For an organisation that looks to the past and to party politics, it is almost inevitable that the Liberal Democrat History Group’s publications are rather dominated with accounts of men. Even now, well into the 21st century, we only just have the first female Liberal Democrat ministers, whilst female Liberal Democrat Cabinet members or party leaders are still something for the future.
When women do get mentioned, attention is often dominated by the famous elite families of the early 20th century and their descendants. Yet there are many other women whose contribution to British political liberalism has been at least partially preserved in the historical records and who often do not get the attention they deserve. The example I have often used myself is Margaret Wintringham; the first female Liberal MP, a person with views on policy, campaigning and local politics that are still very much applicable and also an almost totally forgotten name, not even preserved by having an award or grant named after her.
The Liberal Democrat History Group has tried to remedy the balance previously, as with the special edition of its journal in 2009 guest edited by Elizabeth Evans. Its latest step is the publication of the 67-page pamphlet Mothers of Liberty: Women who built British Liberalism, marked with a fringe meeting at the Brighton conference. Some of the contents have come from previous publications, such as the Dictionary of Liberal Biography. This recycling is, however, the exception as most entries have been written specially for the booklet and even the recycled content has been updated and refreshed.
Mostly the profiles are of individuals, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Nancy Seear, Patsy Calton and of course Margaret Wintringham. A few sections cover more than one person, such as “Political Hostesses” which brings together the contributions several key women made as the hosts of political dinners at a time when they did not have the vote and when the plotting and persuasion that took place over dinner had a central role to politics.
Women who helped out behind the scenes get a good share of the coverage for, as Lynne Featherstone writes in the foreword,
Even before women won formal rights of participation in politics, they found many ways to be politically active. Many Liberal electoral successes, and the careers of many successful Liberal politicians, owed much to the efforts of women behind the scenes – as the booklet’s entries on Catherine and Mary Gladstone, Margaret Lloyd George, Lady Palmerston and Lady Waldegrave make clear.
She goes on, talking of all those featured in the booklet that,
This booklet serves to remind us what these women achieved for Liberalism and for society over the last three centuries. Whenever the struggle seems hard, whenever you feel the need for inspiration, remember the stories of their achievements, their courage and their commitment to Liberalism.
Mothers of Liberty: Women who built British Liberalism is available from the Liberal Democrat History Group.
UPDATE: You can now watch online the fringe meeting at which the pamphlet was launched: