Politics and play in girls’ schools in England, 1870-1914

Ahead of next Tuesday’s hybrid Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Helen Sunderland of St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford. On 16 May, between 5.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Helen will discuss politics and play in girls’ schools in England between 1870 and 1914.

The seminar takes place on 16 May 2023, between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. It is fully ‘hybrid’, which means you can attend either in-person in London at the IHR, or online via Zoom.  Details of how to book to attend online or in-person are available here.

Writing in the Newsletter of the Blackburn High School Old Girls’ Association in 1903, Emmie Backhouse remembered ‘the Friday afternoons when we Sixth were left to our own devices, and played Parliament, growing as hot and abusive as ever our model has done, though on far weightier subjects’. The 25-year-old teacher looked back fondly on her time at school, where teenage political enthusiasm flourished in the relative freedom of the sixth form.

Backhouse’s retrospective association of political debate with play raises an important question. If we accept that this was more than a rhetorical device adults used to downplay young people’s politics, how does it change our understanding of political participation before mass democracy?

An image of a school building. There are trees out the front of it and a fence with gates. On the image is the writing 'Blackburn High School'.
Blackburn Girls’ High School (founded 1883). © BGHS Old Girls’ Association. Reproduced with permission

My paper for the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar examines the varied meanings and expressions of schoolgirls’ political play to offer new ways of thinking about female political activity before women’s suffrage. Play is a recurring theme in descriptions of middle-class girls’ political activity in secondary school magazines and autobiographies. As I’ve written elsewhere, schoolgirls’ hands-on training in constitutional politics through mock parliamentary debates merged education and entertainment.

Play was a key enabler of this parliamentary imitation. Alongside serious attempts to re-create House of Commons procedure, more light-hearted elements guaranteed these debates’ appeal. Girls discussed unrealistic bills, adopted the tongue-in-cheek tone of parliamentary sketch writers in their magazine reports, and caricatured MPs through role play.

Analysing these debates alongside mock elections further highlights how political imitation and play were entwined. Mock elections emerged amid the heightened political atmosphere of the Edwardian era. In 1910, North London Collegiate School and Manchester High School for Girls held their own parliamentary elections, while pupils at Central Foundation Girls’ School ran a mock local election, contesting seats on the London County Council. Girls stood as candidates, campaigned for their party, worked as election officials, and voted by ballot.

Schools co-opted the material culture of elections to make their contests as realistic as possible. Classrooms became polling stations, school halls hosted election meetings, and corridors were lined with election posters. Though voting was taken very seriously, elements of the campaigns had a more playful air. Girls created imaginative candidate personas, performed comic election songs, and protested outside polling booths.

An election poster. At the top the writing is: John Bull: "Are these my Islands or yours?"
Below this are two men stood on a map of Great Britain and Ireland. The man to the left had a crown, a monocle, a robe and a shot gun, and the man to the right is walking towards him wearing a hat and taking off his coat. He looks like he's ready for a fight. Below it says 'Vote Liberal and back up John Bull'.
Liberal Party election poster, 1910. CC LSE

We can also trace politics in girls’ everyday interactions in school classrooms, corridors, and playgrounds. Schoolgirls who ‘played Parliament’ had rich imaginary worlds that spilled over into other aspects of school life. In contrast to organised activities that encouraged girls to play at politics, here girls co-opted politics into their existing patterns of play. Party politics mapped easily onto side-taking games and play fights beyond teachers’ reach.

School political activity expands our understanding of girls’ play in this period. The often unpredictable, and occasionally violent, nature of schoolgirls’ political games challenges ideas about the gendering of young people’s play. Especially around election times, girls could get carried away with partisan sentiment. This could result in boisterous, physical interactions with their peers.

A photograph of 10 women. 5 are stood behind the other 5 who are sat in chairs. They are wearing a uniform and holding hockey sticks.
LSE Women’s Hockey Team, 1920-21 CC LSE

In the late-nineteenth century, the sport-playing schoolgirl became symbolic of a new female generation: physically robust, socially gregarious, increasingly independent. The figure of the politically playful girl adds an important new dimension to this stereotype, as schoolgirls claimed new roles as political actors.

Political play connects the school with other spaces where girls performed politics. There are striking parallels between political play at school and at home. Autobiographies offer glimpses of mock parliaments in domestic school-rooms.

Edith Picton-Turbervill (b. 1872), the social reformer and Labour MP for The Wrekin from 1929-31, remembered playing politics with three of her siblings and their reluctant nursery maid.

We became fierce politicians (it was in the days of Salisbury versus Gladstone) and we had great debates in the school-room, and even forced our young nursery maid, though she protested strenuously, to take part. The blackboard on two chairs served as a platform, but the poor maid had a dangerous task, for when she pleased one party, the other tipped up the platform and down she went.

Edith Picton-Turbervill, Life is Good: An Autobiography (London, 1939), p. 49

The siblings chose their parties – with Picton-Turbervill uncharacteristically siding with the Conservatives – and launched verbal attacks on their opponents. Sparse in political detail, these were nonetheless loaded with partisan emotion that found physical expression in their debates. With the creative repurposing of school-room furniture, there is an important material dimension to this parliamentary play which mirrors girls’ everyday politics at school.

A signed postcard. The image is sepia and is a white woman staring directly out. She has short dark hair. There is a signature on the postcard.
Edith Picton Turbervill, signed postcard from North Islington parliamentary election (1922). CC LSE

Age interacts with political play in complex ways. Political activity at school was intergenerational and women teachers were often just as excited to participate in parliamentary debates or mock elections as their pupils. The seriousness of girls’ electoral or parliamentary performances blurred the boundaries between adult activity and child’s play. This fluidity enabled these activities to provide a taste of political citizenship for those without the vote, regardless of their age. At the same time, it pre-empted potential criticism because political enthusiasm could always be excused as a product of the juvenile imagination. Political play was a flexible tool which girls and women alike deployed to create – and justify their creation of – new political opportunities.

Paying attention to the playful dynamics of girls’ politicisation suggests that we need new histories of political culture that value the school playground, classroom, and nursery as much as they privilege the election meeting, the politics of the street, and polling booth. Schoolgirls’ political play shows their surprising literacy and active involvement in the reworking of cultures of parliamentary performance and electioneering in the decades before mass democracy.


The seminar takes place on 16 May 2023, between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. It is fully ‘hybrid’, which means you can attend either in-person in London at the IHR, or online via Zoom. Details of how to book to attend online or in-person are available here.

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