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Election of Women to Public Office

It seems very modern to have women leading political parties in the twenty-first century, but women holding public office may not have been considered so revolutionary by our medieval and Tudor ancestors.

In 1532 Joan (Latin form Joanna) Bedford was elected to be the head of Longflete tithing (decennarius), an office equivalent to a modern parish councillor. Elsewhere in Dorset women were elected to serve as heads of tithings at the manor courts of Gillingham and Sutton Poyntz where Marion Anthony also served as a juror. These women were unusual, but not without precedent elsewhere and women have been found in similar roles in Devon, Surrey, Berkshire and Norfolk, while in Somerset and Devon they occasionally held the more prestigious office of churchwarden.

The process of election, or selection, is rarely stated, but in most cases it appears that a candidates meeting a property qualification were put forward and either the most suitable chosen or the office rotated among them. The selection emphasises the greater rights to property that women had in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries before they were eroded by the Victorians.

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