Women voted 75 years before they were legally allowed to in 1918tags: discoveries, women's rights, suffrage
Sarah Richardson is an Associate Professor in History at the University of Warwick and author of The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain. She is the guest presenter of Document: Votes for Victorian Women which is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this evening at 8pm.
Occasionally, just occasionally, you encounter a document that radically changes your view of the past. This happened to me very recently. The source was just a few scraps of parchment in a box of solicitors’ papers in Lichfield. But, at a stroke, it provided me with tangible proof that Victorian women were not only eligible to vote, but actually exercised that right, some 75 years before they received the parliamentary franchise in 1918.
The document in question was a poll book for the election to the local office of Assistant Overseer of the Poor, in the parish of St Chad’s, Lichfield in 1843. I was tipped off about its existence by a friend, Philip Salmon of the History of Parliament. It was a schedule of voters, their addresses, the rates they paid and how they voted. But as I looked down the list of names, some immediately jumped off the page: Elizabeth Shorthouse, Hannah Holiman, Phoebe Skelton, Ann Mallett… In all, there were thirty women playing an active role in the election. Although I knew that in theory women retained the right to vote for some local officials in the nineteenth century, I had never seen any evidence of them doing so in practice. This lack of evidence had led me, and many other historians, to assume that voting was entirely a male prerogative before the twentieth century.
The record was compiled because the solicitors were the agents for the Conservative party in Lichfield. The town was a highly marginal constituency in this period, so the party clearly wanted to keep tabs on the political temperature between parliamentary elections. The solicitor would have compiled the poll book from the ballot papers returned by the voters....
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