UK (University of Warwick) Gender and Political Culture in Britain: Changing Attitudes to Women and Citizenship

Reassessing women’s involvement in politics during the long nineteenth century

Women are often perceived to have had a minor role in political culture during the long nineteenth century, however, our researchers at Warwick have established that women were active in all the traditional, and non-traditional, arenas of political life. Professor Sarah Richardon has contributed to changing how public bodies, NGOs and charities engage with under-represented groups, whilst also exposing the exclusion of women from political narratives and celebrating their achievements.

The challenge

Female contributions to Parliament and local government have often been ignored by the histories of the nineteenth century. In some cases, female activism has been actively written out of historical accounts. Where those accounts do include women, they focus on the exclusion rather than their achievements. This research project has challenged established views of women’s roles in 19th century political culture and broadened what we think of as the political sphere. Professor Richardson’s research has reframed how we imagine women’s political engagement, focusing on their achievements in a hostile environment rather than the barriers they faced.

Our approach

Traditionally, narrow views of the ‘political sphere’ have tended to limit it to parliament and local government. However, Professor Richardson’s research has widened that focus to include spaces in which women were politically active:

  • Consumption
  • Writing and translation
  • Education
  • Households
  • Religious reform
  • Lifestyle politics (including water cures and vegetarianism)

Professor Richardson’s research has revealed the presence of women within traditional spaces such as the Houses of Parliament. This is in addition to broadening ideas about the political sphere through situated exhibitions, and women’s political activism prior to the Suffragette movement.

Our impact

This research is influencing debate, institutions and communities nationally, inspiring policy makers, members of parliament, local councillors and NGOs to reconsider their views on gender and citizenship and actively revise their practices, reassessing why some groups have been, and continue to be, under-represented in political participation.

Local groups that have interacted with the research have changed their view on the political role women, in the past and present, and been inspired to take action in their own communities. Through engagement with community groups, schools and national partners, people are learning more about women’s political role in past society. The Voice and Vote exhibition at the House of Parliament in 2018 attracted over 100,000 visitors. Feedback showed that visitors felt that the exhibition improved their understanding of women’s role in Parliament and that it had helped them experience what it might have been like to be a woman political campaigner before 1918.

Professor Richardson has used her research to develop online resources for schools, which some schools have incorporated into History and Citizenship lessons for Key Stages 2 to 5. In 2019, Professor Richardson launched the Mapping Women’s Suffrage 1911 online resource, which is crowdsourcing a record of Votes for Women campaigners across England.