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Véronique Molinari: Citoyennes, et après? Le droit de vote des femmes et ses conséquences en Grande-Bretagne, 1918-1939, Frankfurt a.M. [u.a.]: Peter Lang 2009, 291 S., ISBN 978-3-03911-728-4, EUR 53,00
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Rezension von:
Jennifer Ngaire Heuer
History Department, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Andreas Fahrmeir
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Jennifer Ngaire Heuer: Rezension von: Véronique Molinari: Citoyennes, et après? Le droit de vote des femmes et ses conséquences en Grande-Bretagne, 1918-1939, Frankfurt a.M. [u.a.]: Peter Lang 2009, in: sehepunkte 10 (2010), Nr. 6 [15.06.2010], URL:

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Véronique Molinari: Citoyennes, et après?

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In 1918, Britain granted women over thirty the right to vote. Molinari explores what happened next. More precisely, she argues that suffragists saw the vote not as an end in itself, but as a means to combat social, economic, and legal inequalities; she thus aims to discover whether newly-empowered voters succeeded in transforming society and politics more generally. Her assessment is mixed, but generally positive. In contrast to some historians who have offered negative judgments on the interwar period, she argues that while changes were limited in their scale and range, they were real.

Given her goals, Molinari begins logically by looking at feminist organizations after suffrage was achieved. The subsequent fragmentation of the movement made it possible to pursue initiatives that would have been beyond the reach of any one organization, but also made coordination difficult. She then turns to the reactions of the major political parties - Labour, Tories, and Liberals - to the advent of 8.5 million new voters. Party leaders feared and sought to forestall the creation of a separate women's political party in 1918. Tories and Labour both restructured their parties to create or encourage women's sections, and all three parties tried to develop strategies for appealing directly to women voters. Molinari thoughtfully analyzes their rhetoric and imagery.

Chapters Three, Four, and Five examine the converse of the fears of party politicians: hopes for creating an electoral bloc. Molinari argues that even though this hope was not realized, it sufficed to put into effect certain reforms. Feminists attempted both to educate new voters and to pressure candidates; questionnaires sent to candidates were one particularly common tactic. Analyzing women's electoral behavior is challenging, because England (unlike some other countries) did not record the gender of voters and public opinion polls did not exist in the 1920s. Molinari nonetheless disputes claims that women's rate of abstention was considerably higher than that of men. She ultimately concludes that women voted similarly to men. She also looks more closely at debates over whether feminist groups should form a political party or independent organization. The progressive decline of feminist organizations and the growth of established political parties made the outcome of these debates clear.

In Chapters Six and Seven, Molinari turns from voters to politicians, beginning with the Qualification of Women Act of 1918, which allowed women over 21 to run for political office (even while, paradoxically, those younger than 30 could not vote). The effect of this act was limited: between 1918 and 1935, only 1.2% of the deputies elected to Parliament were women. Molinari attributes this low percentage largely to political parties, which did not provide the same financial and organizational support as they did for men, and which placed women in districts where they had little chance of victory. She considers whether those few women who were elected - including deputies, ministers, and the somewhat more numerous women in local government - made distinctive political contributions. Here she notes they were especially involved with health, education, and housing, domains particularly associated with women, but also pressing questions in the interwar period. She also traces cases in which women politicians cooperated despite different political affiliations.

Molinari then addresses the power of the right to vote and the new laws it produced. This is the heart of her argument for significant reforms in women's rights. She presents a series of laws, including ones affecting the rights of married women over their children, more equal divorce laws, and government pensions for widows. Although she notes important limitations on some of those reforms, she nonetheless sees them as real change.

Molinari concludes by looking more in depth at the campaign in 1928 for extending rights to women younger than thirty and to others who had been excluded from the initial law (including servants living with their employers, and single women living with their parents). She explores why it took a decade for the law to pass, despite the lip service paid to extending the vote by all the political parties. She also calls attention to the very different political experience of women who gained the right to vote in the 1920s than that of those empowered after 1918. In general, Molinari is somewhat ambivalent about the later interwar period. Wanting a narrative of progress and achievement, she is uneasy with the largely conservative developments of the 1930s.

The book includes a series of useful appendices, including brief descriptions of prominent feminists, principal suffragist and feminist organizations, legislative reforms focused on women between 1918 and 1938, women deputies to the House of Commons and the breakdown of women candidates by party. Molinari also presents a wide-ranging bibliography of sources, including relevant political tracts and brochures, writings by prominent feminists, and manuals for voters. Curiously, however, although this is a 2009 book, the bibliography does not list any secondary works published after 1998. The absence of more recent historiography is regrettable. Several historians have looked recently at specific topics related to Molinari's research, such as the rhetoric of patriotism in 1918 or the experiences of women politicians in the Labor Party. [1] Others have explored broader themes in the interwar period, including gender and the popular press, feminism and imperialism, and contemporaneous attempts to appeal to women voters elsewhere. [2] Engaging with such work would have enriched Molinari's analysis substantially.

Overall, this is a useful book for those interested in feminism and interwar British politics. Molinari convincingly shows that laws granting women suffrage were not just the end of one story, but also the beginning of another.


[1] For example, Mary Hilson: Women Voters and the Rhetoric of Patriotism in the British General Election of 1918, in: Women's History Review 10 (2001), no 2, 325-347, and Catherine Hunt: Success with the Ladies. An Examination of women's experiences as Labour Councillors in Interwar Coventry, in: Midland History 32 (2007), 148-159.

[2] E.g. Adrian Bingham: Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain, Oxford, 2004; Mrinalini Sinha: Specters of Mother India. The Global Restructuring of an Empire, Durham, NC, 2006; Julia Sneeringer: Winning Women's Votes. Propaganda and Politics in Weimar Germany, Chapel Hill and London, 2002; Melissa Feinberg: Elusive Equality. Gender, Citizenship, and the Limits of Democracy in Czechoslovakia 1918-1950, Pittsburg, PA, 2006.

Jennifer Ngaire Heuer