Lady Frances Campbell, tenth child and fifth daughter of the landed politician the 8th Duke of Argyll, married Eustace Balfour, architect and youngest brother of A.J. Balfour and nephew of Lord Salisbury, in 1879. Frances’s father had been in every Liberal cabinet for two decades; her mother and grandmother had been important political hostesses – and she herself aspired to a life at the heart of politics. Her early ambitions were frustrated, not only because Eustace was not interested in a political career but still more because of the way the political system changed in the wake of the Third Reform Act. She adjusted to those changed circumstances first by promoting the career and acting as the “political wife” for her (then-unmarried) brother-in-law, later Chief Secretary for Ireland Gerald Balfour, but then by carving out a less dynastic and more individual political role. Between 1885 and 1905 Frances Balfour helped to found a number of women’s philanthropic and cross-party organizations (the Women’s Liberal Unionist Association, Travelers’ Aid, Freedom of Labour Defense), but she also became the women’s movement’s most effective parliamentary lobbyist and Millicent Fawcett’s right hand in the constitutionalist women’s suffrage cause. After 1906, suffrage would become a vibrant, popular and out-of-doors movement, but in the 1890s it relied on these more personal political connections. This paper uses the figure of Frances Balfour, arguably the most effective woman politician of the late-Victorian period, to track how women’s political roles and the political system more broadly changed in these decades.
Susan Pedersen is Morris Professor of British History at Columbia University, where she teaches British and international history. She is the author of Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914-1945 (1993), Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience (2004), and The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (2015), which was awarded the 2015 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature. She is currently writing a book about marriage and politics in the Balfour family. She is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.
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