Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Women's Suffrage Movement 1865-1903: 2 The 1870s and the Third Reform Act

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[1], 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.

The dilemma facing suffragists was that women had to rely on Parliament to pass legislation giving women the vote. There was no sign of the government proposing legislation in the 1870s and the suffragist tactic of encouraging private members’ bills was unlikely to succeed. The suffragists needed a government or party-sponsored bill or majority support for an amendment to the general franchise reform bill. It was only in 1880, with the election of a Liberal government that this became a realistic option.  There was a widespread belief among suffragists that the Liberals would support reform. There had been a large majority for further constitutional reform that included votes for women at the Liberal party conference. During the debate in the Commons over the third Reform Bill in 1884, an amendment was included proposing women should have the vote on an equal basis to men (William Woodall’s equal franchise amendment). The amendment was defeated when the Prime Minister, William Gladstone made it clear that he did not support it. There were three main strands to Gladstone’s opposition. First, he was opposed to women’s suffrage in principle though it was not until 1892 that he openly admitted this. Secondly, he was concerned that the bill as a whole would be defeated in the House of Lords if such a controversial clause were included. Thirdly, he feared that, if women were given the vote most would vote Conservative reducing Liberal chances of forming future governments.  Arguably, the suffragists were too optimistic in 1884. They had not made sufficient headway in converting Liberals to their cause for Gladstone to be able to include them in legislation. Despite this, suffragists in 1912 were still claiming that Gladstone had “thrown overboard” the women to make the passage of the reform bill easier in 1884. In reality, Brian Harrison argues, “the women had never even embarked”. Historians agree that failure to achieve the vote in 1884 was a serious setback for the suffragist movement and it led to a period of division within the movement over tactics, principles and leadership and possibly to a period of decline.

The NSWS adopted a strictly non-party line in 1872. It did this on the assumption that support could be built up in both the major parties. Despite this, the Liberals who pioneered the concept of women’s suffrage and the writings of John Stuart Mill, Jacob Bright and Henry and Millicent Fawcett established a firm intellectual basis for the cause. The extension of the vote conformed to progressive Liberal principles and was probably favoured by a majority of the party’s main office holders. In each of the fifteen women’s suffrage votes between 1867 and 1886, Liberals and radicals accounted for more than two-thirds of the votes in favour of legislation. This explains the optimism when the Liberals took power in 1880, though the Liberal leadership was far less sympathetic to the case of women’s suffrage than backbench MPs and party workers. It was not simply a case of ‘anti-feminism’ but a reflection of the range of issues that the party grappled with while in government between 1868 and 1874 and 1880 to 1885. Since women were not defined as a politically important group and had no political power, women’s suffrage was not included in official Liberal Party aims. Once the Liberal Party slit in 1886 over Ireland, there was little chance of it being distracted from that by the women’s issue. On the other hand, the Liberals allowed single women to vote in local government elections in 1869 and to join School Boards after 1870. This allowed them to participate in the public domain and, as a result, encouraged attitudes towards them to change.  The position of the Conservative Party was almost the reverse. At first, in general terms, leading Conservatives tended to be more favourable to the idea that some women should be given the vote than their backbenchers. This changed, to some degree after the third Reform Act was passed. Whereas from 1867 to 1884, a majority of Conservatives opposed women’s suffrage, between 1885 and 1908 a majority of those voting came out in favour. One reason for this was the calculation that women, especially from the middle class would be likely to vote Conservative. However, the Conservative leaders did little to put this into effect when in government. There was a Conservative government in power from 1886 to 1905, except for a brief period of Liberal rule from 1892 to 1895, when in practice, the Conservatives held the balance of power.


[1] 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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