Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Women's Suffrage Movement 1865-1903: 1

The broad chronology of women’s suffrage groups is as follows up to 1903:




'Kensington’ Committee London to gather signatures for petition
1866 Women’s Suffrage Provisional Committee, London


Manchester, London, and Edinburgh committees for Women’s Suffrage


Bristol, Birmingham committees for Women’s Suffrage
London National Society for Women’s Suffrage


National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS)


Women granted franchise, Isle of Man


National Central Society

Central Committee National for Women’s Suffrage

Society for Women’s Suffrage


Women’s Franchise League (WFL)


National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies
Women’s Emancipation Union

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies established (NUWSS)


The breakthrough came in 1865 when John Stuart Mill agreed to stand for Parliament on a platform that placed women’s suffrage at the top of his agenda[1]. He made it clear that he supported women’s suffrage and intended to press for it if he was elected. This was the signal for the Langham Place group to spring into action and after Mill’s election in 1865, a Ladies Discussion Group (set up by the Lanham Place group) debated the question, ‘Should women take place in public affairs?, and found that nearly all the fifty women present agreed. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon[2] then suggested that a suffrage society should be set up, but no action was taken because Emily Davies argued that such an organisation would be taken over by ‘extremists’.  The following year, when it became clear that a Reform Bill would be put before Parliament, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon approached Mill and asked him whether he would present a petition in support of female suffrage to Parliament. Mill agreed, but warned that less than a hundred signatures might do more harm than good. Bodichon then formed the first Women’s Suffrage Committee and, within a fortnight had collected 1,500 signatures. Mill presented the petition on 7th June 1866 and succeeded in getting women’s suffrage on to the parliamentary agenda.

The second Reform Bill was put before Parliament in February 1867. By then, a second suffrage committee had been set up in Manchester. The Manchester Suffrage Committee’s first secretary was Lydia Becker and she communicated closely with the London group. She wrote an article putting the case for women’s suffrage in The Spectator and wrote to Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister. During the debates over the bill, several petitions supporting women’s suffrage were presented to Parliament by sympathetic MPs (including Mill) and on 20th May, Mill proposed an amendment to substitute ‘person’ for ‘man’ in the clause dealing with property qualifications. This would actually have not enfranchised many women, as married women did not qualify as householders. This amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73 (an encouragingly large minority for female suffrage on its first parliamentary airing) and the bill, without any recognition of votes for women became law in August 1867.  By the time, the bill became law, the London committee had already split (in June) and this led to its dissolution and reformation. The split was largely ‘political’ and represented the first appearance of an internal problem that was to occur repeatedly in the course of the movement. The split concerned both party allegiance and tactics. Some suffragists were Conservative (notably Emily Davies) while others were Liberal (such as Helen Taylor, John Stuart Mill’s daughter). Emily Davies argued that Conservative support was essential and that cautious tactics should be used so as not to alarm public opinion. Others, such as Helen Taylor disagreed. As a result, the committee was dissolved and Helen Taylor invited those who shared her views to form a new committee, which was called the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. This committee immediately worked on building links with parallel groups that had emerged in Edinburgh and Manchester. This split had a lasting effect on the movement in that it left an executive that was subject to weak and often absent leadership with many formerly active women channelling their energies elsewhere. Emily Davies, for example turned her attention to higher education. It allowed the more dynamic, though politically less radical, Lydia Becker to play a major organisational role in the early years of the women’s suffrage movement.

The earliest organisations were the regional suffrage committees founded in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester in 1867. In 1870, they began publication of the Women’s Suffrage Journal, edited by Lydia Becker, who was the first secretary of the Manchester Society that rapidly became an important focus of activity. The first London committee, like that in Manchester, was of mixed membership, radical men sharing the work with feminist women. The more prominent positions were usually filled by women: the first secretary of the London committee was Louisa Smith, Millicent Fawcett’s elder sister; on her early death in 1867 she was replaced by Caroline Ashurst Biggs who was also from a prominent feminist family. In 1870, Richard Pankhurst drafted the first Women’s Suffrage Bill. It was introduced into the House of Commons as a private member’s bill[3] and passed its first and second readings (with a majority of 33)[4], but was defeated when the Prime Minister, William Gladstone made it clear that his government was opposed to it. It was the only women’s suffrage bill or resolution to obtain a favourable division until 1897.

It was in the 1870s that the women’s suffrage movement developed into a national movement. Following the defeat of the 1870 bill, the Manchester and London committees attempted to build wider support while, at the same time, lobbying MPs. They sent platform speakers into the provinces, extended their network of branches, printed quantities of pamphlets, organised petitions and cultivated sympathetic MPs. Their focus was on parliamentary lobbying, the idea being to persuade MPs to introduce private members’ bills in support of women’s suffrage. Such bills were introduced every year during the 1870s, except for 1875. Each failed on the second reading and a resolution in favour of women’s suffrage, introduced by Leonard Courtney (a radical MP) met with defeat. However, historians rightly suggest that reliance of private members’ bills was unlikely to meet with success but that this, combined with petitioning and lobbying made up the bulk of the activity of the early suffragists.  In 1872, the local groups joined into a single organisation: the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS). This was strictly a non-party organisation and it encouraged MPs of all parties to support women’s suffrage. Its Central Committee was based in London. Between 1872 and 1888, the Central Committee and the Manchester Society organised most of the parliamentary business of the movement but the local societies remained free to act as they pleased. Cooperation was achieved by the existence of a single clearly defined aim for the movement and the limitations placed on the type of tactics available to pursue this aim.

As with the London Committee in June 1867, the NSWS suffered splits in the 1870s. Historians have identified three main causes of these splits. First, the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts divided suffragists. Some worked closely with Josephine Butler, but others argued that the two movements should operate separately. Some women, among them Millicent Fawcett[5], though they favoured the stand taken by those feminists seeking the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, wished nonetheless to distance the suffrage issue, one of ‘respectability’, from the CD Act agitation with its dangerously risqué overtones. Secondly, there was some reluctance in the provinces to accept leadership from London. The London bias did not mean a take-over by London-based feminists but derived only from the need to be close to parliament. Emilie Venturi and Jane Cobden from Manchester and Laura McLaren from Edinburgh were on the central committee. It is also clear that the focus on parliamentary affairs in London never diminished the importance or strength of provincial opinion. Finally, suffragists were divided on whether or not to support legislation that gave single women the vote, but excluded married women. Despite the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, the doctrine of coverture remained in place. Some suffragists argued that, given that this was the case, it was best to campaign for votes for single women, while other argued that all women should receive the vote. In the 1874 general election, Jacob Bright, who had led the group of MPs who supported women’s suffrage, was defeated and replaced by Conservative MP, William Forsyth. When Forsyth argued that, because a Conservative government was in power, suffragists should limit their demand to votes for single women, Lydia Becker reluctantly agreed. This, however, alienated the more radical suffragists.

[1] Jane Lewis (ed.) Before the Vote was won, Routledge, 1988 provides significant materials for and against extending the franchise to the mid-1890s.

[2] Useful collections of material can be found in Candida Ann Lacey (ed.) Barbara Leigh Smith and the Langham Place Group, Routledge, 1987 on whom see also Hester Burton Barbara Bodichon 1827-1891, John Murray, 1949 and Sheila Herstein Mid-Victorian Feminist: Barbara Leigh-Smith Bodichon, Yale, 1985. Jacquie Matthews ‘Barbara Bodichon (1827-1891): Integrity in Diversity’, in Dale Spender (ed.) Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Women’s Intellectual Traditions, The Women’s Press, 1983, pages 90-123 looks at her ideas.

[3] Most proposals for legislation are introduced by the government. Private Member’s Bills are introduced into the Commons by MPs who are not members of the government. While governments sometimes support private member’s bills and provide them with the parliamentary time and backing necessary for them to succeed, they do not often do so. Most private members’ bills fail because they lack support in the Commons. If the government opposes the bill, it can put pressure on MPs to vote against it or can make sure that the bill runs out of time. On the occasions when private member’s bills proposing women’s suffrage did gain a majority in the House of Commons between 1870 and 1914, the government ensured that they did not pass into law.

[4] It is important to have some understanding of how a law is passed through Parliament. A bill is drafted and introduced into either the House of Commons or House of Lords. It then goes through four stages. The first reading is a formal stage when the bill is tabled (literally placed on the table in the house). The second reading is when the principles of the bill are debated. This is followed by the committee stage, when the details of the bill are discussed by a small group of MPs who can suggest changes or amendments. The third reading occurs when amendments are voted on and a final vote is taken on the bill as a whole. The process is then repeated in the other house. If the bill passes both houses, it receives the Royal Assent and becomes law.

[5] Barbara Caine Victorian Feminists, OUP, 1992, pages 196-238 is the most convenient biographical sketch. David Rubinstein A Different World for Women: The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, London, 1991 is the best modern biography, a decidedly revisionist study. Janet Howarth ‘Mrs Henry Fawcett (1847-1929): the widow as a problem in feminist biography’, in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000 pages 84-108 is an interesting and innovative study. Ann Oakley ‘Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Duty and Determination’, in Dale Spender (ed.) Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Women’s Intellectual Traditions, The Women’s Press, 1983, pages 184-202 looks at her ideas.

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