Friday, 4 April 2008

Suffrage since 1903: Anti-Suffragism

Organised opposition to women’s suffrage has almost as long a history as women’s suffrage.  A Parliamentary Committee for Maintaining the Integrity of the Franchise was formed in 1875 after the 1875 suffrage bill failed to pass its second reading and was in action when the bill was against debated in 1876 and 1878. The backbone of the Committee was a group of Conservative MPs led by Mr E.P. Bouverie and including Lord Randolph Churchill. Some Liberal MPs became members and some peers. Little more is heard of the Committee after the 1878 bill was defeated and it is probable that it did not survive the election of a new parliament in March 1880.  In June 1889, a protest (‘An Appeal against Women’s Suffrage’) against demands for the extension of the suffrage to women was published in The Nineteenth Century. It was largely the work of Mrs Humphrey Ward and was signed by 104 prominent women (prominent because their husbands were prominent). Brian Harrison suggests that this appeal had a considerable effect on decision makers and may have persuaded William Gladstone to reveal his opposition to women’s suffrage in 1892. The appeal did not result in the creation of an organisation to fight the growing popularity of the suffragist movement. That did not happen until 1908.

The Anti-Suffrage League was set up in 1908 after an exchange of letters in The Times (that consistently opposed women’s suffrage). A number of women wrote to the newspaper expressing their concern about the growing activity of the suffragists and suffragettes, arguing that it was time for the Antis to become active in response. Mrs Humphrey Ward continued to combat the idea of women’s suffrage and was instrumental in the formation in 1908 of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. Its first meeting took place on 21st July with the Countess of Jersey in the chair. Then, in December 1908, male Antis launched their Men’s Committee for Opposing Female Suffrage. The first issue of The Anti-Suffrage Review appeared in December 1908. The objective of the movement was to resist the proposal to admit women to the Parliamentary Franchise and to Parliament but to maintain the principle of the representation of women on municipal and other bodies concerned with the domestic and social affairs of the community.  It aimed to counter the suffragist argument that a majority of people favoured women’s suffrage. There were no opinion polls in the early twentieth century and so public opinion was always difficult to gauge. The Antis argued that there was a ‘silent majority’ on their side of the argument. During 1908, they were able to produce an anti-suffrage petition containing 337,018 signatures[1]. They also paid for surveys (canvasses), the results of which were published in the Anti-Suffrage Review[2].

The Women’s Anti-Suffrage League expanded rapidly and developed a considerable number of branches throughout Britain. In December 1908, it had 2,000 members and by October 1909, around 10,000 members. By April 1910, there were 104 branches; and by April 1912, 235 branches.  The earliest achievements of the anti-suffragists were impressive. Membership of the women’s organisations doubled in the year ending July 1910. Analysis of the branch distribution shows that London and the southeast accounted for most of the anti-suffragist effort: these areas gave 42 per cent of the total between 1908 and 1914. The movement was weakest in the industrial north and there was only limited support from the Celtic fringe. The League’s regional pattern of support resembles that for Edwardian rural and suburban Conservatism and Brian Harrison argues that, despite its elitist leadership, it appealed widely to the conservative working class.

The Men’s Committee for Opposing Female Suffrage was skilled at fundraising but failed to gain popular support. It was more a collection of major public figures than a nationwide movement, for the Antis’ great strength had always been the list of great men they could parade in support. Both groups were set up to be non-party and had members from all parties even though Harrison maintains the Conservatives were the natural home of the Antis.  In July 1910, the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, under the presidency of the Earl of Cromer, is recommended by The Anti-Suffrage Review to make friends of the League. In December 1910, the two leagues were amalgamated into the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. The Countess of Jersey gave way to the presidency of the Earl of Cromer becoming deputy-president in January 1911. In April 1912, the Conservative Earl Curzon and the Liberal Lord Weardale replaced the Earl of Cromer as joint presidents. There was also a Scottish Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, which the Duchess of Montrose founded in April 1910. The anti-suffrage movement seems to have been dominated by men to a considerable degree but there were some notable women members who took the position that there was a natural division of function between the sexes rather than that women were necessarily inferior to men.

The Antis recognised that getting the vote would be an important step towards involving women in the day-to-day world of men where they might well find themselves competing on unfavourable terms and be deprived of the protection they customarily received while keeping to the separate spheres. They feared they might lose more than they gained. The social composition of the women who led the anti-suffrage movement was even more upper class than in the WSPU and NUWSS. They were women who might have privileges to lose if equality between the sexes came about. There were, however, a number of ways in which the Antis were less efficient than the suffragists.  There is little evidence of working-class women taking part in the anti-suffrage movement though there is some evidence for tacit male working class support.  The Antis found it difficult to recruit younger women.  Anti-Suffrage League meetings were drab and uncolourful and its press office was less effective than that of the WSPU.  The Antis lacked the international contacts or support that the suffragists had.  Despite this, the Antis did have most of the press on their side and this ensured they were able to communicate their message effectively. It was also very skilful at working behind the scenes in Parliament.

However, it would, be misleading to suggest that most women in the ranks of the Antis had come to a considered conclusion that it was to their advantage to keep to the traditional role of their sex. Many approached the issue from the point of view of duty rather than that of personal advantage. The more active of the Antis were themselves ‘new women’ who were prepared to argue about their role in society, speak on public platforms, write articles and campaign for the causes in which they believed. Women anti-suffragists stressed their usefulness without the national vote. They stressed their role in local government claiming that they could make a valuable and suitable contribution to the community in this and other forms of social work. This, they suggested, allowed them to realise their potential for service and self-expression. National and imperial affairs were best left to men.


Source 1: E. Belfont Bax The Fraud of Feminism, 1913, pages 161-162, 170-172, and 173-174

Feminism, or, as it is sometimes called, the emancipation of women, as we know it in the present day, may be justifiably indicted as a gigantic fraud -- a fraud in its general aim and a fraud alike in its methods of controversy and in its practical tactics...It uniformly professes to aim at the placing of the sexes on a footing of social and political quality. A very little inquiry into its concrete demands suffices to show that its aim, so far from being equality, is the very reverse -- viz. to bring about, with the aid of men themselves, as embodied in the forces of the State, a female ascendancy and a consolidation and extension of already existing female privileges.... Many of them [feminists], in the vehemence of their Anti-man crusade, look forward with relish to the opportunity they anticipate will be afforded them when women get the vote, of passing laws rigorously enforcing asceticism on men by means of severe penal enactments.... The readiness, and almost eagerness, with which certain sections of British public opinion are ready to view favourably anything urged on behalf of female suffrage, is aptly illustrated by the well-known argument we so often hear when the existence of “militancy” is pointed out as a reason for withholding the suffrage -- the argument, namely, as to the unfairness of refusing the franchise to numbers of peaceable and law-abiding women who are asking for it, because a relatively small section of women resort to criminal methods of emphasising their demand...The whole modern women’s movement is based, in a measure, at least, on an assumption which is absolutely unfounded -- to wit, that man has systematically oppressed woman in the past, that the natural tendency of evil-minded man is always to oppress women, or, to put in another way, that woman is the victim of man’s egotism.....

Source 2: Harold Owen Woman Adrift. The Menace of Suffragism, 1912, pages 138-140

The fact, then, that Suffragism has been supported by the vehemence and disorderliness of a few woman is no commendation whatever of the vote being granted as an act of grace. Their earnestness is counter-balanced by the orderly earnestness of women who do not want woman to be enfranchised.... The Anti-suffragists, on the other hand, ardently desire to place their opposition at the mercy of the real will of the nation or even the wish of the women themselves. There is, to be sure, nothing Quixotic in this desire, for they know quite well that the mass of opinion in the country is with them and that makes it all the more bewildering that we should have a Parliament, many of whose members talk glibly about Woman Suffrage becoming law during this session, a complacent prophecy that apparently assumes the House of Lords to be eager to abrogate even its suspensory vote. And the organised Anti-suffragists have done their best to secure an indication of what the women of the country think by sending out at great trouble and expense many thousands of postcards asking a plain “Yes” to one or other of the simple questions, “Do you think women should have the parliamentary vote?” and “Do you think women should not have the parliamentary vote?”.... Now these figures reveal that less than one woman in six is in favour of Woman Suffrage...positive indifference to the Suffrage claim....

Source 3: Ray Strachey The Cause, Virago, 1978, first published, 1928, pages 319-320.

The logic of their case was that women could properly be entrusted with municipal affairs, while imperial matters were outside their “sphere”; but the two doctrines did not combine very happily together. They had some trouble with their own members, particularly with the imposing array of Peers who were their vice-presidents, since these gentlemen objected just as strongly to the presence of women on borough councils as anywhere else (outside the home); and the spectacle of their troubles was a constantly recurring delight to their opponents....

Source 4: Brian Harrison Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, Croom Helm, 1978, pages 13-14

The ‘Antis’, as the suffragists contemptuously called them, suffered the threefold penalty -- intellectual, moral and political -- incurred by those who back the wrong horse in politics. Their arguments were seen as foolish and often mutually contradictory. Their motives were seen by the suffragists at the time -- let alone later -- as a strange compound of prejudice and self-interest.... The penalty was for the Antis to be ridiculed as misguided and unimportant, consigned to history’s rubbish-heap. The Antis even lost confidence in themselves, or at least found activities more profitable than brooding over a past which some might regard as dubious....

[1] This was the largest petition on women’s suffrage since 1874 and the following year the suffragists could only manage 288,736 signatures.

[2] It should be noted that when suffragists conducted similar exercises, they produced completely opposite results.

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