Working on that article about the under-appreciated Lady Knightley, whose activity sends me into complete exhaustion, I have been reading Conservative Women by G. E. Maguire, published in 1998 at an early stage of studies devoted to the subject. Dr Maguire cautions against the assumption that is still widespread despite studies like hers that the movement for women's political involvement and suffragism were entirely on the left. I have no doubt that the forthcoming film Suffragette will uphold that hoary old tenet.
If we look at the history of women's rights, we find the following:
The Primrose League, a Conservative organization, was the first political group to admit women, Conservatives like Lord robert Cecil, the Earl of Lytton, Lady Selborne and Lady Betty Balfour worked tirelessly for somen's suffraage - sometimes even uniting their efforts with those of the Pankhursts or Millicent Fawcett.A few qualifications need to be made. Lady Astor was the first woman MP to take her seat in the House not the first woman to be elected, it was Constance Markievicz who was not Polish except by marriage or Irish but an English aristocrat whose family owned an estate in County Sligo. Also, there are a couple of other parties in the UK now who have women leaders, both, however regional ones: the SNP and Plaid Cymru.
It was a Conservative dominated coalition government that gave women over thirty the vote in 1918 and an entirely Conservative one that gave women the right to vote on the same terms as men in 1928.
The first woman member of Parliament, Lady Astor, was a Conservative. It was Harold Macmillan's government that introduced equal pay for teachers and non-industrial civil servants. Later, Edward Heath ordered the formation of the Cripps Committee whose job was to examine the legal disabilities against women and recommend legislation to remove them. Finally, and most obviously, the Conservatives were the first and, to this day, the only, party to choose a woman leader.
Women have mobilized in mass numbers since the days of the Primrose League for the Conservative Party. it has been estimated that, if women had not been given the vote, the Labour Party would have been in power almost continuously since 1945. It would not be going too far to say that women have provided the basis for Conservative Party dominance in the twentieth century.
Finally, I cannot resist pointing out that H. H. Asquith, Miss Helena Bonham Carter's great-grandfather, that Prime Minister in an entirely Liberal government, was a staunch opponent of women's suffrage, which is one reason why it was not introduced till after the First World War. Will this be mentioned when the publicity for the new film hits the media?