“Of the two sexes of which the species is composed, how comes it that all natural right to political benefits is confined to one?”
Jeremy Bentham, 1789
“The elderly women of my childhood grew up believing that they would never be allowed to vote. Women within living memory. In the UK.”
Quote from internet site, January 2018
The legislation that governs women’s rights in society is astonishingly recent. The Married Women’s Property acts made it legal for wives to hold money and property in their own name. Until 1970 it was perfectly legal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job, and rape in marriage was not made a crime until 1991 in the UK. Inequality was seen as inevitable, natural and right – that married women (and most women were married) were property, with no rights at all or legal existence. That a woman who had murdered her husband was executed for treason as if she had committed a crime against the state. That women who spoke up and defied convention and what was regarded as the natural order of women subordinate to men were classified as mentally disturbed and shut away, sometimes for years. For centuries rape was prosecuted not as a sexual crime against a woman, but as a theft from her family – their good name and honour smirched and their property so devalued that no-one would want it in marriage. In the words of Amanda Vickery, “male mastery and female servitude were written into the DNA of society.”
Votes for women is the most visible face of a wave of female emancipation and struggle for civil liberties and political rights that began in the 19th century to take on an unstoppable momentum. Like the women in the quote above, my grandmother and great aunts didn’t get the vote until they were in their 20s. Even in her late 60s my grandmother (born in 1905) didn’t vote until the general election of 1972, when my mother and I almost literally dragged her into the polling station and when she asked what she should do said “Make a cross! Anywhere, against any name, but make it!” – so determined were we that she should use the vote that women seventy years before had suffered and fought to acquire for her.
Experiences such as above are perhaps now distant memory as it’s now easy to take for granted that women now have the vote. With this year being the 100th anniversary of the granting of suffrage for some women and the 90th anniversary of giving women this right on equal terms with men, it’s not surprising that there is a rush of books, exhibitions, talks, documentaries and discussions about the struggle of women to obtain the right to vote.
However the problem that I have noticed with the aforesaid rush of books, exhibitions, talks and documentaries is that they focus disproportionately on Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes. While there is no denying that Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) grabbed the headlines then and capture the public imagination now, the irony is that the granting of suffrage to women in 1918 and 1928 was the result of long years of hard work and struggle by thousands of women who preferred to make their point through peaceful, legal and quasi-legal means; and it can be argued the suffragettes’ campaign of violence and intimidation of public figures alienated many who might have otherwise supported them and gave weight to their opponents’ argument that women were not fit, mentally, morally or intellectually, to be granted the vote. While the suffragettes have dominated the discourse over the history of women’s suffrage this blog hopefully will attempt to redress the balance by focusing on the suffragists, women who preferred peaceful means and reasoned debate to make their voice heard.
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE SUFFRAGE CAMPAIGN:
We can trace the beginnings of the women’s suffrage campaign in 1866, when a group of women’s rights activists petitioned John Stuart Mill to sponsor a bill granting women the right to vote, as during this time Parliament was locked in a series of debates whether or not to extend the terms of the 1832 Reform Act and enfranchise urban working men and those in the country with small landholdings.
Concurrent to this was the myriad of campaigns aimed to secure women such rights as keeping their own property and money even after marriage, the right to an education and to enter a profession as well as calling for reforms in marriage and family law. It was also at this time where women such as Josephine Butler became active in causes such as the temperance or anti-slavery movements and prison reform as well as working with the poor and sick. Many of these causes and those who espoused them overlapped each other; it was through these campaigns that many like-minded women were led into coming together to effect change.
Early gains such as the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886 together with advances in technology gave women some legal protection, opportunities to work outside the home and pursue leisure on a greater scale. Beginning in the 1860s, there were already calls to extend the suffrage to women, and this call became even louder as the decades went on. Many women’s rights activists believed that suffrage was one of the rights that women ought to have, this right being seen as a means to an end which was social reform on a much wider scale.
Primarily the campaign to secure women the right to vote on the same terms as men as set out in the existing Reform Acts (1867 and 1886) was a movement dominated and organised by middle class women. In time they would be joined by both upper and working class women but the bulk of the activists came from the middle class.
Why was this so? Just as with campaigns for the right to education, seeking paid employment and reforms in family and property law, nineteenth century feminism was a response to the desire by middle class women to take advantage of the educational and vocational opportunities open to middle class men but that were denied to them. Society itself was changing – industrialisation and technological advances were giving women better opportunities: not just with regards to work but also leisure. Social sciences were also questioning conventional assumptions about men and women especially about the alleged weakness of the latter. As Constance Rover observed:
“There was a general feeling amongst middle class-women that their status was in some ways inferior to that of women of other classes. The upper class woman had her social position to give her some influence; also the upper classes were prone to arrange marriage settlements and bestow dowries upon their women. The former gave a wife a measure of economic independence and the latter, although humiliating in some respects, at least had the effect of letting the wife feel she had brought with her a positive contribution to the new household. In the eyes of the middle class woman, the woman factory worker, although underpaid and exploited, had a measure of independence as a result of her work and wages which she herself lacked.” (pp. 36-7)
Although J.S. Mill’s attempts to introduce a women’s suffrage bill ended in failure, another attempt was made, this time in 1884, when another round of debates was on going to further extend the franchise – this time to those who paid an annual rent of £10 or who owned land of the same value. Yet again women were excluded after another Reform Act was passed in 1886 and this despite the fact that more women especially married ones would have met the property qualifications set by Parliament.
Despite this setback, the late 19th and early 20th century saw greater female participation in public life. Apart from being involved in campaigns for social reform and canvassing for votes and campaigning for local and national politicians there were also baby steps towards granting women the right to vote and to stand for local elections. Initially women could stand and vote for positions on local education and Poor Law boards. By 1910, women could stand as town and county councillors and even become mayors. New legislation also ensured female participation – for instance the Education Act of 1902 abolished the school boards and required county councils to include at least one woman in their education committees. There was also the Unemployed Worker’s Act (1905) which mandated that women should be included in local distress committees.
Whether serving as Poor Law guardians or county councillors or heading up local Conservative or Liberal Party organisations, women were getting a taste of political participation and exercising the duties of citizenship. Many believed that by demonstrating their capabilities on the local level they could prove that they were fit to exercise the right to vote on a national level.
A HOUSE DIVIDED:
Despite feminist rhetoric about sisterhood and solidarity the reality was that women’s suffrage just like any other campaign or cause was always going to be divided. Inevitably there would be differences with regards to defining about the terms and conditions about their struggle – would they want the right to vote based on the existing qualifications? Or do they want the vote regardless women owned property or not? There was also the inconvenient point that even after 1886, not all men had the vote and they ranged from those whose annual rent or land holdings were valued at less than £10 or those who were in jobs (such as domestic service) that provided board and lodging as part of their employment package.
There was also the question of methodology. While late Victorian women’s suffrage activists furthered their cause through meetings, public speaking, debating, petitioning leading politicians and cultivating support from influential people; others felt this didn’t go far enough and by the beginning of the twentieth century, others were getting impatient and felt the need to restore to drastic measures in order to make the government and the public sit up and take notice.
And while opponents of those who were calling for extending women the right to vote were mostly men, perhaps unsurprisingly the most vocal of those who opposed women’s suffrage were women as well, including prominent ones such as the author and social campaigner Mary Augusta Ward (Mrs Humphrey Ward) and the archaeologist and Near East expert Gertrude Bell. Male opponents focused on the common belief that men and women were characterised by different moral and intellectual qualities endowed by God to enable them to perform their respective duties. There was too the general consensus that women were more emotional, easily swayed by sentiment, less reasoned and logical as well as being more sensitive. Biology was also used as an argument against women’s fitness to participate in public life (which included voting) as women’s conditions such as menstruation and pregnancy would make it hard for them to exercise their mental faculties and judgement in a clear and rational way – or as Anne De Courcy succinctly puts it in her biography of Margot Asquith (another opponent of female suffrage) – the belief that “once a month, women go mad.” There was also the question whether women would be able to understand and comprehend issues of national and imperial importance such as the economy, defence and foreign policy.
Female opponents of women’s suffrage on the other hand argued that women had their proper sphere and giving them the vote would undermine the home and family, and that women should be content to exert their influence in that sphere. They were horrified that women they regarded as less educated and intelligent as themselves should be enfranchised, or that the lower classes should be afforded power and entitlement, because who knew how that power would be used?
This is not to say however that these female antis were totally opposed to women’s suffrage; on the contrary, they were vocal supporters for female participation at the local level and worked hard to increase participation in county politics. There was also general cynicism about national politics and the fear that women would be used as a tool for manipulation by politicians. Just as with the other great issues of the day, women’s suffrage had its multitude of voices and two of the loudest camps differed over strategy and how to win hearts and minds.
PEOPLE’S FRONT OF JUDEA VS JUDEAN PEOPLE’S FRONT AND ALL THE OTHERS AS WELL…..
Martin Pugh in his March of the Women mused that despite the coverage and studies that the suffrage campaign has generated, on a whole, several aspects remain neglected and studies as a whole remain unbalanced. The Pankhurst family and the suffragettes especially the WSPU have long dominated the narrative with regards to the campaign to secure women the right to vote.
During the late 1880s, the women’s suffrage movement was very divided and de-centralised. There were many small groups, often small local or workplace societies. In 1907 the Artists’ Suffrage League was formed, and the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage: over the next few years they were followed by such societies as the Actresses Franchise League, the Women Writers Suffrage League, the Barmaids Political Defence League, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, the Tax Resistance League, the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement, the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society and the United Suffragists. The latter was created for both men and women, and was said to be disapproved of by Christabel Pankhurst.
The formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897 was one way to make the movement much more coherent and unified as well as in David Rubenstein’s words calling for a “closer union and cooperation between the various societies.” They elected as their president Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), sister of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who was the first woman to qualify and practise as a doctor as well as be elected town mayor. Millicent Fawcett was the widow of Liberal MP and politician Henry Fawcett. She was also in known in her own right as an author and for her crusades for women’s and children’s rights.
While the NUWSS was predominantly a middle-class organisation, they also had support from the upper classes; among them Lord and Lady Selborne and Lord Robert Cecil (son of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, three times Prime Minister of the UK). In addition, the organisation did not ally themselves with any political party and were dedicated to winning hearts and minds through peaceful rallies, speeches, articles, pamphlets, deputations and cultivating important allies within the Establishment in order to secure support for their cause. They also sought to bring their message far and wide through local NUWSS branches and allied organisations, as well as supporting women candidates and men sympathetic to the cause standing for elected posts.
In addition the NUWSS also engaged in debates with their opponents and did so using careful arguments and logic. Recognising that the weight of scientific opinion was against them, the likes of Fawcett refrained from wading into any physiological or psychological argument. As Pugh pointed out: “the aim, for them, was to develop whatever natural capacity men and women had to start with.” They also contested views that women were weak and that they lacked the stomach to cope with political life by arguing that women especially those from the working class were already exposed to dangers and struggles that took no notice of notions of femininity and questioned the claim that femininity was fragile – if it was, they argued, then the human race would have long ago have died out.
By the 20th century it seemed that there was no progress being made: especially as the Liberals were returned to power in 1905. Unlike the Conservative Party whose leadership was sympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage, the Liberal leadership was hostile to it. In 1908, Herbert Henry Asquith became Prime Minister and with his hostility to the cause, the struggle entered a much more dangerous phase.
Several women’s suffrage activists felt that the NUWSS didn’t go far enough and direct action was the solution to shake the government and the political establishment out of its torpor and sometimes open hostility to the cause. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded under Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) with the slogan “deeds not words” and they quickly gained attention for acts of organised militancy and violence. Not only were they content to heckle politicians especially those who were seen as hostile to women’s suffrage but eventually their acts also included throwing stones and even later setting fire or planting bombs at their homes.
These women became known as “suffragettes,” a pejorative term coined by a journalist named Charles E. Hinds, and in time the WSPU took this word as a badge of honour. Those who refused to follow the militant route and stuck to peaceful means and logic to obtain the vote became known as the “suffragists.” In an echo of the Life of Brian’s People’s Front of Judea versus Judean People’s Front, the movement was never coherent and although the goal was the same, the methods to secure it were different. Suffragists were seen as too passive and patient, but Fawcett perceptively argued that women’s suffrage would come not as an isolated incident, but as a necessary corollary to the changes already taking place. The suffragists were also accused of being too complacent and too reliant on reason as well as lacking in passion and urgency – this was what was used by the Pankhursts and the suffragettes to rally women to their cause.
The suffragists did support the WSPU in the early years due to the view that the suffragettes were helping the cause through their “pluck and determination” (in the words of Lady Knightley, a suffragist). Many in the NUWSS believed that the actions of the suffragettes were making people sit up and take notice in a way that more peaceful campaigns had failed to do, and many suffragists lent their support to the demand by the suffragettes to be treated like political prisoners.
Even the rank and file would often disagree with the leadership over politics as much as tactics and within the suffragette movement, there were varying methods of participation. Many of the suffragettes attended meetings, marched peacefully, sold and distributed literature or raised funds. Pugh observed that “[a]s a result militancy tended to be concentrated in London and a few regional capitals; it was not necessarily a central part of WSPU activity and the dramatic events that captured the headlines were largely the work of itinerant activists who travelled out to the provinces when a visit by a leading politician offered a suitable target.” In the regions as well, there was greater cooperation between the suffragettes and suffragists for the reasons above.
However, it was militancy that was gaining the headlines and increasingly even within the WSPU there were those who recoiled from the actions of their fellow members such as Emily Davison (whose fanaticism even the WSPU leadership found hard to swallow). Many of these suffragettes questioned the autocratic views of the Pankhursts and believed that militancy had lost its way and was damaging to the cause. Jill Liddington in her book One Hand Tied Behind Us noted that:
“The WSPU operation became more and more military in character, with Christabel issuing orders for her troops to carry out. No dissent could be tolerated…..[m]ilitancy coupled with the attendant newspaper publicity, had begun as an inspired idea in Christabel’s head in 1905. But it seemed to carry with it the seeds of its own destruction: each act had to be more violent than the previous one in order to hold public attention; and violence only attracted public interest, never mass support. In the end the WSPU resorted to arson……as the WSPU membership was reduced down to an elite corps, so its politics correspondingly narrowed.” (p. 210)
A group of suffragettes led by Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) became so disillusioned with the WSPU’s lack of democracy and increasing militancy that they broke away and formed the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WFL could be described as a halfway house between the NUWSS and the WSPU; they did engage in stunts such as chaining themselves to railings as they attempted to present petitions and through caravan trips to spread the message of Votes for Women, but their militancy was channeled into much more peaceful means through civil disobedience and passive resistance.
The WFL did this through means such as refusal to pay tax. A woman called Dora Montefiore refused to pay her tax in 1906 on the grounds that if she didn’t have the right to vote then she shouldn’t be subjected to taxation. Bailiffs were sent to her home to confiscate her property, so Montefiore barricaded her home for a few days and survived with the help of sympathetic neighbours and tradesmen who smuggled in supplies until the bailiffs broke through and carted off objects that could be sold to meet her unpaid tax bill. Being wealthy, she managed to buy them back but the “Siege of Montefiore” as it became known became useful as a propaganda tool. It demonstrated the contradiction that women were expected to submit to taxation of their income without having any say through the vote on how that tax money should be spent.
Montefiore’s act of defiance generated publicity and the WFL saw another opportunity with the upcoming census which was to take place in 1911. Due to the government’s programme of social welfare, they were pinning their hopes on the census delivering the information that would assist in crafting legislation that would see through reforms such as in housing, health, education and economy. After the issue of women’s suffrage had been yet again omitted at the King’s Speech in 1910, the WFL decided to call for a boycott of the census. Their aim was in Liddington’s words “not a violent confrontation…..but a peaceful civil disobedience to challenge the very meaning of citizenship. What did it mean in an otherwise supposedly mature democracy like Edwardian Britain, to be a grown woman, yet to be treated politically like a child, a criminal or a lunatic?”
Failure to participate in the census resulted in a fine and many of those who took part in the boycott either spent the day in shelters organised by the WFL and those who supported the boycott. Others defaced their forms, for instance an Ethel Smyth from Woking wrote in her form “no vote, no census” while a Mary Hare from Hove scrawled “women don’t count therefore will not be counted.” However it is difficult to gauge if the boycott was successful or not; the NUWSS and other women’s groups such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild objected to the boycott as they believed that the data collected from the census could be used to assist reforms that could benefit the public and especially women. The census takers did manage to collect the data of some of the women who participated in the boycott through enquiries to neighbours and well- meaning family and friends. Crucially, the government declined to prosecute those who refused to take part in the census or defaced their forms. Already facing criticisms over the force feeding of suffragettes in prison, the authorities did not want to make martyrs out of the refuseniks.
As mentioned earlier, not all men had the vote and several women’s suffrage activists had been campaigning since the late 1860s to remove the male gender bar. By 1900, 61% of men were disenfranchised and they were barred due to not owning or occupying property of a certain minimum amount. The rise of the Labour movement resulted into greater calls for full adult suffrage but many of them stopped short of calling for the same right to be extended to women. Equally many suffragists and suffragettes also opposed full adult suffrage, preferring to keep the status quo of property ownership or occupation as the qualification.
The question was what was more important – adult suffrage or women’s suffrage? Many suffragists argued that women’s suffrage was much more important; a woman can never be a man so for as long as the vote excluded women, they could not change their circumstances in order to obtain the vote under the present system. However men could in theory reach the minimum qualification in order to obtain the right to vote. Those who were in favour of universal suffrage were called “adultists” and in the early 1900s, the People’s Suffrage Federation was established with the aim of obtaining “full adult suffrage regardless of sex on a three month resident qualification.” It sought to unite women’s suffragists and adultists by ensuring the enfranchisement of women was included in any calls for further amendments to the existing Reform Acts. They also believed that full adult universal suffrage was integral towards a fully representative and democratic government.
But the adultists were a small group compared to those calling for women’s suffrage. As the suffragettes stepped up their campaign of militancy, the suffragists knew that they had to find a way to show that the militants were a minority and to reassert reason and logic in the bid to enfranchise women.
Martin Pugh. March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage (Oxford, 2002)
Sandra Stanley Holton. Feminism & Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain (Cambridge, 1986)
David Rubinstein. A Different World for Women: The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (London, 1991)
Millicent Garrett Fawcett. What I Remember (London, 1924)
Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (London, 1912)
Jill Liddington & Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (London, 1978)
Jill Liddington. Selina Cooper, 1864-1946: The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel (London, 1984)
Constance Rover. Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914 (London, 1967)
Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census (Manchester, 2014)
Lucinda Hawksley. March, Women, March (London, 2013)
Susie Steinbach. Women in England 1760-1914 (London, 2004)
Jane Robinson. Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women won the Vote (London, 2018)