Lady Frances Balfour:  A Woman in Parliament before Enfranchisement

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Professor Susan Pedersen of Columbia University. On 24 May 2022, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Susan will be presenting a paper on Lady Frances Balfour and responding to questions. Details of how to sign up for the Zoom seminar are available here.

When we tell the dramatic story of women’s long campaign for access to Parliament, the ‘grille’ incident often comes up.  This was the protest of 28 October 1908, when two members of the militant Women’s Freedom League chained themselves to the wrought-iron grilles in the Ladies’ Gallery overlooking the Commons chamber and then shouted their claim and lowered their banner into the (sparsely-attended) arena below.  They would not unfasten those chains:  the grilles had to be removed and metalworkers brought in to file through them.  A brilliant piece of publicity, the protest beautifully symbolising women’s exclusion from the parliamentary realm.  Its first effect, though, was to compound that exclusion, for the Speaker then ordered the gallery closed, leaving women who had frequented it with no real place in Parliament at all.

Muriel Matters chained to the grille,
Illustrated London News, 7 Nov. 1908

That exclusion was felt by one woman especially, Lady Frances Balfour, who by 1908 had been entering and exiting the Houses of Parliament for three decades.  In February 1877, when she was all of eighteen, she slipped into the gallery of the House of Lords to listen to her father, the 8th Duke of Argyll, give a ninety-minute speech.  He was ‘quite magnificent so clear fine & eloquent,’ she recorded in her diary. ‘I was proud that I belonged to him.’[1] Frances was very disappointed when the man she married in 1879, A.J. Balfour’s youngest brother the architect Eustace Balfour, declined an offer to stand for Parliament – but she found some comfort in helping his brother Gerald Balfour win the Leeds seat he would hold for two decades.  Frances held a kind of ‘seat’ in Parliament through those decades too, for she was by some distance the most constant female presence in the Ladies’ Gallery.

Lady Frances Balfour, 1880s (Library of Congress)

It’s worth recovering Frances Balfour’s parliamentary activity in those years – that is, the years not just before women had the parliamentary vote but also before the women’s suffrage movement became a popular out-of-doors cause – for it tells us much not just about women’s changing political roles but also about the relationship between parliamentary and popular politics.  Like many women of the political elite, Frances first came to Parliament to hear the men in her family speak, for it was common practice for wives to watch their husbands’ maiden speeches or major addresses.  Frances was unusual, though, for her husband was not in Parliament, and the party views of her Balfour brothers-in-law were not quite her own.  Her landlord father had been a Liberal, one of Gladstone’s closest Cabinet colleagues, and while he resigned over the Irish Land Act in 1881, and Frances followed him (in 1888 she and Millicent Garrett Fawcett would set up the Women’s Liberal Unionist Association to organise female support at elections for other breakaway Liberals), she never considered herself a Conservative.  She had her convictions – free trade, property rights, women’s equality – but she was most interested, as so many men were, in the game of politics, seeing it as an arena in which persons and ideas vied for influence and power.

From the mid-1890s, after weaning her fifth and youngest child, Frances was in the ladies’ gallery regularly, less to support her menfolk than for pleasure and purposes of her own.  She would watch new ministers or party leaders try their wings or face votes of confidence or censure; she attended major debates over Ireland, South Africa, education, church policy and protection.  She was unusual in her willingness to stay in the ladies’ gallery through all-night sittings, and during periods of political controversy, one newspaper remarked in 1904, ‘she appears almost to live there, writing letters and taking her tea in the little ante-room adjoining.’[2] Always frugal, she took the omnibus or the underground from Kensington, walking home alone in the dark, carrying a stout stick for protection.[3]

Her relations didn’t entirely approve, but when her brother-in-law Arthur Balfour, then leader of the Commons, made himself ‘rather disagreeable over my love of the Gallery,’ she told him that her pastime amused her and did her no more harm than his country-house weekends did him.[4] But this was a deflection, for Frances Balfour wasn’t simply after her own amusement.  She could never explain quite why she became a feminist:  as she recalled in her autobiography, no-one in her family or social milieu had any sympathy for such ‘unwomanly women’ at all.[5] But she had a sharp political mind, resented her own exclusion, and – being acquainted with or even related to so many politicians – became ‘a sort of liaison officer’ between the women’s movement and Parliament.[6] Patricia Hollis has shown how she used her ‘racy intermediatory skills’ to win backing for bills extending women’s local government rights [7]; she teamed up with Millicent Fawcett to persuade sympathetic MPs to introduce private member’s women’s suffrage bills.  In 1897 she had a first big win, when what her Cecil relations called ‘Frances’s lobby’ passed just such a suffrage bill on its second reading with a majority of 71.[8]

Frances was in the ladies’ gallery (of course) for that vote, but so were many other women:  indeed, what was most striking, one women’s paper reported, was to see how women who were once sharply divided along party lines had ‘united in a common cause.’[9] That bill didn’t go further, for the government would not grant parliamentary time, and soon after, Frances began publishing political commentary in the National Review under the pseudonym ‘Grille,’ which the whole political class surely knew was a moniker for Lady Frances Balfour.  That commentary was sharply critical of the 1895 Parliament, including of Arthur Balfour’s Commons leadership, and in 1903 she and the suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett resigned from the women’s Liberal Unionist organisation they had founded.  Back in the ladies’ gallery after the Liberal election landslide of 1906, Frances admitted she felt ‘uncomfortable’ seeing Arthur, for the first time in ten years, on the opposition benches.[10] But she was watching a new force emerge too:  a militant suffrage movement, come out of Manchester, one that insisted that women abjure all party ties and that promised to harass any government that would not grant votes to women.

The emergence of the militants was, as we know, a game-changer for the suffrage movement, not just because militancy turned women’s suffrage into a popular cause, with the constitutionalist organisations ballooning too, but also because it forced women like Fawcett and Balfour to reevaluate their strategies and, in a sense, to choose sides.  In the Westminster Review in December 1906 Frances admitted that the suffrage movement’s ‘old guard’ looked askance at the new movement, but she also confessed that the militants had made women’s suffrage into a vital question: ‘what the Suffrage Societies had not achieved in sixty years had been achieved in six months.’[11]  She and Fawcett learned from the militants too.  From February 1907 – when they led a first procession of a few thousand women from Hyde Park to the Strand on ‘the vilest day, seas of mud’[12] – until the war broke out, Frances Balfour did an enormous amount of public speaking and even marching.  She still went to the (re-opened) ladies’ gallery for critical suffrage debates, but the personalist politics she had practiced had been superseded.

Frances Balfour (in a light coat) and Millicent Fawcett lead the ‘Mud March’, 9 Feb. 1907 Illustrated London News, 16 Feb. 1907

Historians will probably continue to argue about the relative importance of parliamentary strategising, popular mobilisation, party considerations, and the sheer impact of the war in deferring and then winning the women’s vote.  Militancy, certainly, turned suffrage into a popular cause, though the government’s ham-fisted reaction also weakened the most politically-active women’s party ties, damaging their ability to enter the Commons after 1918.  But if we track Frances Balfour’s work, we can find a prehistory to that disaffection from party and that women’s alliance.  We can also see how much could be done by one well-connected woman who was determined to play a role in Parliament, even if the only seat offered her was behind a grille in the ladies’ gallery.

Susan Pedersen is Morris Professor of British History at Columbia University, where she teaches British and international history.  Her most recent book, The Guardians:  The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (2015), was awarded the 2015 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature. She is currently writing a book about marriage and politics in the Balfour family.

To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Susan, please send it to

[1] Scottish Record Office, Balfour Family Papers, GD 433/2/392, Frances Balfour’s diary, entry for Feb. 20, 1877.

[2] Derby Daily Telegraph, 22 Feb. 1904.

[3] This is recalled in a profile in the Gloucester Citizen, 15 Feb. 1911.

[4] SRO, GD433/2/316, FB to AJB, May 29, 1896.

[5] Lady Frances Balfour, Ne Obliviscaris:  Dinna Forget, 2 vols. (London:  Hodder & Stoughton, 1930), ii, 127.

[6] Ibid., ii, 172.

[7] Patricia Hollis, Ladies Elect:  Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 323.

[8] From Frances Balfour to George Saintsbury, 1899, quoted in Ne Obliviscaris, ii, 155.

[9] La Ligue:  Organe Belge du Droit des Femmes, Feb. 1897.

[10] SRO, GD433/2/333, Frances Balfour to Frank, Mar. 16, 1906.

[11] Frances Balfour, “Woman Suffrage,” Westminster Review, Dec. 1906, 623-5, here at p. 625.

[12] SRO, GD433/2/335, 32, Frances Balfour to Frank, 14 Feb. 1907.

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