Friday, 22 February 2008

The Women's Suffrage Movement 1865-1903: 4 1885-1903 failure?

Between the creation of the first women’s suffrage committee in 1866 and the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903, the suffragists followed a ‘constitutional’ path to reform (i.e., they acted within the commonly accepted boundaries of the law and tried to persuade parliament to agree to its demands). They believed that, if they were to be taken seriously, they had to proceed with caution. From the Pankhurst point of view, the period from the mid-1880s through to 1903 was one of failure and this perspective has coloured later accounts.

Brian Harrison[1] argues that the Reform Act 1867 and the Secret Ballot Act 1872 together set back ‘The Cause’ by relegating further electoral reform to a later date. After the initial successes of the years 1866-71, however, Harrison sees the remainder of the century as one of decline. This view is related to broader developments that occurred. The Liberal radicalism of the 1860s and 1870s gave way to a phase of Conservative dominance (1886-1905). Concern over imperial expansion and foreign threats pushed all kinds of radical causes down the political agenda. Few real gains were made in either ‘phase’. However, private members’ bills or resolutions were frequently tabled. Only in 1880 and 1898 was the House of Commons spared discussion of the women’s suffrage issue. The contemporary National Central Society for Women’s Suffrage’s own assessment of the phases of the movement seems, in this light, to be more accurate. They called 1867-72 a time of ‘general reconnoitring’, 1872-86 ‘concentrated effort’ and the period from 1886 on as one of ‘diffused activity’. What are the grounds for believing that organised suffragism went into decline?Brian Harrison shows that the income of the various suffragist groups declined rapidly in the late 1880s and remained low throughout the 1890s.  Some suffragists conceded that an important opportunity had been missed in 1884 when Gladstone pushed the Third Reform Act through parliament. He issued a strong warning to Liberal MPs against voting a women’s clause into the bill because this would encourage the Lords to reject it. The resulting enfranchising of a majority of men, many of whom were quite poor and uneducated, took the momentum out of the general issue of reform for several decades and left women rather isolated.  Soon after this, in 1886, came the great split over Irish Home Rule. This directly affected some suffragists such as Millicent Fawcett who became a Liberal Unionist. This gave an added edge to the split of the suffragist movement in 1888 over political affiliations.

The matter was, to some extent, a presentational one. At the level of achieving the parliamentary franchise the suffragists achieved nothing practical in the 1890s but this neglects the other ways in which women began to enter the political arena not merely as protectors but as active participants[2]. In several ways the 1890s proved to be a period of very advantageous changes for women, though some of these developments had indirect effects and are not easy to measure.  The introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 and the reduction of corrupt electoral spending in 1883 led in elections becoming affairs that are more orderly. This made political participation more conducive to ladies within the Liberal Federation and through the Conservative Primrose League.  Women contributed directly to this process after 1869 when parliament granted a local government vote to female ratepayers, who subsequently made up about 17.5 per cent of the local electorate. The right to vote also carried the right to stand for election to school boards, poor law boards, and after 1894, rural district and urban district councils. .

It is also important to take note of the votes cast in parliamentary divisions on women’s bills. Rubinstein has established that the suffrage movement enjoyed increased support in the 1890s: the good showing of the two suffrage Bills in 1892 and 1897; the size of the petition for enfranchisement in 1896; and the growing interest of working class women, notably in the Women’s Co-operative Guild. A significant feature of this was the shift by Conservative MPs who were no doubt sensitive to the help they were getting from women in favour of women’s suffrage. Between 1867 and 1884, a majority of Conservatives who voted had opposed women’s suffrage. Between 1884 and 1908 a majority of those voting came out in support for, at least limited suffrage. Taking the Commons as a whole there was a definite swing in favour of giving some women the vote. It must be said that many of the MPs who voted were at best lukewarm supporters. They did not expect the bills to become law because of the limited amount of parliamentary time allocated to them and nor did they regard the suffrage as a priority for the parties. A suffragist majority in the Commons had already been achieved by 1903 under the steady influence of a non-militant campaign and the demonstration women had given of their political skills.

During the 1890s, no one could have foreseen that Britain was destined to become the storm centre of the suffrage movement. Neither of the two major parties had changed their position on women’s suffrage and suffragists found themselves favoured by kind words from their political friends but received no useful assistance. What was worse was that they saw continuing defeat. Even if more MPs voted in favour of the 1892 and 1897 Bills, the suffragists still lost. The suffragist leaders tried to strike a proper balance between giving national direction and encouraging local effort. They tried to sustain the enthusiasm, of the often disappointed, stir up the apathetic, and prevent frustration from venting itself in disastrous schisms. They enjoyed mixed success across all fronts. It is a mistake to see the 1890s as one of decline.

[1] Brian Harrison ‘Women’s Suffrage at Westminster 1866-1928’, in M. Bentley and J. Stevenson (eds.) High and Low Politics in Modern Britain, Oxford, 1983 sees the 1890s as one of decline.

[2] David Rubinstein Before the Suffragettes: Women’s Emancipation in the 1890s, Brighton, 1986 takes a more positive view of their achievements.

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