Elite Women in English Political Life, C.1754-1790

Elite Women in English Political Life, C.1754-1790

Elite Women in English Political Life, C.1754-1790

Elite Women in English Political Life, C.1754-1790


Based on wide-ranging, original research into political, personal, and general correspondences across a period of significant social and political change, this book explores the gendered nature of politics and political life in eighteenth-century England by focusing on the political involvement of female members of the political elite. Elaine Chalus challenges the notion that only exceptional women were involved in politics, that their participation was necessarily limited and indirect, and that their involvement was inevitably declining after the 1784 Westminster Election. While exceptional women did exist and gender did condition women's participation, the personal, social, and particularly the familial nature of eighteenth-century politics provided more women with a wider variety of opportunities for involvement than ever before. Women from politically active families grew up with politics, absorbing its rituals, and their own involvement extended from politicized socializingup to borough control and election management. Their participation was often accepted, expected, or even demanded, depending upon family traditions, personal abilities, and the demands of political expediency. Chalus reveals that, although women's involvement in political life was always potentially more problematic than men's, given contemporary concerns about the links between sex, politics, and corruption, their participation was largely unproblematic as long as their activities could be explained by recourse to a familial model which depicted their participation as subordinate and supportive of men's. It was when they came to be seen as the leading political actors in a cause that they overstepped the mark and became targets of sexualized criticism. Contemporary critics worried that politically active women posed a threat to male polity, but what actually made them threatening was that they proved that women were not politically incompetent and implicitly demonstrated that gender was not a reason for political exclusion. Although the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable female political behaviours was sharper from the late eighteenth century onward, Chalus suggests that women who were willing to work creatively within the familial model could and did remain politically active into - and through - the nineteenth century.


There is something inherently fascinating, even titillating, in the very idea of eighteenth-century elite women's political involvement—the imagination, conditioned perhaps by the knowledge that the formal political world of parliament and policy was closed to women at the time, conjures up instead images redolent of the marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons dangereuses. Ghosts of silken-gowned women appear, knowingly, calculatingly operating 'behind the scenes' out of ambition or for purely personal political ends, deftly combining wit and charm with liberal doses of flirtatious sexuality and the attractions of ample white bosoms. the whiff of influence and corruption hangs in the air with the attar of roses … While it would be wrong to say that this highly coloured romantic tableau is entirely a figment of the imagination, the reality is—as realities often are—significantly more mundane; it is, nevertheless, also much more intricate, extensive, and interesting.

Back in 1990 when I began the research for my doctoral dissertation, from which this monograph stems, the shape, detail, and extent of eighteenth-century elite women's involvement in English political life was still so little known that there was some question as to whether there would be enough source material to make a viable dissertation, never mind a larger publication. There was no immediately apparent startingpoint for the research, no pre-established framework to follow, and few obvious collections of manuscript sources. I was convinced, however, that there was a story to tell, if I could only find a way to get at it. the process was slow, but what I found fascinated me and, like all good research, lured me on, encouraging me to do always that little bit more before I risked writing things up and drawing conclusions.

My interest in eighteenth-century elite women and politics had originally been piqued by discrepancies I had noted while studying— separately—eighteenth-century political and women's history. a variety of important publications have been particularly useful in contributing to our understanding of the vitality and dynamism of eighteenth-century political culture, and, in some cases, beginning to suggest how it was gendered, but it was only too possible in 1990 to echo Karl von den

For the vitality of eighteenth-century political culture, see: John Brewer, Party Ideology
and Popular Politics at the Accession of George iii (Cambridge, 1976); also The Sinews of . . .

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