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Regency-era women with votes!

English women with votes in our favorite era? Why, yes, ma’am, it’s true! The following article by Rose Lerner was originally published in April 2013 and relates to her research for the first in the Lively St. Lemeston novels, Sweet Disorder.


This makes the Bridegroom a Voter therefore never see my face if they are not married

I have exciting news this week! My agent (Kevan Lyon) and I sold my next book, Sweet Disorder, to Anne Scott at Samhain. I don’t have a firm release date yet, but it looks like it’s going to be early 2014. I’m so happy! I really love this story and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.

Phoebe Sparks, writer of Improving Tales for children, has vowed never to marry again unless she’s sure it won’t turn into a bickering, resentful mess like her first marriage. The Honorable Nick Dymond has vowed never to get involved in his family’s politicking. But Nick’s mother couldn’t care less about their vows. Nick has moped long enough about his curtailed army career and new limp, and any local resident who marries Phoebe will be legally entitled to a vote in her small town’s upcoming Parliamentary election. So Nick’s mother packs him off to the country with strict instructions to marry Phoebe off to the first local supporter of their political party he can find. When disaster strikes Phoebe’s teenage sister, Phoebe is forced to consider selling her vote–and her hand–but as election intrigue grows darker, she has to admit that what she really wants is Nick.

This idea was suggested to me while reading Elaine Chalus’s paper, “Women, Electoral Privilege and Practice in the Eighteenth Century,” in Women in British Politics, 1760-1860: the Power of the Petticoat, ed. Kathryn Gleadle and Sarah Richardson. What I discovered is that women did have voting rights in England prior to the Reform Act of 1832.

I was completely shocked.

Of course, the number of women involved was very small (but I think it’s important to remember that so was the number of voting men), and what those voting rights were, exactly, is not known and may never be known. First, let me explain a little bit about the unreformed (i.e. pre-1832) British electoral system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreformed_House_of_Commons).

It was very complicated.

Political cartoon on the Reform Act, via Wikimedia Commons. What is up with that lion?
Political cartoon on the Reform Act, via Wikimedia Commons. What is up with that lion?

Okay. What follows is accurate to the best of my knowledge but as mentioned above IT’S VERY COMPLICATED, any corrections or elaborations welcome!

There were two kinds of districts: counties and boroughs. The county districts were, as the name implies, simply the traditional English counties. Each county sent 2 members to Parliament and the voters were forty-shilling freeholders, i.e. those who had property worth 40 shillings annually. (Even that is a simplification, though! I’m pretty sure that who exactly qualified as a freeholder, what kinds of non-property income were considered equivalent, and what kinds of documentation were needed in order to vote varied county to county.)

Boroughs were more complicated. They were, essentially, intended as urban districts. So there were a lot of towns that had these royal charters giving them the right to send members to Parliament. The system was set up in the mid-14th century, though, so not only had a lot of towns that were pretty big in 1450 shrunk down to only a few residents, but there were huge new towns (especially the northern manufacturing towns like Manchester and Leeds) that didn’t have parliamentary representation at all.

There were six main ways boroughs decided who was a voter (oh, and by the way, voters in the unreformed system had TWO votes each! they could split them between candidates, give them both to one, or only use one vote, depending on loyalties and electoral strategy [ETA 3/17/14: I’ve since realized this is not accurate–and fortunately was able to correct it in Disorder before publication! I’m pretty sure that actually, voters could vote for up to two CANDIDATES, and since there wasn’t always a full slate of candidates from each party, this meant they could split their votes between parties, vote for two candidates from one party, or only vote for one candidate if their party was only running one]):

1. Burgage boroughs. In burgage boroughs, certain designated properties (called burgages) carried votes with them. So whoever owned the burgage cast the votes associated with it.

"Circa 1500 A.D. This house built in the reign of HENRY VII was one of the ancient burgages of Horsham. Successive holders were mostly craftsmen  & merchants. In the earliest known survey & plan of Horsham, dated 1611 AD it is named Bishops of East St." Photo credit: Andy Potter, via Wikimedia Commons
“Circa 1500 A.D. This house built in the reign of HENRY VII was one of the ancient burgages of Horsham. Successive holders were mostly craftsmen & merchants. In the earliest known survey & plan of Horsham, dated 1611 AD it is named Bishops of East St.”
Photo credit: Andy Potter, via Wikimedia Commons

2. Scot-and-lot boroughs. Whoever paid the scot-and-lot tax in the borough could vote. While the rules varied between boroughs as to who paid the tax, this was essentially an income threshold, since municipal taxes were assigned on the basis of income and poor people didn’t pay them.

3. Freeman boroughs. Anyone who was a freeman (also called “had the freedom of the city”) could vote. These usually meant the largest electorates, since freemen included not only rich folks but generally members of professional/artisanal guilds, shopkeepers, etc.

4. Corporation boroughs. Basically, members of the City Council could vote.

5. Freeholder boroughs. Used the same 40 shilling threshold as the counties. There were only 6 of these.

6. Householder boroughs. Any head of household not receiving poor relief could vote. There were only 12 of these. Wikipedia says: “While the householder boroughs were in theory the most democratic, they were in practice very corrupt, notorious for bribery of voters by candidates and their patrons, frequently with liquor, which made for riotous and expensive elections. At Aylesbury in 1761, the successful candidate simply paid the electors five pounds each for their votes. Sometimes the voters banded together and openly sold the borough to the highest bidder.”

And here’s the thing:

When the vote was based on a property qualification, women who owned qualifying property had an interest in the resulting vote!

It’s not known (yet) if women ever voted directly, but Chalus writes: “Derek Hirst’s work on the seventeeth century has revealed instances of women who believed that they had the right to vote in parliamentary elections, of candidates who tried to poll them, and of election officials who were ready to accept their votes. These practices appear to have fallen out of favor in the eighteenth century[….]”

Here’s some of what we do know:

1. Husbands consistently voted “in right of” their wives when their wives owned property that qualified for the 40s. freehold in county elections. In the event of a separation, he could lose the ability to do so. There are known cases of women who were not married appointing various male family members to vote on their property. (Sometimes, these votes were challenged. A lot of our evidence about unreformed electoral practices comes from parliamentary hearings on contested votes, though, so that might be reporting bias.)

2. Women who owned a burgage were allowed to vote indirectly on those burgages through a male representative. It seems that married women who owned burgages automatically passed the right to vote on those burgages to their husband and couldn’t get it back, BUT unmarried women and widows could appoint whoever they wanted (so long as the man in question met local requirements), and could change the designation at will.

3. Very rich women who wanted to control a seat in Parliament bought up burgages just like men did, and installed like-minded tenants to vote on them just as men did.

4. It seems that there was a widespread cultural assumption that a woman who had brought her husband the vote retained some interest in that vote, and had the right to a say, maybe even the final say, in how it was used. This is nebulous and hard to pin down, but look at this sentence from a 1754 address to “the Free-women of Bristol”: in speaking to the candidate, they are to “Make This [the repeal of a by-law disallowing Bristol freemen’s daughters not resident in the city from making their husbands voters, see 5, below], one Condition of your Husbands Votes and Interest.”

(Of course, when votes were so rare that they were essentially a form of property, and were also a source of income, they were frequently considered as held in common by a family, who made that decision the same way and with the same power dynamics as they made all their other decisions. So voters’ wives, mothers, and daughters were always an important political constituency.)

5. This one is the most important for my book, since Phoebe’s town Lively St. Lemeston is a freeman borough. There are several ways to become a freeman of a borough: by purchase (expensive), by completing an apprenticeship in a recognized guild, or by inheritance (if your father was a freeman) or marriage.  Rules varied. In some places marrying the daughter or widow of a freeman could get a man the freedom. In some places, men only retained the freedom in their wives’ lifetime.

Here’s what Chalus says about county elections (and I see no reason to think it wouldn’t apply to freeman boroughs): “In close election contests, marriages might even be encouraged and expedited by patrons, candidates or agents in order to increase the number of their voters. Two days before the poll was due to open for the Oxfordshire election of 1754, Lady Susan Keck sent a couple to Oxford. [She told] the New Interest’s agent in Oxford[…]: ‘I send you my Bridegroom and Bride I desire you will instantly take out a Licence [sic] and Marry them forthwith; you are to pay everything; This makes the Bridegroom a Voter therefore never see my face if they are not married.'”

As you all know I love a good marriage of convenience. I looked at that and I had my plot.

By the rules of Lively St. Lemeston (and Hertford, incidentally), only the eldest daughters of freeman with no sons can make their husbands freemen. It just so happens Phoebe is the only unmarried eldest daughter of a freeman with no sons, and that the election is neck and neck, making her marriage suddenly incredibly politically important…


The above article was originally published in April 2013 on the History Hoydens blog. Many thanks to Rose Lerner for permitting the Beau Monde to share it here. Sweet Disorder was published in March 2014, followed by the sequel, True Pretenses, in January 2015. More information about her books may be found at her website, www.RoseLerner.com.



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  1. In the City of London women could be Citizens and Freemen. One of the most famous female fan makers was a member of the Company of Fanmakers. So as a Citizen and Freemen they could vote in the City of London elections.

    1. Can you cite your sources for this please?? I’d love for it to be true! While I can find many sources for women being admitted to London Livery Companies, I’ve never before seen it suggested they were allowed to vote in their own persons in the Regency.

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