Monday, 31 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: Suffragists 3 -- Radical suffragism

The development of modern understanding of the radical suffragists is the result of the publication of Jill Liddington and Jill Norris One Hand Tied Behind Us, first published in 1978 (reprinted with an extended introduction in 2000). They take the story of the suffrage movement after 1900 away from London and to the north of England, where the movement began in the 1860s[1].

What distinguished Lancashire suffragism in the 1900s were its vibrancy and the fact that many of its leaders came, not from the educated middle classes, but from working class women. They had come to suffragism through their experience of factory work and of organising working women. It is difficult to say how many women were involved in the radical suffragists’ campaign. Only the names of the most active are known and only a handful of these leading suffragists have been considered in any detail. One was Selina Cooper[2] who had gone into a local mill at the age of ten. She was the only working class woman with the confidence to stand up and to push through motions at Labour Party conferences on women’s suffrage and had been actively involved in the labour movement in southeast Lancashire by the 1890s. Another textile worker, Helen Silcock, carried the women’s suffrage campaign into the male-dominated TUC at the turn of the century. While Selina Cooper and Helen Silcock were championing women’s suffrage at a national level, other radical suffragists concentrated their efforts on building up a local base. As the campaign gathered momentum, it drew in other women into the labour movement. Outstanding among these was Ada Nield Chew[3], who started work as a low-paid tailoress in Crewe.

What brought women like these, with their wide experience in trade union and labour politics, into the women’s suffrage movement? Why was the vote so important? The radical suffragists wanted more than the possession of the vote as a symbol of equality. They wanted it to improve conditions for women like themselves. The radical suffragists rejected the aim of the NUWSS that asked only for the vote ‘as it is, or may be, accorded to men’ -- that is, a property-based vote. Many working class men could meet this qualification but few women could claim to own property in their own right. The radical suffragists wanted the vote not just for the wealthy few but also for women like themselves. They formulated a demand for ‘womanhood suffrage’ to include all women over the age of twenty-one. This was a call for votes for all adults but with a stress on the claims of women.

The rejection of middle class suffrage groups only occurred gradually. The radical suffragists were initially drawn together by Esther Roper, who became secretary of the local suffrage society in 1893. By 1900 she, and her friend Eva Gore-Booth, deliberately pursued a policy of taking suffrage ideas out of the drawing room and into the cotton towns of Lancashire. The result was a rapid expansion of the movement and a gradual take-over by enthusiastic and experiences working class women. As the campaign expanded, tensions between the old-fashioned suffrage ladies and the labour activists grew. The result, in 1903, was the formation of the first organisation of working women for the vote: the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee. It argued that ‘political enfranchisement must precede industrial emancipation’, the lack of political power weakened their bargaining position.

The radical suffragists continued their attack on the complacent attitude to women’s suffrage adopted by many politicians. Friends in the labour movement were quick to recognise their potential strength but it was even difficult for radical suffragists like Selina Cooper to work through the Labour Party. Women’s suffrage had been a largely middle class demand and to many of the trade union and socialist men who made up the bulk of the Party’s support, feminism was simply another name for increasing the privileges of propertied women. The radical suffragists tried to build a wider movement. Their grass roots campaign sought to get official backing of local trade councils and trade unions and their contacts with sympathetic women’s organisations, especially the local Women’s Co-operative Guild branches. They retained links with the old established North of England Society, valuing its ties with the NUWSS. They also worked with the WSPU in its early years in Manchester.

Initially the WSPU and the radical suffragists co-existed. However, by 1906-7, when the Pankhursts moved to London, differences between the two groups were apparent. The radical suffragists continued to work closely with local labour organisations, while the Pankhursts soon dropped their working class support in favour of influential allies among upper and middle class women. Their tactics also diverged. The radical suffragists had opted for building support at local level while the Pankhursts increasingly relied on sensational actions by London-based militants to catch the headlines. Selina Cooper was horrified when the Pankhursts eventually resorted to arson. The radical suffragists also disagreed with the Pankhursts’ aims. They did not accept that the vote was an end in itself. Selina Cooper summed up their position when she told an open-air meeting in Wigan in early 1906, “[Women] do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with the men. They want to use it for the same purpose as men -- to get better conditions.... Every woman in England is longing for her political freedom in order to make the lot of the worker pleasanter and to bring about reforms, which are wanted. We do not want it as a mere plaything.”


[1] In many respects, the notion of radical suffragism used by Liddington and Norris is a geographically narrow one since their book focuses on the suffragism of Lancashire. In practice, many historians today take a broader view of the concept.

[2] Jill Liddington The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel: Selina Cooper 1864-1946, Virago, 1984 shows what can be done.

[3] Ada Neild Chew Ada Neild Chew: the Life and Writings of a Working Woman, Virago, 1982.

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