The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women's Rights. By Ben Griffin. Cambridge University Press. 2012. xii + 352pp. £60.00.


The struggle for women's rights in Victorian Britain has received a great deal of historical study, but attention usually focuses on the organized women's movement. Ben Griffin's achievement in this excellent study is to demonstrate how debates about female social roles were influenced and shaped by wider debates about masculinity and the family. While most studies of masculine identity in politics to date have concentrated on constituency activity, Griffin's focus is on parliament and how the all-male legislature negotiated ideas about gendered identity. The book centres on interconnected debates about matrimonial property law, child custody law and women's suffrage in the final third of the nineteenth century.

The rationale for this approach is that many of the debates about women's rights pivoted upon struggles for power in the ‘private sphere’ (p. 22). During the early decades of the nineteenth century an ideology of domesticity centred on concepts of harmony, marital unity and male authority gained currency through its promotion in religious teaching. This was challenged in the second half of the century by new religious ideas and a growing awareness that large numbers of men were physically abusing their wives and children. Nonetheless, proposals to give married women the right to vote, own property and have custody of their children were still seen as threats to men's domestic power by significant numbers of parliamentarians.

However, as Griffin persuasively notes, opponents of women's rights reforms cannot simply be labelled as ‘anti-feminists’ (an anachronistic term) or supporters of a ‘separate spheres’ ideology. Indeed, many men fluctuated between supporting and opposing women's suffrage in parliament, and their voting patterns on other issues of women's rights could also be muddled. Attitudes to individual suffrage bills were complicated by issues such as whether the franchise would include married women. Moreover, as is revealed in a particularly original chapter, some of the most vocal critics of women's rights in parliament fell far short of living up to ideals of masculinity and were seeking to appear more manly through their performance in the chamber.

Ultimately, the main factor in changing attitudes towards the question of women's suffrage during the final decades of the nineteenth century centred on shifting ideas about political representation. Following the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 the concepts of individual representation, property-ownership and rate-paying became increasingly attached to debates surrounding the franchise. Nonetheless, growing governmental power over the legislative process meant that suffragists had to convince the party in power to support their cause if they were to have a hope of success. With the anti-suffragist Herbert Asquith as prime minister after 1908, this support was unforthcoming and a new chapter in the debate over women's suffrage began with the onset of the WSPU's militant agitation.

Griffin's study impressively draws on the approaches of a range of fields beyond political history, most obviously cultural studies of men's relationship with domesticity, but also histories of religion, law and intellectual thought. As such, this is an excellent example of how political history can transcend its traditional disciplinary parameters. The complexity of the case studies may make it a challenging text for undergraduates on introductory courses, but this ambitious book deserves a wide readership both within and beyond the field of gender history.