Thursday, 21 February 2008

The Women's Suffrage Movement 1865-1903: 3 From 1885 to 1903

The Liberal Party was split in 1885-6. This took place after Gladstone’s ‘conversion’ to Irish Home Rule[1]. A group of Liberals – the so-called ‘Liberal Unionists’ – left the party and sat as an independent group in the House of Commons. This split also produced divisions within the suffrage movement.  While most Liberal women supported Gladstone, others such as Millicent Fawcett opposed Home Rule and became Liberal Unionists. These divisions were intensified in 1888 when a group of Liberal women on the central committee of the NSWS attempted to change the way in which the organisation was structured. Until 1888, the NSWS had followed a strictly non-party policy. In 1888, however, it was proposed that: the NSWS executive committee should have the power to make decisions that were binding on local societies; and, the number of delegates that societies affiliated to the NSWS could send to the central committee should be determined by the number of members in the local society. However, it was the third proposal that any society including women’s suffrage as one of its aims should be able to affiliate to the NSWS that proved the most controversial. This proposal would end the non-party basis of the organisation and because of this Millicent Fawcett and Lydia Becker opposed it. They argued that there were only eight independent suffrage societies, but between two and three hundred women’s political organisations. If a significant number of these were to join the central committee of the NSWS, the provincial societies would be outnumbered. They also argued that as the Primrose League was prohibited from outside affiliation, the organisations joining the NSWS would be Liberal or Liberal Unionist. This would effectively end the non-party stance and result in Liberal domination of the movement.

The older generation of feminists, irrespective of their political views, was hostile to this suggestion and formed a breakaway organisation, the Great College Street Society (officially the Central Committee of the NSWS). Liberals like Fawcett and Biggs sided with Conservatives Cobbe and Boucherett but they represented a minority view. The majority became the Parliament Street Society (officially the Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage) that accepted the new rules. The Parliament Street Society attracted the bulk of existing members and became the main body. The split in 1888 was not just over new rules, but also over whether the organisation should support bills that excluded married women from voting. While the Great College Street Society was prepared to accept such legislation, the Parliament Street Society remained divided in the issue.  The Parliament Street Society’s stance on this issue led to a further split in 1889. In July 1889, a third group was set up: the Women’s Franchise League (WFL)[2]. The WFL argued that, because the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 gave married women ownership of their property, they should be included in any legislation giving women the vote. Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy[3] was one of the founders of the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. She was replaced by Ursula Bright and Emmeline Pankhurst in 1892 founding the Women’s Emancipation Union (WEU). This group campaigned to improve the position of married women and, in particular, launched a campaign against rape within marriage. Elmy had been a prominent figure in both the married women’s property and Contagious Diseases Act agitation and had been involved in suffrage campaigning since 1866[4]. Her radicalism had not made her popular among the more conservative elements within feminism.

The splintering of the movement in the late 1880s did not increase the suffragists’ chances of success. However, these divisions should not be exaggerated. This view is confirmed by cooperation between the two main groups. This occurred in the build-up to the 1894 Local Government Act. The 1894 Act was a significant advance for married women and it removed a source of division between suffrage societies. The way was now clear for suffragists to work together for a measure on which all societies could now agree – equal voting rights for women, whether single or married.  The question of women’s suffrage languished as a parliamentary issue after 1885, compared to the interest shown in the Commons in the 1870s and early 1880s. Although women’s suffrage bills were introduced on nine occasions in the Commons, and twice in the Lords, from 1885 to 1897, few of these measures made any parliamentary progress, and all of them failed. There was no motion for women’s suffrage in the Commons between 1898 and 1903 though resolutions were tabled in 1899, 1900 and 1900 but were not taken for debate.

After 1894, suffragists from all groups began to gather a petition in support of the vote. To coordinate this, a special committee was set up that included representatives from the Parliament Street Society, the Great College Street Society, the Primrose League, the Women’s Liberal Unionist Federation and the Women’s Franchise League. A conference of all women’s suffrage societies was then called in Birmingham in 1896. The organisation set up after the conference was similar to that which had existed before 1888 with a more systematic effort to cover all parts of the country largely because of its members’ involvement with local political party organisations. Each society was to cover a specific area. Paid organisers were to operate in small towns and villages without sufficient voluntary members, but larger towns and cities would be worked through large meetings. Speakers at the Birmingham Conference argued that the ‘political difficulty’ within the movement should not divide it since women’s suffrage was a non-party issue. Political associations were to remain affiliated to the movement but were not to be part of its regional organisation.

The petition, containing over 250,000 signatures was presented to Parliament in 1897. It was presented in support of the Women’s Suffrage Bill that was introduced by Ferdinand Faithfull Begg, a Conservative MP for a Glasgow seat. This Bill passed its second reading with a majority of 71; the first bill to do so since 1870 though, like other private members’ bills did not become law. This success was the catalyst for the formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)[5]. The two London societies became one central society with eighteen provincial ones and adopted a regular democratic constitution. Between 1897 and 1903, the NUWSS coordinated the campaign for women’s suffrage and it remained the focus of the constitutionalist approach after 1903. Millicent Fawcett continued to promote the non-party approach and she urged women in all parties to work for MPs or candidates who supported women’s suffrage and to refuse to work for those who did not (a strategy she had originally devised in 1892). Because of the formation of the NUWSS, many new local and regional societies were formed. There were continuities, especially in personnel between the nineteenth century movement and the twentieth century constitutional suffrage movement but the NUWSS owed much to the organisational structures of the major political parties.

The non-militant suffragists consistently relied on the methods of Victorian pressure groups: they sent platform speakers into the provinces; extended their network of branches; printed quantities of pamphlets; organised petitions and cultivated sympathetic MPs. The result of this was reliance upon backbench MPs being prepared to sponsor franchise bills and, as a result, women’s suffrage debates became virtually an annual feature during the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. This approach was much criticised by Edwardian suffragettes who argued that on such major topics as the franchise nothing less than a government bill stood any chance of passing. This emphasis on Parliament agreeing to legislation created several problems for the suffragists.  One problem involved the detail of their bill. Existing legislation left many men without the vote even after 1884 when the householder and lodger franchise was extended to the counties. About four in ten men failed to get on to the registers. Because of this, suffragists regarded it as unrealistic to attempt to enfranchise all women at once. Parliament would inevitably go for a step-by-step approach as it had done with men. A modest measure could be seen as an experiment that would not alarm male politicians. This rationale was accepted not only by constitutional suffragists but also by the Edwardian militants.

This raised the troublesome question: which women should get the vote? Most of the legislation introduced before 1914 was based on the equal-with-men formula in the hope that it would be uncontentious. In practice, this meant giving the vote to women who were householders or occupiers of property on which they paid rates. This effectively excluded married women whose right to vote in municipal elections was tested and rejected in Regina v Harrald in 1872. Most bills would therefore have enfranchised little more than a million spinsters and widows. This was a deeply flawed strategy making the suffragists appear much less democratic than they were in practice. What is more important, it ran up against politicians’ prejudice in favour of married women. Single women were suspected of having radical aims and objectives. This argument dogged the whole debate up to 1914 and when women finally did get the vote in 1918, married women were included. Arguably, the suffragists would probably have done better to make common cause with all unenfranchised men and women from the start and this might have extended their appeal.

The suffragist movement deliberately took a non-party approach. This seemed a sensible tactic because until 1912 no party adopted a policy on women’s suffrage. It also suited those feminists who were disenchanted with party politics in general. Despite this party politics proved to be a divisive force within the movement. The 1888 split developed when some branches of the new Women’s Liberal Federation tried to affiliate to the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Since the Liberal women suffragists were, at that stage, more numerous than their Conservative counterparts, affiliation was though by some to detract from the movement’s claim to non-party status. As a result, the suffragist organisation split in two and by 1893 some 63 Women’s Liberal Association branches had affiliated to the CCNSWS. This caused internal feuding and effectively diverted some of the energy of the suffragists away from their main cause.

The suffragist movement was not closer to achieving the vote in 1903 than it had been in 1885. Among the obstacles to progress was the argument that the main legal injustices towards women were now being corrected by parliamentary action, and the persistent view that women’s attributes did not include adequate powers of judgement for giving the vote. A further obstacle was the division of opinion within the movement as to whether the vote should be claimed by all adult women or only by single women. Lydia Becker (who died in 1890) and Millicent Fawcett held that the vote should only be claimed by single women. However, in 1889 the avant-garde Women’s Franchise League was formed to urge that all women, married as well as single, should be enfranchised. Finally, the situation in Parliament held out little hope for women’s suffrage as both major parties were divided on the subject. In the 1890s, there is some evidence suggesting signs of hope, on a minor scale, from both political parties. The Liberal ministry (1892-95) allowed women to become members of parish, rural district and urban district councils in 1894. However, allowing women to be elected members of borough and county councils did not occur until 1907, after six previous bills on the subject had failed since 1899. Concerning women voting in parliamentary elections, Liberal support seemed to have weakened in the 1890s while Conservative backing (for restricted women’s suffrage) seemed to be growing. The annual conferences of the Nation Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations carried several resolutions for limited women’s suffrage in the late 1880s and early 1890s.  The suffrage movement before 1903, and to a certain extent after it, was the concern of women from secure backgrounds who were fighting for a right that centrally defined respectability and responsibility. This lack of radicalism is evidence of the pervasive liberalism of the nineteenth century women’s movement. The consensus that feminist organisations should avoid party affiliations was an important principle. It did not make them apolitical but did distance them from partisan party politics. Yet, on issues such as suffrage or other measures that involved changing the law, women had no choice but to seek redress through the obvious political routes and through Parliament.


[1] Gladstone had been trying to resolve the problem of how Ireland should be governed since 1868. His decision to move towards Home Rule (what we would today call devolution) was unpopular with the Protestant minority in the north of the country.

[2] Sandra Stanley Holton ‘Now you see it, now you don’t: the Women’s Franchise League and its place in contending narratives of the women’s suffrage movement’ in Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (eds.) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New feminist perspectives, Manchester, 1998, pages 15-36.

[3] Sandra Stanley Holton Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Routledge, 1996, pages 7-26 provides a useful introduction to Elizabeth Wolstenholme and the early suffrage movement.

[4] She had collected signatures for the 1866 petition and had been a founder member of the Manchester Suffrage Committee.

[5] Lesley Parker Hume The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies 1897-1914, New York, 1982 is the standard work on this subject though some recent research has extended the scope of her study.

No comments: