‘Well-neighboured Houses’: the Political Networks of Elite Women, 1780–1860

  • Sarah Richardson


That the opportunities for women’s participation in political activity before 1860 were limited has been noted by a range of historians: scrutiny of membership lists of party associations, pressure groups, trade unions and other formal political groupings has shown the extent of the institutional exclusion of women. Adverse conclusions have thus been drawn about women’s role in political life and therefore in the public sphere. Comparisons of the decades before 1860 and those that directly followed it have emphasised the limits rather than the opportunities for women and a distinct contrast has been drawn between the extent of men’s and women’s varying levels of involvement in public life.1 However, political scientists examining women’s activities in contemporary politics have stressed the inadequacy of such crude number-counting exercises when attempting to quantify or assess the penetration of women in the political world, and have argued for the need to construct new models of political behaviour which challenge rather than conform to the accepted wisdom of politics as a male-dominated arena. These models stress that it is in the informal and ad hoc arenas where women’s participation is most striking. To some extent this is a corollary of women’s exclusion from public life but it is also an indication of where women’s interests lie. Political activity for women is thus based around the family, the neighbourhood and the local community, dependent on casual and kinship contacts rather than organised meetings, and not in the more visible national public arenas.2


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  1. 1.
    A range of texts expound these views. See, for example, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (London: Hutchinson, 1987) and Catherine Hall, ‘Private Persons versus Public Someones: Class, Gender and Politics in England, 1780–1850’, in Catherine Hall, White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History (Cambridge: Polity, 1992), pp. 151–71, for the argument that women began to be excluded from the public sphere as growing affluence among the middle class led to the dominance of the ideology of domesticity. The argument is taken further by James Vernon, Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, c. 1815–1867 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), who emphasises the ‘closure’ of politics to the working class and women, especially after 1832. Recent work has challenged this interpretation, however. See, for example: Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1807 (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1992), especially Chapter 6; Sarah Richardson, ‘The Role of Women in Electoral Politics in the West Riding of Yorkshire During the 1830s’, Northern History, 32 (1996), pp. 133–51; and Elaine Chalus, ‘“That Epidemical Madness”: Women and Electoral Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century’, in Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus (eds), Gender in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Roles, Representations and Responsibilities (London: Longman, 1997), pp. 151–78.Google Scholar
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    See, for example: Vicky Randall, Women in Politics: An International Perspective (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987); Janet Siltanen and Michelle Stanworth (eds), Women and the Public Sphere: A Critique of Sociology and Politics (London: Hutchinson, 1984); Judith Evans ‘Women in Politics: a Reappraisal’, Political Studies, 28 (1980), pp. 210–21; and Liz Sperling and Charlotte Bretherton, ‘Women’s Policy Networks and the European Union’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 19 (1996), pp. 303–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Sarah Austin to W. E. Gladstone, 18 February 1839, cited in Janet Ann Ross, Three Generations of Englishwomen: Memoirs and Correspondence of Mrs. John Taylor, Mrs. Sarah Austin and Lady Duff Gordon, 2 vols (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892), vol. i, p. 143.Google Scholar
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    Anna Jameson to Harriet Martineau, 17 January 1843, cited in Mrs. Steuart Erskine, Anna Jameson: Letters and Friendships, 1812–60 (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1915), pp. 222–4.Google Scholar
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    This point has been noted by Amanda Vickery, who reconstructed the social networks of Eliza Shackleton, a member of the Lancashire gentry, from her correspondence. She observed the importance of contact with London for Shackleton and her kin. Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1998), especially pp. 29–30 and appendix 2. It is also clear that correspondence served this role for Martineau, who, despite remaining in the Lake District for long periods, maintained her engagement with political life.Google Scholar
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    Cited in Lotte and Joseph Hamburger, Troubled Lives: John and Sarah Austin (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), p. 96.Google Scholar
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    Rumours abounded of ‘wicked’ aristocratic Polish and Hungarian counts eloping with the daughters of British aristocrats who were transfixed by their exotic characters. See, for example, the account given by Mary Lucy of Count Teleki’s wooing of Lord Langdale’s daughter: Alice Fairfax-Lucy (ed.), Mistress of Charlecote: The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy (London: Gollancz, 1987), pp. 100–1. Mary Howitt’s support for Francis and Theresa Pulszky and other Hungarian supporters of Kossuth is given in Margaret Howitt (ed.), Mary Howitt: An Autobiography, 2 vols (London: W. Isbister, 1889), vol. ii, p. 85.Google Scholar
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    An example of a provincial salon is that of Susannah Taylor (the mother of Sarah Austin) at Norwich in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The biographer of Sir James Mackintosh wrote that: ‘our chief delight was in the society of Mrs. John Taylor, a most intelligent and excellent woman, mild and unassuming, quiet and meek, sitting amidst her large family, occupied with her needles and domestic occupations, but always assisting, by her great knowledge, the advancement of kind and dignified sentiment and conduct. Manly wisdom and feminine gentleness were in her united.’ Cited in Celia Lucy Brightwell, Memorials of the Life of Amelia Opie, Selected and Arranged from her Letters, Diaries and Other Manuscripts (Norwich: Fletcher and Alexander, 1854), p. 32. Although Mackintosh emphasises Susannah Taylor’s domestic and feminine qualities, from other descriptions of her conduct and her surviving correspondence, it is clear that she held firm political views and was an important influence on other leading Norwich women, including her daughter Sarah Austin, Amelia Opie and the Martineau family.Google Scholar
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    These issues are beginning to be discussed in relation to women and politics. See, for example, Ruth Watts, Gender, Power, and the Unitarians in England, 1760–1860 (London: Longman, 1998); Hilda Kean, Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800 (London: Reaktion books, 1998) and Leah Leneman, ‘The Awakened Instinct: Vegetarianism and the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain’, Women’s History Review, 6 (1997), pp. 271–88.Google Scholar
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    The political interests of the Stuart family (which included descendants of the Earl of Bute and the Stuart-Wortleys) for example, included constituencies in Scotland, England and Wales. The female members of the family were pivotal in the information network which sustained the family’s various political campaigns. See Richardson, ‘The Role of Women in Electoral Politics’, and Caroline Susan Theodore Grosvenor and Charles Beilby Stuart Wortley (eds), The First Lady Wharncliffe and her Family, 1779–1856, 2 vols (London: William Heinemann, 1927).Google Scholar
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    R. W. Davis, Dissent in Politics, 1780–1830: The Political Life of William Smith, MP (London: Epworth Press, 1971), esp. Chapter 8, and Smith MSS, Cambridge University Library. See, for example, 305, Amelia Opie to Patty Smith, 29 October 1812.Google Scholar
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© Sarah Richardson 2000

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  • Sarah Richardson

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