Monday, 7 April 2008

How political parties reacted to women's suffrage: the Liberal Party

The Liberals were in government after 1906 and it was because of their unwillingness to respond positively to demands for women’s suffrage that the WSPU’s militant campaign escalated[1]. The government’s reaction to women’s suffrage campaigns was negative despite there being several sympathisers in the cabinet. Throughout the period 1903 to 1914, the suffragists never managed to convince the government that it should set aside sufficient parliamentary time to ensure the passage of a women’s suffrage bill.


General position

Most of the Liberal Party did support some form of women’s suffrage. They recognised it to be part of their historical commitment to democracy and the extension of liberty. They understood that the vote traditionally had embodied the symbol of full citizenship. Since women had the duties and responsibilities of citizens, they should also have a citizen’s rights. Fairness also dictated that women should have the vote, since the laws passed by Parliament affected women as much as men. Most importantly, the well being of the nation demanded women’s involvement in political affairs. Liberal supporters of the franchise argued that women had a distinct point of view. The national life could only be enriched by the contribution of that viewpoint to public affairs, especially on matters relating to children and home life, social problems and the civilizing of the nation. Women, these Liberal concluded, had proved their responsibility and worth in raising families and managing the home. It was there a matter of justice that they should be given the vote.

What were the attitudes of the Liberal government?

The aims of the Liberal government on the question of women’s suffrage are far from clear. Some senior politicians hoped that, by ignoring the issue, it would go away. This may explain Asquith’s refusal to meet suffragist delegations. However, there is evidence suggesting that the campaign did make some impact on the government.

  • The government was forced to make concessions, or at least the promise of concessions that raised women’s hopes – as in June 1908. That Asquith, an anti-suffragist was prepared to promise a women’s suffrage amendment, if certain conditions were met, shows that the suffrage campaign was making an impact.
  • In addition, since the WSPU’s militant campaign involved breaking the law, the government was obliged to respond or allow the rule of law to break down. Some historians, notably Martha Vicinus and Susan Kingsley Kent have suggested that the use of force against suffragette demonstrators, for example on Black Friday was excessive and included sexual harassment and that the adoption of forcible feeding had symbolic as well as practical intentions. Virtually all Liberals were offended by the actions of the militants warning the WSPU that it was alienating public opinion and thus delaying achievement of its goal. Those who were less supportive of the women’s campaign treated the behaviour of the militants as evidence that women might not be fit for the vote. Following an attack on Asquith on 23rd November 1910, the Yorkshire Evening News launched a hysterical attack on the suffragettes. It called them “maniac women”, “lunatic females” and the “shrieking sisterhood” and ended by saying, “They should be put into a home and kept there until they have learned to forget the ways of the brute and have approximated to some degree of civilisation”.
  • It can be argued that the government’s reaction was more than a simple attempt to maintain law and order. It was an attempt to ‘put women in their place’, an automatic reaction of a male dominated society that felt itself under threat.

The appointment of Henry Asquith as prime minister in April 1908 represented a setback for the suffrage movement. His predecessor, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was not unsympathetic to the cause and said that the campaigners should keep ‘pestering’ the government. In 1906, the Cabinet contained a large majority of supporters of women’s suffrage; by 1912, changes had left it evenly divided.

Positive reaction

The Liberal Party, like the other parties, was divided on the issue of women’s suffrage. However, there is good evidence showing that the women’s suffrage campaigns made an important impact in the period 1903-1914. Support for women’s suffrage was strongest among Liberal women.

  • By 1903, the Women’s Liberal Federation had passed a resolution in support of women’s suffrage. In the twenty by-elections between May 1904 and November 1905, the Federation demanded pro-suffrage pledges from Liberal candidates and refused to work for those who refused. It worked closely with the NUWSS in rallies, demonstrations and educational activities. After the 1906 election, the majority of the Executive Committee of the Federation viewed the WSPU tactics with distaste and clung to the hope that the Liberal government would honour its obligation to loyal women party workers.
  • Within two years, disappointment at the lack of progress led to several members of the Executive Committee to resign their position and share platforms with the WSPU.
  • What began as a trickle of resignations became more significant after 1912 with sixty-eight branches of the Federation collapsing between 1912 and 1914. The objective of the new Liberal Women’s Suffrage Union was to persuade the Liberal Party to adopt women’s suffrage as part of its programme and to promote this goal the Union would only support pro-suffrage candidates. With the women increasingly adopting the familiar tactics of Liberal pressure groups, it would be increasingly difficult to keep women’s suffrage as an open question. Lloyd George was warned that this policy could “lead, as surely to disruption and disaster as did the similar policy of the Unionist (Conservative) Party on Tariff Reform”.
  • Many of the women left to join the Labour Party, seeing it as a better prospect for progress on women’s suffrage. The reaction of many Liberal suffragists to the failure of the suffrage campaign to achieve its goals under a Liberal government was to leave the Liberal Party. The suffrage campaign raised their hopes and then provoked disillusion in their party.

Among the men, the National Liberal Federation overwhelmingly endorsed women’s suffrage in 1905, while the Scottish Liberal Association called on the government to introduce a suffrage bill in 1910. Among Nonconformists, there was considerable support for women’s suffrage. In 1909, the Wesleyan Methodist Conference reflected the new spirit that recognised female equality when it voted by 224 to 136 that women should be able to be elected as representatives to the Conference. The following year, nineteen District Synods endorsed the recommendation, while twelve opposed it.

Negative reaction

However, there was considerable opposition to women’s suffrage among Liberals. The main arguments put forward by Liberals (though not exclusively) were:

  • These Liberals claimed either that the majority of women did not want the vote or that such an experiment, whose results were difficult to predict, should not take place unless the nation (that is the male electorate) were properly consulted and approved.
  • A second line of argument was that each sex had its own proper sphere and politics was the sphere of men.
  • Nor, the opponents argued, was a limited extension of the franchise possible. Once the principle of women’s suffrage was admitted, there was no logical stopping point short of universal suffrage with a female majority of the electorate.

By emphasising the experimental nature of such a change, by questioning whether the community would benefit and whether the majority of women wanted it and by insisting that the nation must be consulted, these Liberal opponents of women’s suffrage were using arguments that might even lead to some Liberal supporters of suffrage to hesitate. Liberal supporters were made more hesitant by the uncertainty about the electoral effects of extending the suffrage. Conciliation Bills in 1910 and 1911 proposed giving the franchise to women on the same terms as men. Liberal constituency organisers were convinced that this would give the vote to unmarried or widowed property owners who would vote Conservative. Liberals therefore had a plausible political reason for opposing specific measures of enfranchisement without having to come out openly against the principle.


None of the three political parties completely supported women’s suffrage and divisions over the cause went across the political divide. The decision of the Labour Party in 1912 to include women’s suffrage as part of its political programme represented a long-term strategy. Arguments over the principle of women’s suffrage, combined with concerns about its impact on the political and electoral system, the activities of the militants and prevailing political concerns made it difficult for parties to support women’s suffrage unconditionally.

[1] On the Liberal party in this period see, Paul Adelman The Decline of the Liberal Party 1910-31, Longman, 1981, Chris Cook A Short History of the Liberal Party 1900-97, Macmillan, 5th ed., 1997 and G. R. Searle The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration 1886-1929, Macmillan, 1992, 2nd ed., 2001.


Anonymous said...

Very Useful!

Anonymous said...

Really clear and helpful, thank you!

Denis said...

Neither Emmeline Pankhurst nor her lunatic daughters had any interest in votes for working class women. Votes for this class became irresistible only after the First World War.

Anonymous said...

What about Sylvia Pankhurst, a pacifist and socialist who left the WSPU in 1914 to form the East London Federation of Suffragettes? She wanted universal suffrage.

kahar said...

can I use this source on this question ?

the attitudes of the different political parties to the question of Women’s Suffrage.?

Anonymous said...

Do you happen to have a source/ citation for that article in the Yorkshire Everning Post? I am struggling to find it in the British Newspaper Archives