Monday, 18 February 2008

Why did women want to vote?

The 1867 Reform Act sparked off a number of claims -- some successful -- from women for registration as voters. Lily Maxwell[1], whose name had been placed accidentally on the register, voted in Manchester in November 1867. A year later Lady Scarisbrick and twenty-seven of her women tenant farmers were similarly successful: the revising barristers who scrutinised the electoral registers did not challenge their registration. In Chorlton v Lings (1868) the Court of Common Pleas decided against the women who had claimed their right to vote. From then onwards, the question of the parliamentary franchise was patiently fought through the trying channels of committees, petitions, deputation and demonstrations[2].

Following the demise of Chartism after 1848, the issue of parliamentary reform in general and of women’s suffrage in particular died away. The campaign for women’s suffrage did not re-emerge until the mid-1860s. The call for votes for women was an obvious area of feminist concern but by no means the overriding one. It was also one of the areas of least success for the movement, at least in the short term. The constant denial of the franchise to women when feminist campaigns were enjoying success in many other areas sets it apart not as their dominant concern but as the demand that men were not willing to concede[3]. Feminists approached the demand for the vote with a broad range of reasoning[4].  Their specifically political arguments centred on the issues of equality and representation. Their ethical arguments ranged from a simple declaration of justice to a belief in woman’s moral superiority and fitness. Suffragists[5] recognised the force of contemporary opinion that held that potential voters should be demonstrably fit to exercise the franchise freely and intelligently, particularly when presenting the case to Parliament.  The view of women in the various suffrage organisations -- and it was an issue that spawned a large number of societies -- differed considerably. On this, more than any other issue, profound political disagreements emerged within the feminist world.

Gaining the vote pointed to possible alliances with existing political parties and some disagreement arose from this. Feminist societies throughout the period always maintained some distance from adherence to mainstream politics, whether Liberal or Conservative, and criticised both for their entrenched attitudes to women. A growing number of Conservatives began to support women’s suffrage, usually because of votes for propertied women. The Conservative argument placed less emphasis on rights and more on the duties of the citizen to the state. Nor was this emphasis confined to the right wing. It was increasingly a feature of both Liberal and Labour suffragism and the propaganda of women themselves. Many feminists did profess political beliefs that coloured their feminist leanings, but for the most part women of vastly differing political opinions worked together. The various grounds on which women claimed their right to the parliamentary vote represented the entire spectrum of political opinion and reflected contradictions between the reality of women’s powerlessness and the political philosophies current at the time.

1. For many women, this understanding led them to a surprisingly uncritical acceptance of the property terms of the Victorian male franchise. They argued that the acceptance of a restricted franchise was a matter of expediency rather than of principle[6].

2. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) from 1897 recognised existing social and political conditions more than an unyielding feminist principle. She argued that voting was a right granted only to those whose proof of good citizenship (‘fitness to vote’) could be weighed by the contents of their purse or the amount of their property. This was no more than equality with men, within the existing arrangements. Fawcett was not concerned with the merits or otherwise of the system, but more with its lack of logic: if propertied men could vote, why not propertied women?

3. Feminists who accepted this position were asserting their rights as a female propertied class as distinct from their gender rights. Conservative women, in particular, focused on the contrast between the exclusion of middle class women and the gradual extension of voting rights to working class men.

4. Feminists of all political views were unhappy with the performance of successive governments, not merely about women’s questions but in their attitude to a host of social and economic problems. Their analysis of those inadequacies rested on the unbalanced nature of representation that denied the vote to outsiders -- women and the propertyless poor. The moral argument that women’s representation would force parliamentary consideration of matters hitherto neglected was as common a rationale as the broader moral reasoning based on a simple notion of equal justice. Not only was an unrepresentative government ‘despotic’ but also it would inevitably ignore the problems of the unrepresented.

5. Independence and self-development also featured in their arguments. Political participation would release women’s potential to the full.

The grounds on which women from different feminist organisations demanded the vote did not differ radically. Their arguments tended to cluster round these considerations; their clashes occurred far more commonly over tactics, over means rather than ends. All the suffrage bodies founded during the period before the Suffragettes used similar methods of persuasion but differed in how extensive a franchise they were prepared to ask for in the first instance.


[1] Jane Rendall ‘Who was Lily Maxwell? Women’s suffrage and Manchester politics 1866-67’, in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000 pages 57-83.

[2] Martin Pugh Votes for Women in Britain 1867-1928, London, 1994 is a convenient and short introduction to the subject taking account of recent research. Constance Rover Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914, London, 1967 is still probably the best account even though some of its interpretation is now questionable.

[3] Susan Kingsley Kent Sex and Suffrage in Britain 1860-1914, London, 1990 and Jill Liddington and Jill Norris One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, London, 1978, revised edition, 2000 provide excellent and contrasting studies of the issue before the Suffragettes.

[4] Christine Bolt ‘The ideas of British suffragism’ in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000 pages 34-57.

[5] It is important to be clear about the meaning of ‘suffragist’ and ‘suffragette’ from the outset. Suffragists supported votes for women and used non-militant tactics to attempt to achieve this from 1866 to 1918. Suffragettes were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, formed in 1903, who also wanted votes for women but, from 1905-6 were prepared to use more militant or direct action to pressurise government into conceding their demands.

[6] A similar view was expressed in the 1830s and 1840s by some radicals who saw the development of male household suffrage as a first step towards universal manhood suffrage. It too led to considerable disagreement within radicalism.

No comments: