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. 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 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.
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:
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.
 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.