Saturday, 23 February 2008

The Women's Suffrage Movement 1865-1903: The 1890s decline or not? Some sources

Source 1

Brian Harrison ‘Women’s Suffrage at Westminster 1866-1928’, in M. Bentley and John Stevenson (eds.) High and Low Politics in Modern Britain, Oxford, 1983, pages 87, 92-93

The growth-pattern of feminist organisations shows that, after initial success between 1866 and 1871, a long period of decline sets in; this is slow at first, but rapid after the major setback of Gladstone’s Reform Bill [1884]. Revival begins about 1900 and peaks between 1910 and 1913.... Distance from Westminster entailed distance from the political parties, which originated and were directed from there. Contempt for party loyalties was widespread among later Victorian reforming movements, but historical parallels were misleading. In early Victorian conditions, the campaigns against slavery and the Corn Laws might prevail over party, but after the 1860s -- when political parties adapted themselves to cater for an expanded electorate -- this was diminishingly possible. Yet suffragists continued to assume that it was the reforming movement, not the political party, which embodied democratic principles. A non-party outlook was continuously peddled in the Women’ Suffrage Journal of the 1870s and 1880s and remained with Mrs Fawcett to the end.... Their non-party outlook led suffragists naturally on to the private member’s bill as a political device and to the pledging of MPs from all parties to support it. Yet this was less appropriate in a House of Commons whose mounting pressure of business made it necessary to entrust governments with control over its timetable...By the 1880s the shrewder suffragists perceived the drawback of this non-party approach, yet suffragists remained wedded to it.

Source 2

David Rubinstein A Different World for Women. The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Harvester, 1991, pages 131, 137

In the mid-1880s, the outlook for women’s suffrage was bleak. It became even dimmer as the years passed, partly because of quarrels within the ranks of suffragists, but chiefly as the nature and extent of male opposition became clearer.... Nevertheless the suffrage movement between 1884 and the first years of the new century was full of incident and deserves a better press than it has received at the hands of those primarily interested in an earlier or later period.... The years between 1884 and 1905 formed a period when suffragists kept their flag flying under difficult conditions. The movement remained active, its supporters (though not its income) buoyant and its structure flexible. Its gradual reunification [in 1897] and the second reading triumph of the Begg bill [also 1897] showed that it remained a force to be reckoned with, though not one to which ambitious politicians devoted much attention. It had, however, reached the limit of what could be achieved by meetings, petitions and private members’ bills. New forms of activity were required and were to be introduced by both the new militant suffragists and the moderates...

Source 3

Christine Bolt The Women’s Movement, Harvester, 1993, pages 184-5.

.... That the suffrage movement enjoyed increased support in the 1890s, as indicated by the good showing of the two suffrage bills; the size of the petition for enfranchisement produced in 1896; and the growing interests of working-class women, notably in the Women’s Co-operative Guild. Moreover, women’s capacity in political affairs, first shown modestly, in family or community activities, but now formally demonstrated by the efforts of the Women’s Liberal Federation and the Primrose League during the three general elections held between 1892 and 1900, may have impressed the general public. Thought it brought them no direct political reward, it was certainly put to good use once the suffrage campaign moved up a gear from the end of the century. Women’s involvement in local government also continued to provide them with a political education and confidence-boosting experience...At this level of politics, the major gain of the 1890s was the 1894 Local Government Act, pressed for by women’s groups.... advances in local government had come increasingly to be regarded as a means of furthering the campaign for the parliamentary vote.

Source 4

Martin Pugh Votes for Women in Britain 1867-1928, The Historical Association, 1994, pages 19-20

Traditionally, perceptions have been dominated by the Pankhursts. Their view -- essentially propagandist it should be remembered -- held that militancy became a necessity in the early 1900s because decades of campaigning by the non-militants had been a failure...There are some grounds for believing that organised suffragism went into decline. Brian Harrison has shown that the income of the various groups dwindled from the late 1880s and remained low during the 1890s. Some suffragists conceded that an important opportunity had been lost in 1884 when Gladstone pushed the Third Reform Act through parliament.... This took much of the momentum out of the general issue of reform for several decades and left women somewhat isolated.... While this underlines the difficulties faced by the cause, however, it does not prove that the suffragists were not making progress. As so often, much depends upon the criteria one uses. In several ways the 1890s proved to be a period of very advantageous change for women, though some of the developments had an indirect effect and are not easy to measure...

Source 5

Jane Lewis (ed.) Before the Vote was Won. Arguments for and against Women’s Suffrage 1864-1896, Routledge, 1987, pages 7-10

The early suffragists unhesitatingly believed that middle class women needed the vote to give greater scope to their talents and working class women needed its protection. Thus they argued that the vote would enable middle class women both to broaden the range of occupations open to them and allow them to help frame laws that affected the poor, whom it was their bounden duty to visit and care for.... Inevitably both political parties feared that women would vote for their opponents if enfranchised, although the prevalence of the view that women would prove a conservative force made some Conservative MPs look more favourably on their cause for a brief period before the 1884 Reform Act. However, after 1884, the Conservative Party enjoyed two decades of almost unbroken rule and had little reason to consider the enfranchisement of women as a counter-weight to the votes of working class men. Broadly speaking, while the leaders of the Conservative Party expressed some sympathy with the feminist cause and the rank and file were implacably opposed, the reverse was true of the Liberal Party.... It was very difficult for feminists to attack the concept of separate spheres supported as it was by Victorian science, and impossible for them to question the importance attached to the traditional role of wife and mother. They usually contented themselves with acknowledging that there were natural differences between men and women, but in denying that this rendered women necessarily inferior...Millicent Fawcett argued strongly that women needed a greater say in the nation’s affairs as mothers.... But while MPs were prepared to acknowledge that women could play a role locally, for example, as Poor Law guardians inspecting the conditions of children in workhouses, they denied their capacity to judge matters concerning diplomacy or empire. Women’s role in local government could be viewed as an extension of their domestic role, but affairs of state were firmly located on the other side of the private/public divide. Thus men defended their public space in the polling booth and in the House of Commons.... the suffragists’ lobbying tactics suffered a severe defeat when the 1884 Franchise Reform Act failed to include women and by the 1890s the movement was running out of steam and was facing a much better organised opposition, which included a well-publicised group of women ‘antis’, organised by Mrs Humphrey Ward, a popular novelist. The part played by the militant suffragettes in achieving the vote is a source of historical controversy, but, notwithstanding the importance of its contribution, there is no doubt but that the early campaigners badly needed new impetus by the turn of the century.

Source 6

Ray Strachey The Cause. A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain, Virago, 1988, first published 1928, pages 283-4

During these years between the passing of the Reform Bill and the close of the century, it became apparent, bit by bit, that the effort to win the suffrage through the Liberal Party alone was unavailing.... The fear that women would vote Conservative, which had prevailed in 1870, held sway in 1880 and 1890, and an absolute deadlock ensued.... In addition to this curious and unfortunate state of affairs, the agitation had begun to grow stale by the middle of the nineties. Its supporters, indeed, were as keen and as hard working as ever....but the enthusiasm of supporters was not enough. The agitation had been going on so long that the Press and the public were tired of hearing of it. Nothing was happening in Parliament, or anywhere else, to give the subject a news value, and the arguments were, of necessity, the same as they always had been.... winning the vote seemed in the early nineties to be farther away than ever before in the history of the agitation.

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