“The trouble with Tory associations is that they don’t groove to chicks,”  Boris Johnson noted in 2001, on page 17 of Friends, Voters, Countrymen, his short book about becoming MP for Henley.

But something has changed. In 2005, the party still only had 17 women MPs, a mere four more than the 13 returned in 1931. But in 2010 the number rose to 49, and in 2015 to 68.

The academic world has taken note. In Oxford a conference has just taken place under the title Rethinking Right-Wing Women. The announcement of the conference described the previous neglect of Conservative women by scholars:

In the media frenzy and the re-enactment of the visceral political divisions of the 1980s that greeted the death of Thatcher in April, 2013, it soon became clear that Britain’s first (or “last” as the BBC reporter said) woman Prime Minister was being portrayed as an aberrant figure who had emerged from a party of men and, in any case, was herself a ‘man’ in well-tailored women’s clothing. It appeared that the media and the public had not been well enough served by academics in making sense of and contextualising the Thatcher phenomenon and, more broadly, the paradoxical sexual politics of the Right. Despite the able mobilisation of women by the Conservative party, women’s rise to leadership positions, and the gendered appeal of Tory policies, the scholarly study of Conservative women has been relatively neglected, while comparative study has been even more limited and geared towards the extreme.This two-day conference explores the relationship between women and conservatism since the late 19th century.

As it happened, I arrived at the conference just as Julie Gottlieb, of Sheffield University, was describing how in the 1980s, feminists established themselves as the “polar opposition” to Thatcher. Andrea Dworkin, in Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females, and Beatrix Campbell, in Iron Ladies: Why Do Women Vote Tory?, contended that women were being duped by the Conservatives into acting against women.

Not that the feminists of the 1980s put it quite as gently as that. The women who voted for Thatcher were dismissed as fascists, Nazi whores and the descendants of the women who voted for Hitler in 1933.

As Gottlieb said, this paradigm “suffocated” serious discussion of what Conservative women were really like or had actually done, and became “a blocking mechanism”. The achievements not only of Thatcher, but of the Conservative women who came before her, were obscured from public view.

Gottlieb has studied some of the leading Conservative women of the 1930s, including Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the Commons, where she was from 1919-1945, and the Duchess of Atholl, Scotland’s first woman MP, who sat from 1923-1938, and resigned in protest against the Government’s policy of appeasing Hitler.

Conservative politics in the 1930s were not, for the most part, adversarial, and Gottlieb described the Tory women leaders of the period as “less the foremothers of Thatcher than the grandmothers of the Cameroons”.

Clarisse Berthezène, a French scholar, observed that under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin (which lasted from 1923-1937), resolute attempts were made to develop a “middle-brow rhetoric” which would defeat the high-brow rhetoric of the Left. Britain’s unique capacity for voluntary organisation was seen as a bastion against continental abstractions, including socialism.

Here was a project in which Conservative women could play an enthusiastic part. To be Conservative was to be a volunteer, involved in a multiplicity of worthwhile local organisations, most of which did not seem in the slightest bit political. I was not the only member of Berthezène’s audience who began to see, in her remarks, a sketch of something which has since been described, less adequately and persistently than it was by Baldwin, as “the Big Society”.

For those interested in this theme, Berthezène’s new bookTraining Minds for the War of Ideas: Ashridge College, the Conservative Party and the cultural politics of Britain, 1929-54, will be indispensable.

Adrian Bingham, of Sheffield University, remarked on the “diminishing persuasiveness”, from the 1950s from the 1980s, “of the rhetoric of the ordinary housewife which had been employed by the Conservative Party so effectively”.

In the 1950s, Bingham said, the Tories were “more shrewd” than Labour at appealing to women. But he was not persuaded by ConservativeHome’s suggestion that the Conservative appeal in that period stemmed partly from being, notably under Harold Macmillan’s leadership in the 1959 election victory, more progressive than Labour.

Bingham reckoned that from the 1970s onwards, “the language of domesticity was challenged by the brasher, more right-wing appeal of Kelvin Mackenzie’s Sun“.

The first day of the conference was concluded by Anne Jenkin – Lady Jenkin – who told the history, almost ten years after it was launched, of Women2Win, set up to increase the number of Conservative women in Parliament. She described going on Woman’s Hour after the 2005 election to talk about how bad the party was at getting women elected:

I remember sitting in the Green Room when the researcher came in to talk to the woman following on after me. A comedian I think. “You are on after a piece about women and the Conservative Party,” she said. And they both chortled. I felt ashamed of my Party. That confirmed to me there was much work to do. I told that story on air with Jenni Murray. Also on the programme was Professor Sarah Childs. Although not I think a professor then, she was already well known to those following the debate about women in Parliament…When I got home I googled her, sent her an email and asked for a private seminar about what the Conservative Party should be doing to attract more women candidates, get them selected and then elected. Sarah may remember that lunch. It was a bit of an eye-opener for me. 

Jenkin’s talk was chaired by Childs, and went down very well. For here was a woman with a deep traditional knowledge, through her own family, of the Conservative Party, describing how she has drawn on academic work to help bring about necessary reform.

Universities which used to be blinded by hatred of Thatcher are starting to notice those reforms. There have always been some academics who recognised that the Tories were far more open than the other lot to new ideas. But it is now possible this truth will become apparent to any scholar who regards the desirability, indeed the necessity, of the feminisation of politics as a self-evident truth.