Risky Regencies

Women in Politics

Forgive me if I start this post out on something totally Off Topic (as I often do!), but I had to share the link to these Pirates of the Caribbean dolls which someone sent me this week! They are so wonderfully funny and–weird. I’d like to at least have the Orlando doll to keep on my desk, but what I would really love is to have a whole set. Then I could act out scenes from the movie. Maybe the next time I have a few hundred dollars to spare…

And now onto the topic of the week!

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing some volunteer work at a political campaign office, getting ready for the Super Tuesday primary on February 5. It’s mostly answering phones, stuffing envelopes, handing out bumper stickers and yard signs–not hugely glamorous. But it’s made me think about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her Whig friends in the 18th century. And about how political campaigns have–and haven’t–changed in 200+ years.

“Ladies who interest themselves so much in the case of elections, are perhaps too ignorant to know that they meddle with what does not concern them” –The Morning Post, March 1784.

Georgiana first met Charles James Fox in 1777, when he visited Chatsworth. At 28, he was already marked out as the future leader of the Whigs. Until then his political career had veered between success and failure, and Georgiana spent her time flitting around, partying and racking up debts. But they both wanted, and were capable, of much more. They spent that visit discussing ideas. Fox instilled in Georgiana a devotion to the Whigs, who by the 1770s stood for opposition to the King, mistrust of powers of the crown, and vigilance over civil liberties.

“One day last week, her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire appeared on the hustings at Covent Garden. She immediately saluted her favorite candidate, the Hon. Charles James Fox” –The Morning Post, September 25, 1780

Georgiana began following the debates in Parliament and perfecting her skills as a political hostess. She became the leader of an elite group of political females that included her sister Harriet Ponsonby, the Duchess of Portland, Lady Jersey, Lady Carlisle, Mrs. Bouverie, and the Waldegraves, yet none ever outshown her, or came in for the extent of criticism she did.

In 1780, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (playwright, politician, and lover of Georgiana’s sister Harriet) asked for Georgiana’s help. She arranged for him to stand in the Spencer-dominated borough of Stafford (he was elected, natch). A week later, on Sept. 25, Fox asked her to accompany him as he contested the borough of Westminster. In this case, she only stood on the platform for a few minutes, but the press was Shocked.

“The Duchess of Devonshire’s attendance at Covent Garden, perhaps, will not secure Mr. Fox’s election; but it will at least establish her pre-eminence above all other beauties of that place, and make her a standing toast in all the ale-houses and gin-shops of Westminster” –Morning Post, April 8, 1784

In 1782, the Whigs came to power with Fox as Foreign Secretary. Under Parliamentary rules, MPs selected for office had to re-offer themselves to their constituents, and Fox again asked Georgiana to help him out. He wanted her to lead a women’s delegation, and on April 3 she performed her first official duty for the party. She and the other ladies, wearing Whig colors of buff and blue, spoke under large banners reading ‘Freedom and Independence’ and ‘The Man of the People.’ She was a sensation. Fans bearing her portrait sold in the hundreds.

Her involvement in politics only grew after the birth of her first child (Little G) in 1784. The Duc de Chartres and his French delegation treated her as their official hostess; her influence with the Prince of Wales was well-known. But also in 1784, the Whigs were low in public opinion as they formed a Coalition against Prime Minister Pitt and the King. In March, Pitt called a general election, setting off a storm of campaigning.

On March 17, Georgiana appeared at the opera, to much cheering–and booing and hissing. The Duchess of Rutland, a Tory hostess, stood up in her box and shouted, “Damn Fox!” In reply, Lady Maria Waldegrave leaped up and retorted, “Damn Pitt!” This must have been highly entertaining! The most noise I’ve ever heard at the opera was once when the guy sitting behind me fell asleep and started snoring.

“The Duchess made no scruple of visiting some of the humblest of electors, dazzling and enchanting them by the fascination of her manner, the power of her beauty, and the influence of her high rank” –Horace Walpole

But Georgiana also suffered threats and abuse as she went about her campaigning. By the end of her first week, she was exhausted and hoarse, with blistered feet. Fox was still behind in the polls. Georgiana wrote to her mother Lady Spencer, “I gave the Election quite up, and must lament all that has happened.” The Pittite papers, like the Morning Herald, reported that she exchanged kisses for votes, and scurrilous cartoons appeared. (She sent deputies out to buy up the most offensive of them as soon as they appeared!). Fox did eventually score a victory, and Carlton House saw nights of celebratory balls and dinners.

Until the next election…

Have you ever done any work in politics? And where can I get one of those blue suits Keira Knightley has on in the film still? I LOVE that costume!

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Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Love the costume, but, I’m sorry, Keira Knightley, who I love as an actress, is just not The Duchess of Devonshire and I fear the movie will suffer for it.

I want that doll, however. She would go very well with my talking Leonidas doll from 300!

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“Keira Knightley, who I love as an actress, is just not The Duchess of Devonshire”

If I was a casting director (and I don’t know why producers don’t ask for my input on these things, LOL) I might have tried Diane Kruger in the part. She has that blond, ethereal, classic quality, and was actually pretty good in “Copying Beethoven”.

I definitely think the Elizabeth Swann doll and the talking Leonidas would make a good match! There is also an ES as pirate doll, as well as one in a wedding gown–which would he prefer? 🙂

Pam Rosenthal
14 years ago

Clever you, Amanda, to make the Georgiana connection to contemporary politics. I don’t know if Kiera Knightley will be right for the part, but I’ve admired her personally since she auctioned off her brown Oscar gown to benefit Oxfam a couple of years abo.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“Clever you, Amanda, to make the Georgiana connection to contemporary politics.”

I just wish I could go out campaigning in such a great outfit! Jeans and a parka just don’t have the same flair as a tricorn hat with a fox tail. 🙂

14 years ago

The amazing thing about today and yesterday’s politics has got to be, looking at it all today, we think boy, talk about dirty politics, or how the mudslinging is horrible. Yet, listening to the days of Jefferson and company, today is ridiculously tame compared to them. I think it’s safe to say that today we have lines we won’t cross. . . barely, but still. . . then, forget about it. (ah, use your own italian/New York accent on that.) 😉

Dolls though. . . ah, would any of them get along with Darth Vader? LOL


Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

Keira Knightley doesn’t match my image of the Duchess of Devonshire, either. OTOH, maybe her popularity will draw some viewers who otherwise wouldn’t go to that type of movie.

Our caucus here in Washington State is a week from today. Until last week, I was sure everything would be settled by Super Tuesday and there would be no point in even going. I followed the election closely, but with much grumbling about how I had no more voice in choosing my party’s nominee than I did over who’s president of France or prime minister of the UK. So I’m thrilled to think my vote might mean something for a change!

As for participating, I did some phone banking for the 2000 election. My daughter was born in 2004, so it’s been harder to volunteer since then, but I’ve donated to favorite candidates and pointed friends to information on how to caucus.

I just wish I could go out campaigning in such a great outfit! Jeans and a parka just don’t have the same flair as a tricorn hat with a fox tail. 🙂

At the risk of tipping my hand as to which candidate I support, this reminded me of a comment I made on the dynastic turn American politics have taken of late: “It’s like nothing has changed in 200 years! Only the technology is much better and the clothes have gone downhill!”

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“It’s like nothing has changed in 200 years! Only the technology is much better and the clothes have gone downhill!”

LOL! Too true. 🙂 I thought much the same as I did the research for this post. Maybe Oprah is like a Georgiana for 2008??

As for this election, I also thought things would be much more decided by this point. Maybe that’s what made me get off my lazy behind and do something for once! 🙂 But I am so encouraged by the interest and enthusiasm of young people, people who are voting for the first time. It gives me hope.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Dolls though. . . ah, would any of them get along with Darth Vader? LOL

Lois, my Leonidas can kick your Darth Vader’s a$$!

Re: politics. Georgiana and her lady friends were active in the day when they really could do nothing else to have a say in how their government operates. Thank goodness now women can vote and run for office. I wonder if our daughters understand that, no matter what her political views, how remarkable it is that a woman has a chance to be her party’s nominee and maybe even President.

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

Yeah, for all my “nothing has changed!” grumbling, I did like the point Jon Stewart made on The Daily Show about how 100 years ago the two top vote-getters in the South Carolina primary wouldn’t have been able to vote in SC.

Cara King
14 years ago

Yet, listening to the days of Jefferson and company, today is ridiculously tame compared to them.

So true, Lois! Imagine if there were fistfights in Congress now, or the vice president took part in a duel… Or imagine British MPs exchanging beer for votes!

Speaking of Regency politics, one of my fave Regencies of all time is Joan Smith’s SWEET AND TWENTY, which involves a very funny and interesting election (and the ladies campaigning, and dirty tricks, that went along with it.)

Love that book. My brother used to be very involved in — hmm, how to put this…let’s call it “fringe politics”…and some of the stuff he described reminded me of some of the things in that book! 🙂


Margaret Evans Porter
14 years ago

I’m serving my 1st term as a State Representative, so definitely involved in politics! Because we have a “citizen” legislature, I don’t regard myself as a politician. Hardly anybody under the State House dome is aware that I’m a multi-published multiple-genre author, and I like it that way.

When running for office, I considered offering kisses to those who promised to vote for me. Or kisses as a reward for those who did vote for me. But I didn’t want to start a scandal!

So I copied Georgiana only in dressing very smartly at the polling places. And I try to maintain a high standard of fashion and grooming when carrying out my official duties.

Unlike G., I haven’t sported any portrait hats with plumes on the hustings. Not yet anyway!

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I’m serving my 1st term as a State Representative, so definitely involved in politics!

Wow, Margaret, I am seriously impressed and grateful that you would perform such a public service…and still have time to come visit the Riskies.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

My committment to politics is watching the debates on TV, cursing, reading news online, cursing, and sending in my ballot on time.

bu yes, I’d like both the KK dolls—not just because her name is Keira, Todd—and the standing Jack Sparrow one—not the waxed chesty one, bleh—who’d go rather well with my Jane Austen and Nora Roberts ones.

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

A full 17″ of Orlando Bloom?? Oh, be still my heart.

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

Great post, Amanda. And good for you, getting politically involved and still finding time for everything else.

I’ll be interested to see how Keira Knightley does because I think she’s a very good actor (although I always want to make her a sandwich and urge her to put on a cardigan).

And a word for my boys the abolitionists–a lot of contemporary campaign techniques were developed by them–leaflets, investigative journalism, graphics.

14 years ago

Fantastic, Margaret. Public service as been so high-jacked it is nice to see a legislature of citizens.

I have to agree that politics 200 years ago were every bit as rowdy and scandalous as they are now if not more so.

We Americans tend to be a passionate bunch and anyone who has studied the activities of the Continental Congresses will be shocked at some of the shenanigans of the Founding Fathers. Still, they managed to write some of the most important documents of all time. Something to be said for passion, rum and fisticuffs!

I will be very interested to see what KK does with the role of Georgianna. I LOVE stories of women in positions of power behind the scenes.

Georgie Lee
14 years ago

I read the Georgianna book but I have a hard time picturing Keira Knightly as Georgianna. She’s too thin and not womanly-looking enough to play the sophisticated Georgiana. However, I will still go see it. I can’t resist period pieces.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Great post, Amanda, and good for you for getting involved! At present I feel too overwhelmed with mom and writer stuff to do more than follow the issues and vote.

I look at the 18th century criticism of women getting involved in politics and can’t help comparing it to the more violent anti-Hillary sentiment one sometimes sees. It’s completely beyond any rational issues with her politics or background.

And LOL on those dolls. My kids would love them but they are pricy!

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“Thank goodness now women can vote and run for office.”

So true! My grandmother was only 2 when women got the vote, but her older sister remembers their mother taking them with her to the polls the first time she voted, and what an important lesson it was. It was astonishing to me that in my own grandmother’s time women were so powerless, and I don’t want to start taking such things for granted.

“Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said…

I’m serving my 1st term as a State Representative,”

Wow, Margaret, you DO make me feel lazy! 🙂

I will definitely go see The Duchess, because like Georgie I can’t resist period pieces! No matter how bad they may turn out to be, it’s like a giant magnet dragging me to the theater (looking forward to The Other Boleyn Girl this month). Plus the costumes in TD look yummy.

If I do get my grubby hands on some of those dolls, I will be sure and let everyone know! That company also had some beautiful Alice in Wonderland pieces (plus a “Golden Compass” Nicole Kidman doll that scarily didn’t look much different from the real thing…)

14 years ago

I guess I’ve been involved in campaigns a couple of times, but only in very minor ways–making phone calls and such, and contributing to campaigns. And I once volunteered on the phone bank to receive calls from polling stations as they came in. That was a long time ago…

Keira wrote:

but yes, I’d like both the KK dolls—not just because her name is Keira, Todd

Hmm. I’m not convinced. Would you still like her if her name were Hildegard Knightley? (Actually, would anyone still like her then? Amazing how names go out of fashion…)


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