securing an elite family’s political interest. Lady Andover included her burgages and control over one seat at Castle Rising in her daughter’s marriage portion at mid-century. Lady Irwin, who inherited control over both seats at Horsham on her husband’s death, fought repeated elections against the duke of Norfolk between 1778 and 1807, but succeeded in retaining control of the borough and bequeathing it and her political interest to her daughter on her death. Others elite women managed burgage boroughs for absent husbands or underage sons. Even Sir James Lowther, the century’s outstanding boroughmonger (buyer of parliamentary boroughs), owed a debt to his widowed mother Katherine. She purchased twenty-seven burgages in Appleby between 1751 and 1754, while he was still a minor, in order to ensure that the family retained control of one of the two seats. She similarly engaged Lord Egremont in a battle of burgage purchases in the borough of Cockermouth in 1756.

Politically Active Widows

The importance of politically active widows controlling family interests should not be underestimated. According to John Cannon, 70 per cent of eighteenth-century aristocratic families went through at least one minority, or period when the heir to an estate was a child. The dukes of Bedford were minors for 33.5 years, those of Beaufort for 28 years, and those of Hamilton for 19. The women who managed these interests operated in much the same way as their male counterparts. They worked together with stewards and committees to plan strategy and canvassing, used tenancies to their electoral advantage and directed votes. They held treats for freeholders, flattered local gentry with entertainments and public days and canvassed their peers in person and by letter. Significantly, they drew upon their female as well as their male networks to achieve results.

There was always therefore a small group of women who managed or controlled seats in Parliament and whose political influence was recognised in the locality and by the politicians managing elections in London. Thus Dowager Lady Orford’s control of both seats at Callington and one seat at Ashburton was noted in the 1750s and 1760s, as was Harriot Pitt’s control of one seat at Pontefract  between 1756 and her death in 1763. Other women, such as Lady Downing who battled unsuccessfully for control of Dunwich in Suffolk between 1764 and her death in 1778, were known figures at the time but they, like those women and men whose estates gave them a local political interest short of borough control, are often not immediately visible in the sources.

Campaigns and Canvasses

Records of election campaigns underline the familial nature of politics for the political elite at the time. Sisters, mothers, wives and widows might step in as family representatives to cover for absent, ineffective or underage men, or work in conjunction with male family members to run election committees, organise canvassers and direct campaigns. Elizabeth Coke, seemingly out of frustration, took over her absent brother’s ill-organised campaign for Derbyshire in 1710. She led the committee, planned strategy, oversaw canvassing, tracked votes and used her social skills to try and win over neighbours who had been annoyed by her brother’s politics. She also, increasingly, wrote to chide him on his non-appearance in the borough. After the election, she stepped back seamlessly into her familial role. Georgiana, Lady Spencer, similarly managed elections at St Albans for decades for her husband and son, while they were preoccupied with campaigns in other family boroughs. Despite being a political woman to her fingertips, she exemplified the tensions some women felt in electioneering. While she often grumbled about politics, she embraced campaigning and clearly enjoyed planning strategy and directing canvassing with her committee. She remained very concerned, however, about protecting her reputation and preserving her physical and social distance from the electorate itself. Her two canvasses in Northampton in 1774, with the Spencer candidate’s wife, exemplify her approach. Upon entering the town in her cabriolet and four, her horses were quickly removed by a cheering crowd and their carriage was dragged through the streets. Thus safely elevated, two women were able to speak to the voters they met on their progress and put ‘a little spirit into our people’ — which was the reason that her husband had advised her to go — while also ensuring that they did not threaten the social divide or their reputations. These appearances, she later claimed, had changed the voters’ mood and ensured the Spencer candidate a great majority. Her daughters took a very different tack ten years later in the vituperative 1784 Westminster election. As the most high-profile and arguably most successful of at least twenty-five women who canvassed in this election, they became notorious for canvassing tradesmen on foot. The ensuing press and print offensive accused the duchess of exchanging kisses for votes and sought to drive them from the campaign with a barrage of sexual slurs. It almost worked.


Women did not retreat quietly into the confines of the domestic sphere as a result of either the nastiness of the 1784 election or concerns about gender and politics that were revivified by the French Revolution. Three interrelated strands of electoral involvement become increasingly clear in the first half of the nineteenth century. While women in England were legally precluded from voting as a result of Reform in 1832 and the introduction of £10 householder franchise consigned to the past both burgage boroughs and those freeman boroughs that had granted women the right to make their husbands voters, women did not lose their personal influence or their involvement in local elections. They were not immune to Radical politics and would come to play an increasingly visible part in Chartism and anti-Poor Law agitation, both of which had electoral implications. At the top of society, elite women’s electoral involvement remained largely unchanged. It continued to be based upon factors including character, ability and experience, strength of political beliefs, family traditions and expectations, and specific election circumstances. Political expediency remained a great incentive to action. The biggest changes post-Reform would come for the women of the middle classes — the counterparts of those women who welcomed General Peachy to Taunton in 1830 by lining the windows and waving their handkerchiefs. It is they who would begin to attend political meetings; they who would sign anti-Corn Law petitions in the tens of thousands; and they whose teas and bazaars would defray the costs of voter registration and election expenses.