Rethinking Right-Wing Women: Women’s Political Engagement and Leadership in Conservative Politics, 1930s-1950s

Speakers: Julie V. Gottlieb, Clarisse Berthezène, Krista Cowman

Chair: Clare Griffiths

Conservative women have been under-researched for the paradoxical reason that they have not been of much interest to androcentric historians of the Tory Party, while they have never been embraced by women’s historians because of their presumed reactionary views and their complicity with the patriarchal establishment. By casting our attention to Conservative women, women leading, and the changing features of institutionalization of the party’s attitudes to gender issues and sexual equality, we will unpack and contest these assumptions that have prevented serious and sustained study of gender politics in the most successful political party of the 20th century, the ‘Conservative Century.’ The party’s historical appeals to women and by women have been to a settled domesticity alongside the promotion of forthright women moved by the spirit of public service (women’s responsibilities rather than rights). At face value at least this has been a very distinct approach from the (evolving) feminist movement seeking to politicize, mobilise and engage women.  However, the particular and peculiar relationship between women and Conservative politics is vital to understanding the nature of mass politics and cultures of democracy in 20th century Britain. The papers in this panel will explore this relationship through examining Conservative women’s broad approaches to gender politics, as well as considering how leading Conservative women positioned themselves in the cultures of democracy inside and outside the party.

Paper 1 Abstract: Clarisse Berthezène (Paris Diderot University)

‘Conservative feminists? Conservative women and gender politics, 1929-1945’

Rethinking Tory women implies challenging the focus and the methods of traditional political history where the study of women is often regarded as secondary and ‘gender’ is mostly understood as an optional analytical category. It also implies questioning the history of feminism, which has largely been written as a history of women’s emancipation and, as such, inextricably aligned with a progressive tradition defended by the Left. This paper will question the framework of emancipation and focus on the contribution that Conservative women made to ‘the formulation of a policy of special interest to women’ in the interwar period and during the second world war and their strategies to promote their interests. It will explore their claim that they were ‘practical’, ‘commonsense’ women, as opposed to what they saw as their cerebral, theoretically minded Labour and Liberal counterparts. The deliberate cultivation of the identity of the ‘middlebrow’ was an important means to embrace democracy and speak to all social classes, which led them to develop a particular view of ‘responsible womanhood’ and citizenship, notions which they felt had been inappropriately annexed by the Left.

Paper 2 Abstract: Prof. Krista Cowman (University of Lincoln)

“’The statutory woman who’s main task was to explore what women…were likely to think.’  Margaret Thatcher and women’s politics in the 1950s.”

Most media discussions of Margaret Thatcher’s life in the aftermath of her death made much of her anti-feminism, commenting on the irony of her being at best an unwilling pioneer for women’s political involvement.  Her later comments which expressed contempt for the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s were frequently quoted in support of an interpretation of her character which emphasized her individualism over any collective identity.  Very few commentators offered alternative readings, yet as the title quotation from Thatcher’s memoirs suggests, the reality of her career, especially in its early years, was more complex than that.  This paper investigates Margaret Thatcher’s engagement with political issues and causes that were identified with women in the 1950s.  It considers her involvement with a range of issues, some, such as making space for mothers in modern housing developments, connected to her role as an MP and others engaging with organisations drawn from a wider women’s movement such as the Women’s Freedom League.  These case studies will show how her attitude to women’s organisations and so-called women’s issues was complex and sometimes contradictory. Building from this exploration the paper will argue that simplistic divisions of Conservative women’s politics into ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ feminist are no longer sufficient.

Paper 3 Abstract: Julie Gottlieb (University of Sheffield)

“Models of Tory Women’s Leadership and Political Celebrity between the Wars: Comparisons and Contrasts between the feminist Nancy Astor v. the non-feminist Duchess of Atholl”

Women came into their own in the Conservative Party in the aftermath of suffrage as party workers, as MPs, as local and national leaders, and as part of a notional women’s bloc of voters that Conservatives felt they could rely on at election time. The valuable work performed by Conservative women at grass roots has been acknowledged in the scholarship, as have the strategies developed by the party to mobilise women as both party workers and voters, while much less attention has been conferred on those Conservative women who became virtual national celebrities. By the late 1930s the two women Conservative MPs to achieve this celebrity and notoriety were Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat, a committed feminist, and hostess of the so-called Cliveden Set, and the Duchess of Atholl, the first woman MP from Scotland, an avowed anti-(non) feminist, and the Chamberlain scourge at the height of appeasement. Both defied stereotypes of Tory femininity with their own personal styles, by taking an abiding interest in international affairs when most Conservative women were expected to be focused on the local and parochial, and by engaging with women across party lines to advance their favoured policies.


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