‘Duely sensible of their obligation’: the role of women in Georgian election balls

With general elections back in the news, the Georgian Lords welcomes back Hillary Burlock for the second part of her series on the importance of dance and the participation of women in 18th-century electoral contests.

Much of Georgian electioneering played out in the public, ‘masculine’ theatre of the hustings and city streets; yet the ballroom, too, was an intensely political arena. Politicians understood the political value of dance as a social accomplishment and the primacy of women in the ballroom; it was in this sphere that interests, public and private, masculine and feminine, intertwined.

Women were by no means anomalous in electoral campaigns, acting as hostesses, patrons, and election managers, their roles extending beyond the private sphere to participate in the public realm of politics [E. Chalus, Elite Women (2005), p. 13]. Balls offered women a clear venue in which they could assume a leading political role, aside from the more widely examined campaigning techniques of exchanging kisses for votes, shouting in the streets, and attending the hustings. Balls and parties were not solely for socializing and enjoyment, but were part of a larger strategy in electoral politics. Women were central to the process of treating and winning support, and building and maintaining the complex web of interest and patronage.

An aristocratic woman frequently oversaw her family’s campaign and monitored her relatives’ ‘visibility’ in the county. In 1800, Lady Stafford wrote to her son Lord Granville Leveson Gower saying, ‘We read of Balls, Assemblies &c… and all of your Male Friends appearing there, but not a Word of Granville’ [G. Leveson Gower, Private Correspondence (1916), vol. i. pp. 278-279]. She expressed her dismay at her son’s strategic failure to capitalize on the opportunities afforded by such social events for enhancing personal reputation and fostering the warm regard of the community.

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A man and a woman dancing watched by others sitting at the edges and talking. Engraving by Caldwell, 1772, after M.V. Brandoin. (c) Wellcome Collection

Balls afforded opportunities for making introductions, renewing acquaintances, and maintaining pivotal social, business, and political contacts. At the 1774 Derby election ball where Thomas Coke stood as a candidate for his father Wenman Coke, the duchess of Devonshire ‘… stood up with young Mr. Coke for almost ten minutes in the middle of the room before they could wake the musick to play a minuet,’ later performing country dances with him, thereby communicating Cavendish endorsement and patronage [G. Cavendish, Georgiana; extracts from the  correspondence  of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1955), p. 16].

Success hinged on the duchess’s performance, for, although the duke of Devonshire was reported to be ‘… an amiable and respectable character… dancing [was] not his forte’ [Whitehall Evening Post, 28 March 1782]. The duke, lacking his wife’s dancing aptitude, benefited from her ability to sparkle in society, which was an asset for strengthening the duke’s social and political interests. Her attention, through conversing and dancing, conferred value on the candidate; thus, by their association, her worth transferred to him in the eyes of the assembly.

Women of the lower social orders also participated and had influence in the electoral process, and candidates capitalized on this specifically by appealing to the townswomen. Indeed, votes were frequently viewed as family property, and therefore not based solely on the inclination of the male voter [K. Gleadle, Borderline Citizens (2009), p. 26]. Benefit could be derived from courting women’s favour, translating directly into the acquisition of enthusiastic and vocal supporters both at home and in the streets.

In 1773, Lady Chatham told her nephew’s wife, Anne Pitt, that she hoped the ladies with whom Mr Pitt danced ‘were duely sensible of their obligation’ as ‘it is only an innocent election that they are wish’d to contribute to,’ thus pointing to the anticipation of a reciprocal relationship initiated through dancing [BL, Add. MS 59490, ff 10d-11]. The intent of the candidate was to bestow honour upon those he invited to dance, with the hope of engendering in them a willingness to assist with the campaign. Courting women’s favour in the ballroom, through the medium of dance, was viewed as a valid means of solidifying support and securing votes.

Lord Castlereagh used dance to his advantage at his 1830 election ball, dancing every dance:

‘[endearing] himself, not only to every daughter in the rooms, but to every mother also; and if he succeeds as well in any future canvass, as he did in gaining the esteem of every fair one in the party, he will be one of the first electioneerers in the empire’ [The Belfast News-letter, 17 September 1830].

Election balls were an acknowledgement of the social influence of women within their family sphere, and their potential to sway the votes of their male relatives. Women actively engaged in electoral campaigns by hosting or attending election balls were keenly aware of the obligations initiated and networks renewed and strengthened through dancing. Indeed, they were specifically targeted and courted by the candidate for their familial influence, as winning over a wife, sister, or daughter at an election ball could prove fruitful on polling day.

HB

Further Reading

Elaine Chalus, Elite women in English political life, c.1754-1790 (Oxford, 2005)

Kathryn Gleadle, Borderline Citizens: women, gender and political culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (Oxford, 2009)

R. Sweet, and P. Lane, Women and Urban Life in Eighteenth-Century England: ‘On the Town’ (Aldershot, 2003)

Amanda Vickery, Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present (Stanford, 2001)

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