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Women in St Stephen's Chapel 1548-1834

While women could not vote until 1918 and the first female MP, Nancy Astor, was only elected in 1919, women could and did become involved in politics in this period. 

Women were barred from entering the Public Gallery to listen to debates and were instead forced to watch and listen from the ceiling above. The women who could get access to the attic above the House of Commons to listen to the debates wrote to friends and family about their experiences of political debate and so spread awareness of events in the Commons.

The Great Reform Bill of 1832 was hotly contested and information obtained from those watching around the Ventilator was eagerly passed around. Visits to the Ventilator could also help create unexpected friendships. Lady Bessborough, who was a Whig, and Harriet Arbuthnot, who was a Tory, formed a friendship and political alliance through their visits to the attic, and their discussions and commentary about the debates they heard.  

Elite women, such as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, were active in campaigning for votes in elections, took part in the social politicking that underpinned parliamentary votes and otherwise shaped the discussions that would then determine how and what was debated at St Stephen's. They could also exercise influence through their political patronage of promising young politicians. Other women actively influenced Parliament through petitions to MPs on a wide variety of issues, including the abolition of slavery. If we take a wider view of politics, we start to see the ways in which the events in St Stephen's Chapel reflected wider discussions and manoeuvring in which women too could play a role.

Find out how women would listen to debates in St Stephen's.




Last updated April 2017


You can access biographies of

Nancy Astor

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

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