It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that my Conservative-voting mother ever caused me real embarrassment. She came from a line of Lancashire weavers, Liberal, then strong Labour voters. There are not many roles offered by the Labour movement to women, but the grittily romantic weaver-heroine is one of the few: dawn-rising, clogs on the cobbles, six looms managed, babies fed at the side door of the mill, money brought home, food to the table, doorsteps worn down by scrubbing: women worked to the bone. She arrived at adolescence and school-leaving age as the Lancashire cotton trade went into severe recession. She never went into the sheds, and worked at a series of unskilled jobs for the rest of her life. She always voted Tory.

Her own mother saw her daughter’s Conservatism as a matter of personal style, part and parcel of her striving to escape, get on, better herself – like the Food Reform she espoused, her flight to the South, the good clothes and real leather handbags that she bought out of her wages and stored in the wardrobe of the South London house, waiting for the good times to come, when she might burst upon the world, fashioned anew.

There was nothing personal, nor even very political, in the differences between the weaver and her daughter. My Nan, married for the third time, to the secretary of the ward Labour Party, wrote to me from Burnley: ‘We’re glad that you’re Labour like us.’ My personal mythology has me reading this letter at the age of nine, when they sent me Oliver Twist and Great Expectations as a birthday present. But it must, in fact, have been written when I stood as Labour candidate in the mock-election at my girls’ grammar school, in 1964.

Far from being embarrassed by my mother’s politics, I was rather proud of the complexity, the bloody-mindedness of things, that she represented. A few years later, I enjoyed trying to explain to the Class of ’68 at Sussex University that there was no necessary connection between lived experience and being politically right-on; that history and politics needed more subtle explanatory devices than the simple sketch-maps of class-consciousness that we had encountered on our 19th-century history courses. At 20, far from bothering my head about my inability to explain these matters, I was rather gratified when they didn’t understand, for their incomprehension only confirmed the finesse of my own insights.

I think she thought (though she would not have expressed it this way) that I was a fool to have bought the old workerist romance – the huddled houses, the struggle, the gas-flares lighting the faces at the union meeting: but I could incorporate her extreme irritation with my politics within my schema. My mother’s Conservatism was the yardage out of which I made my own political imagination; and I see the items of her own still: silver in the sideboard, glossy reproduction furniture, good pile Wilton, in expensive, pale colours. If my mother were alive, Margaret Thatcher’s mock-Georgian Dulwich house and its Lady would be the metaphors made manifest. (Not that she’s like the Lady: she’d think she should straighten up, lose a few pounds, cut the pussy-cat bows.) I wish, then, that the piece of journalism that Beatrix Campbell’s The Iron Ladies is, was either what it isn’t, or that it would deliver the promise of its title.* I wish it were a book that told me why women vote Conservative.

It is a politically apposite question to ask, for though women have moved away from the Tory Party since the late Fifties, a third term of Thatcherism will still be ushered in by a massive woman’s vote. At each stage of its evolution into a mass political party, Conservatism has held a particular appeal for women, and Beatrix Campbell’s strategy has been to try to work out what that appeal is. This question, of Toryism’s message for women, has been pursued before, particularly in the puzzled analyses directed at the working-class Conservative in the Sixties and early Seventies. Analysts such as McKenzie and Silver in Angels in Marble attempted to understand Conservatism in terms of ‘deference’, ‘traditionalism’ and ‘secularism’. Working-class women who voted Tory were paid a fair amount of attention in this body of work, though no very satisfactory answers were reached, because, as Campbell points out (though it cannot be in reference to this corpus, for it is not cited at all), ‘women have been deemed to have no class-consciousness of their own, and there has been no sense that their class-consciousness might take a different form ... from that of comparable men.’ What this means, in effect, is that we have no workable accounts of how women acquire their politics, nor of the topography of female class-consciousness. Beatrix Campbell’s Iron Ladies cannot help us here, for they seem not to have been asked about class at all, nor about its role in their evolution of political convictions. At many points, though, as they tell their stories to the author, the reader may feel that at another place on the tape possibly lie the untranscribed lineaments of such an account. It does not, however, surface in this book.

Women’s adherence to Toryism is pursued by Campbell at two levels. First, Campbell has talked to 50 Conservative women, some of whom (a majority perhaps, though it is impossible to work this out from the information we are given) are involved in party politics at a local or national level. Their experience in the Party is recounted in quite absorbing detail: the social and sexual gaffes they’ve made when seeking selection, the clothes they’re expected to wear, the cars they have to drive. They are as riveting on sex (or the lack of it) as they are on the kind of shoes you ought to wear before a selection committee. Campbell obviously warmed to these racy tales, and to the women who told them: but as a good laugh is the fastest and most common way out of much contradiction, she should not have been surprised that Tory women can be as funny about men as the rest of us, nor that their telling the story of difficult lives is as highly evolved a comic form as it is among women of quite different political persuasion.

None of this, enjoyable as it is to read, tells us why women who are not in the Party give it their vote. Campbell mentions women’s sexual fears, and suggests that the Conservative Party has always promised women a haven from the ravening hordes outside, whoever those nightmare figures may be represented by at any historical momen: Conservative gents may not like your shoes, but they’ll fend off the muggers and the rapists. Sexual fear has been a key concept in quite extensive analyses of right-wing women in the US. In this first major analysis of Britain’s feminine Right it would have been useful to have had the idea explored more fully.

Campbell’s second strategy is to set the interview material which makes up most of the book within a general historical account of the Conservative Party from the 1880s to the present day. Campbell is particularly interesting on the post-Second World War period, in which, she argues, a new kind of political subject was born – the female consumer. Both the Labour and the Conservative Parties took part in what is here called ‘the patriarchal reconstruction of Britain’ in the post-war years: but the Labour Party, enforcing rationing and representative of all the old, dull virtues like sharing and fairness, were unable to reap the benefits of the housewife/heroine’s behaviour at the polls. The Fifties was the period in which most of the women interviewed for this book grew to political understanding, yet there is very little attempt to link their individual political socialisation with broader political analysis, nor to let the one illuminate the other.

The Iron Ladies opens with an account of the work of the Primrose League, and voteless Conservative women’s toiling within this association for electioneering and canvassing to build up the mass base of the Party in the thirty years before the First World War. Histfax – the brief recounting of historical background in order to explain a current situation – is one of journalism’s most useful strategies: but it is difficult to see who this quite lengthy piece of Histfax is for. The story is interesting – or it would be, if it were kept short and snappy – and throws light on Campbell’s general thesis, that the Conservative Party has always provided a role for women, without giving their presence political recognition. But the account is long, and length necessitates complexity. To read it as it’s told here, you need an elementary knowledge of late 19th-century political and social history, and if you do have that elementary knowledge, then the account is irritating in the extreme, for not only is it inaccurate, and quite innocent of the histories of other political groupings and movements which shared a political and social setting with the Primrose League and might thereby throw light on it, but there are also places where the writer has simply given up on the narrative, and allowed her notes and quotations from the sources she has used to propel the story forward. Often, we don’t know what we’re meant to think about certain arguments. For instance, did the Primrose League represent a version of the familiar 19th-century trajectory from philanthropy to public life for certain women? Campbell suggests that it did, and that as the ‘insiders’ of any community, the Ladies of the League were used to ‘finding [their] way round its nooks and crannies and to knowing its business’. Then a few pages later, we find Gladstone saying the same thing, but very rudely, and with his rudeness highlighted: saying that the League was ‘a great instrument to the Tory Party for bribery and corruption ... All the unscrupulous women of England are members of the Primrose League ... In the country districts they threaten; in the towns they cajole; in both ... their armouries are overflowing with thousands of yards of flannel and countless sacks of coal.’ Did they or didn’t they use philanthropy to put pressure on working-class voters? If you quote the Liberal opposition saying that they did, aren’t you implying that they didn’t? Maybe? Or what?

Much later in the book, Campbell uses the Gramscian notion of common sense to outline the popular appeal of Conservatism to many women, women who operate with an understanding of themselves as being shaped ‘by historical processes which have deposited in [them] an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory’. There would seem to be great mileage in this, though it is not made much of here. Perhaps books are useful when by their absences they suggest how it could have been done, how the question could have been answered. To find an answer to why women vote Conservative would surely involve looking at the processes of political socialisation, and at the daily and infinitesimal depositories of common sense; at what happens in primary schools during royal weddings, and at all the stories we’re told within a particular culture, at the kings and queens and fairy princesses that furnish our dreams. It would involve recognising that this political landscape now, where a tyrant queen rules and the little children cry in the streets, is the inevitable-seeming place towards which all these stories have led us. It would pause for wonder, that book would, at how any of us ever end up voting anything but Tory, given the daily accretion of Conservative common sense.

Political conviction, and the casting of votes, represent the place where people stand back, and believe something, out of all the junk they carry around in their head: decision a side taken, something said. In the moments when I stop using my mother as an emblem of my own sensibility, I have to look at what it was she actually believed: in repatriation, in capital punishment, that Enoch Powell was wonderful; that she was different from other people, finer and more deserving than them. Being brought up a woman is certainly significant in making political journeys like this, but so is class, and we need an analysis that allows us to understand the interaction between the two. I think, for instance, that my mum had a lot more excuse for where she ended up than the Ladies do, for she was poor, and uneducated, and had a hard life: but there was an end to her journey, which was the articulation of a set of political principles. What do Conservative women believe, and why doesn’t Campbell let them tell us what it is? The least this book could do is show us what the Iron Ladies think politically, though indeed, that would reveal them in a different light from the one cast by the cross-class consciousness-raising of these pages.

Virago books are usually meticulously proof-read. This one hasn’t been. Something particularly wild happened to right-margin justification in the chapter on the Primrose League.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences