Tuesday, 8 April 2008

How did different social groups respond to women's suffrage?

British society was as divided over women’s suffrage as the major political parties.  Broadly, society fell into three categories. There were those who supported the call for women’s suffrage. There were those who opposed it. Finally, there was what has been called, ‘the silent majority’, those for whom women’s suffrage was not an issue often because it was not relevant to their needs.  However, women’s suffrage was a fluid issue on which people’s attitudes changed over time. The supporters and opponents of the campaign changed between 1865 and 1918. It is important to recognise this.


Social classes

Attitudes to women’s suffrage cut across social classes. They did not depend on class or, more precisely, were not necessarily determined by class. In very broad terms, within the three social classes, attitudes to women’s suffrage fell into one of three categories.

  • There were those who were in favour of women’s suffrage and may have been active in the women’s movement.
  • There were those who were opposed to women’s suffrage in relation to parliamentary elections (though not necessarily elections to local government) and who may have been active in the anti-suffragist activities.
  • There was the ‘silent majority’. This included those for whom women’s suffrage was a largely irrelevant issue or who were undecided one way or the other. This position was especially important for the working classes, especially working class women whose lives were more concerned with economic than political issues. In many respects, the Fabian women with their focus on the economics of marriage were more relevant to their interests and needs than the suffrage movement.

Brian Harrison provides evidence suggesting that there was a great deal of anti-suffragist feeling among the working class. The failure of George Lansbury to defeat an anti-suffragist Conservative candidate at the by-election in late 1912 in a largely working class constituency provides some support for this position. However, Jane Liddington and Ann Norris have shown that, in some parts of the country especially in the north-west, there is substantial evidence of pro-suffragist working class feeling.


The same point can be made about gender. There were female members of the Anti-Suffrage League and, conversely, male organisations were set up to campaign for women’s suffrage.

  • Some supporters of women’s suffrage were totally opposed to the idea that initially only certain categories of women should be given the vote. They formed the Adult Suffrage Society and its chairperson was Margaret Bondfield. Members of the organisation believed that a limited franchise would disadvantage the working class and feared that it might act as a barrier against the granting of adult suffrage. Some women, especially members of the middle class, saw limited suffrage as an important step in the struggle to win the vote. The main supporters of the organisation were women trade unionists and members of the Independent Labour Party. Members of the Adult Suffrage Society included Margaret Macmillan, Mary Macarthur, Ottoline Morrell, Emily Hobhouse, Lucy Hammond, Leonard Hobhouse, Arthur Ponsonby and Fred Jowett.
  • Although the majority of men opposed the idea of women voting in parliamentary elections, some leading male politicians supported universal suffrage. This included several leaders of the Labour Party, including James Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Philip Snowdon. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence helped to fund Votes for Women and provided bail for nearly a thousand members of the WSPU who were arrested for breaking the law. Robert Cecil, one of the main figures in the Conservative Party was also a supporter but most Conservative MPs were opposed to the idea of votes for women. Several members of the Liberal administration, such as David Lloyd George, also favoured women being given the vote.
  • The first male-only organisation, the Men’s Suffrage League for Women’s Suffrage was established in 1907 by two left-wing journalists, Henry Nevinson and Henry Brailsford and numbered among its members men from all shades of political opinion. Three years later, the Men’s Federation for Women’s Enfranchisement was established, adopting WSPU tactics. At a by-election in Wimbledon in 1907 Bertrand Russell, stood as the Suffragist candidate.

As with class, reactions to the suffrage campaigns were not necessarily determined by gender.

Trade unions

Trade unions were, in general, hostile to women’s suffrage. This occurred because of ‘pride and fear’. This was the pride of men for whom the franchise was one element of their improved status that they could not easily share. There fear was the fear of the skilled worker. Women as unskilled labour, they believed, held down wages and inhibited union agreements in an overstocked labour market. Nevertheless, in 1913, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) followed the Labour Party and made its support for any government-supported Adult Suffrage Bill dependent on the inclusion of women.

There were women trade unionists[1].  Women’s trade unions tended to have their most marked successes in recruiting in periods when male union activity was riding high. In 1832, 1500 women card-setters at Peep Green Yorkshire came out on strike for equal pay. The Lancashire cotton mill women were active in trade unions. In 1859, the North East Lancashire Amalgamated Society was formed for both men and women and in 1884 the Northern Counties Amalgamated Association of Weavers was established for male and female workers. However, the most significant development was the emergence of separate women’s unions. Thus, the Women’s Protective and Provident League (WPPL) was established in 1874 at a time when men’s unions were enjoying some success, both in membership terms and in establishing their legality. Similarly, it was in the brief period of ‘new unionism’ in the late 1880s and early 1890s when unskilled labour became politicised that the Women’s Industrial Council (WIC) and a score of women’s unions were established. The late nineteenth century saw considerable industrial action by women: the famous Bryant and May’s match-girls’ strike of 1888 but also the Dewsbury textile workers in 1875, the Aberdeen jute workers in 1884, Dundee jute workers in 1885 and Bristol confectionery workers. Women’s unions, under the inspiration of the League, campaigned for better wages and working conditions. It is a reflection of this era of separate female unions that in 1906 there were 167,000 members of all unions and that by 1914 this had risen to nearly 358,000.

The 1890s saw both a growth of women’s trade union membership and the creation of several new women’s organisations. The Women’s Trade Union Association (WTUA) was founded in 1889 by women dissatisfied with the stance of the WTUL, amongst them Clementina Black, Amie Hicks, Clara James and Florence Balgarnie. Its aims differed little from the parent body and it was to be a short-lived venture merging in 1897 with the Women’s Industrial Council then three years old.  In 1870, some 58,000 women were members of trade unions but by 1896 that has risen to 118,000, a figure representing some 7.8 per cent of all union members. Unionism was strong in the textile and especially cotton industry where women often outnumbered male operatives. Women had since the 1850s been incorporated in mixed unions.

In 1886, Clementina Black and Eleanor Marx, both became active in the Women’s Trade Union League. For the next, few years they travelled the country making speeches trying to persuade women to join trade unions and to campaign for “equal pay for equal work”. In 1889, Clementina Black helped form the Women’s Trade Union Association. Five years later, she merged this organisation with the Women’s Industrial Council. Clementina became president of the council and for the next twenty years, she was involved in collecting and publicizing information on women’s work. Most members of Women’s Industrial Council were also active in the suffrage movement. Organizations such as the NUWSS and the Women’s Freedom League worked closely with the council and other groups campaigning for better pay and conditions for women workers. By 1910, women made up almost one third of the workforce. Work was often on a part-time or temporary basis. It was argued that if women had the vote Parliament would be forced to pass legislation that would protect women workers. The Women’s Industrial Council concentrated on acquiring information about the problem and by 1914, the organisation had investigated one hundred and seventeen trades. In 1915, Clementina Black and her fellow investigators published their book Married Women’s Work. This information was then used to persuade Parliament to take action against the exploitation of women in the workplace.


Most national and regional newspapers, especially The Times were hostile to the women’s suffrage campaign especially after militant action began. On the other hand, militancy did encourage newspapers to print stories about the suffragettes, providing them with the ‘oxygen’ of publicity.  The suffrage movement produced its own newspapers: Common Cause (NUWSS), Vote (Women’s Franchise League) and Votes for Women (WSPU).

Religious groups

The WSPU condemned the Church of England because it did not speak out in favour of women’s suffrage and because its bishops in the House of Lords did not oppose the Cat and Mouse Act[2]. However, some individual clergymen did speak out in favour of the vote and a large number spoke out against forcible feeding. As might be expected, the traditional links between nonconformity and radicalism, there was greater support for women suffrage campaigns from the nonconformist churches.

Within the Anglican Church, support for the parliamentary suffrage was part of a broader campaign by Anglican women for a greater role in the governing of the Church.  There were many ardent Anglicans in suffragist ranks including Maude Royden and Louise Creighton (who helped align the National Council of Women behind women’s suffrage). Many of these women belonged to the Church League for Women’s Suffrage[3], founded in 1909 by the Revd Claude Hinscliff. Its primary aim was to secure the parliamentary vote for women on the same terms as men and to do so by non-militant means[4]. It also sought to draw out what its founder called “the deep religious significance of the women’s movement” and there were, on occasions, special services for suffragists; for example, Percy Dearmer’s at St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill in 1912. In August 1912, the CLWS had more than 3,000 members and by April 1914, this had increased to over 5,000 churchmen and women.  Archbishop Randall Davidson, who was privately a passive suffragist, had considerable difficulty in maintaining his non-committal public stance as the militant campaign intensified. Between 1908 and 1914, militants put considerable pressure on him, particularly between January and September 1914, in connection with the effects of forcible feeding. One group that took a particularly harsh line with Davidson was the Suffragist Churchwomen’s Protest Committee, whose secretary Mrs Alice Kidd, condemned the “servile attitude of the Heads of the Church towards an unjust and irresponsible government”.

[1] Barbara Drake Women in Trade Unions, London, 1921 reprinted by Virago, 1984 is the classic starting-point on this subject. See also: Norbert C. Soldon Women in British Trade Unions 1874-1976, Gill & Macmillan, 1978, Eleanor Gordon Women and the Labour Movement in Scotland 1850-1914, Oxford University Press, 1991 which focuses on the jute industry in Dundee and Judy Lown With Free and Graceful Step? Women and industrialisation in nineteenth century England, Polity, 1987. Anne Taylor Annie Besant: A biography, Oxford University Press, 1992 is now the standard work on a critical figure in the development of women’s trade union rights, birth control and women’s rights generally.

[2] Brian Heeney The Women’s Movement in the Church of England 1850-1930, Oxford University Press, 1988, especially pages 105-108 examines the part played by Anglican women in the suffrage movement.

[3] The League existed from 1909 until 1919, when it became the League of the Church Militant (LCM). The end for the LCM came in 1928 with a public announcement, “the general idea is that one major aim of the LCM – equal franchise – is achieved and that advance is made towards the other, the ordination of women”.

[4] Interestingly, given its non-partisan commitment and its belief in non-militancy, on 25th September 1913 the Standard remarked that “[since] no fewer than six members of the elected committee, including the chairman, are subscribers to the Women’s Social and Political Union, a grave doubt must arise as to the real character of this outwardly respectable society”.

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