Suki Ferguson finds Krista Cowman’s research on the relationship between established male politicians and the burgeoning women’s movement thorough and insightful. It is easy to be daunted by the wealth of diverse literature on UK women’s politics, and the brisk, well-referenced Women in British Politics will make a useful and compact starting point for students of the subject.
Women in British Politics, c. 1689-1979. Krista Cowman. Palgrave Macmillan. December 2010.
In these post- (or is it mid?) third wave times, Professor Krista Cowman’s overview of women’s political influence through 300 years of UK history is a welcome account. The role of women in politics has changed with such alacrity in recent decades that the broad time frame offered here will be useful to those interested in gaining greater perspective. Cowman’s specific intention is to balance out the academic emphasis on grand victories in women’s politics, and so reserves space to discuss the less exciting backlashes and lulls in energy in the generally progressive movement. However, at just 170 pages, this is a brief look at the history, and Cowman assumes that her readers already have a certain level of familiarity with the key figures and events. Nevertheless Women in British Politics is a fine reference book within the context of established academia on similar topics, if not an entry point for the casual reader.
Cowman takes the court of Queen Mary during the Glorious Revolution (1689-9) as a starting point, due to women’s support for the shift of power from monarch to Parliament and the effect a Queen had upon government. Cowman’s observation that feminine influence was restricted yet inventive during the early modern period is supported by the contrast between Queen Mary’s unthreatening style of leadership and Queen Anne’s bolder, more matriarchal approach. Meanwhile women at court doubled as political advisors, and laywomen brought attention to domestic issues through petitioning. Though there was no organized movement as such, Cowman outlines the various forms that political spaces for women took, why most had to rely on insidious forms of influence, and how these tactics were passed on to later generations of women.
Though Cowman diligently records instances where backlashes and loss of momentum slowed progress, this is not the book’s only feature. She devotes plenty of attention to the suffragette movement, which makes sense from a proportional point of view. However, her generally impartial tone wavers at points – Mary Wollstonecraft is dismissed for her ameliorative emphasis on education, whilst the suffragettes who followed her proto-feminist path receive more gentle consideration. Perhaps this is to be expected from a scholar who specializes in pre-First World War women’s politics, but greater justification of such subjective opinions would have been welcome. As it stands, these interjections divert attention away from the historical clarity of the work.
In the chapters covering the development of UK party politics, Cowman’s research on the relationship between established male politicians and the burgeoning women’s movement is thorough and insightful. Politicians, she suggests, valued women’s ability to muster party support through socializing and canvassing within their communities, but took a patrician view when it came to sharing further responsibilities – such as voting. Cowman is careful to note the diverse range of views and approaches within the general suffragette movement – each key group is given due analysis, and the differing campaigning methods of each suffrage society are highlighted. The emphasis is not on individuals within the movement – although the Pankhurst family is mentioned, naturally – but upon the general shape of women’s political organizations at the time. By the time Cowman reaches the post-war period her treatment of events become less focused, and the Equal Pay Act deserves more space than it receives here. These elisions are frustrating at times, but the accounts and ideas sourced here from past research create a decent bibliography for readers keen to learn more.
Overall, this is a useful index of the past 300 years of women’s engagement with political issues in the UK, and academics looking to supplement their understanding of the intervals of low activity in the overall movement towards equality will appreciate Cowman’s appraisal of these periods. Having said that, a reader looking for an entertaining briefing on women’s politics should bear in mind that Cowman’s prose is businesslike at best. Rattling off acronym after acronym (WSPU, WNLF, WNLA, WLF – I could go on…) makes for a factual record, but not, unfortunately, an engaging or pleasurable read. This isn’t a criticism of the author – I found myself wishing (rather irreverently) that the suffragettes had invented catchier names for their societies. But this is only a quibble. It is easy to be daunted by the wealth of diverse literature on UK women’s politics, and the brisk, well-referenced Women in British Politics will make a useful and compact starting point for students of the subject.
Suki Ferguson graduated from the University of Sussex with an English Literature degree in 2009. In 2010 she worked for climate change organization 10:10 on the Lighter Later campaign, lobbying parliament to pass the Daylight Saving Bill. She now works at a design company in east London and her current freelance projects include sub-editing Fabiana, the new Fabian Women’s Network publication, and writing about film for Pure Movies and Studio magazine. Read more reviews by Suki.