Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Suffrage since 1903: Political context

Electoral and constitutional issues 1906-1914: a summary

Between 1906 and 1910, the Liberal government did not give high priority to electoral reform[1]. A comprehensive plan for franchise reform does not appear to have been prepared until 1911. This delay had three main causes. First, it reflected the growing government interest in passing social welfare policies for which there was significant support in the House of Lords. Secondly, the delay probably owed something to Liberal fears than an enlarged electorate might benefit the growing Labour Party. Finally, there were differences in all the parties over female suffrage. A majority of MPs was in favour of votes for women. Those Conservatives (60 to 80 MPs) who wanted women’s suffrage favoured a restricted measure to enfranchise householders, many of whom they hoped would vote for them. Those Liberals who favoured the women’s vote (including most Liberal MPs and two-thirds of the Cabinet) wanted it as part of a wider adult suffrage extension that would include unrepresented men. So too did a narrow majority at the Labour Party conference in 1906 that rejected a plea from Keir Hardie to support women householder enfranchisement. This frustrated any hopes that the Liberal government would soon introduce a measure for women’s suffrage. In the absence of such intervention, there was no more parliamentary encouragement for women’s suffrage than the continuing series of unsuccessful moves by backbench MPs.

In 1906, debates on the second reading of an Adult Suffrage Bill, introduced by Sir Charles Dilke were talked out. The same thing occurred in 1907 during the second reading debate on a bill to enfranchise women householders brought in by the Liberal MP, Willoughby Dickinson. The second reading of a similar bill introduced by another Liberal, Henry Stranger was carried by 273 votes to 94. The bill was then referred to a Committee of the Whole House and made no further progress. An Adult Suffrage Bill brought in by the Liberal Geoffrey Howard in 1909, passed its second reading by 35 votes but also made no further progress when referred to a Committee of the Whole House.  Even if a franchise measure had passed the Commons, it might (especially if it was an adult suffrage bill) have been quashed by the Lords. After the Liberal landslide victory in January 1906, Arthur Balfour, the Conservative leader declared that the Conservatives had a similarly impregnable majority in the Lords and would use it to frustrate the government. From 1906 to 1909, the Lords encouraged by Liberal by-election losses destroyed or rejected ten government bills including one to abolish plural voting. Franchise reform was not clearly among the measures that could be expected to pass the Lords[2]. Party attitudes to suffrage issues remained complex.

The women’s suffrage question was unresolved in the years before the First World War. The fundamental difficulty was uncertainty and division over the issue in the Liberal government, exacerbated by the militant tactics of the suffragettes. There were also other factors against a settlement: the opposition of most Conservatives to female suffrage, and the indifference of the Irish Home Rule Party to this question compared with the interests of their own leading objective. In this unpromising situation, some half-hearted legislative efforts were made which, even if they had succeeded, could hardly have been expected to provide a final settlement of the women’s electoral question.

Early in 1910, a prolonged, but unsuccessful effort began to obtain an agreed inter-party solution to the question. A Conciliation Committee was formed in February with Lord Lytton as chairman and H. N. Brailsford as secretary and with a large membership consisting of 25 Liberal MPs, 17 Conservative, six Irish Home Rulers and six Labour. The committee decided to sponsor a private member’s bill known as a Conciliation Bill ‘to extend the parliamentary franchise to women occupiers’. In social terms, the effects of the bill would differ from one part of the country to another, but most of those who qualified were believed to be middle or upper class. The total enfranchise would only be about a million, or one woman in 13. These provisions were designed to win the support of the Conservatives, but they lost much Liberal and Labour support. The WSPU, NUWSS and other suffrage groups gave official support to the measure. The solution was based on a narrow compromise and was seen as a temporary means of opening the way to fuller enfranchisement.

Three unsuccessful attempts were made to pass the Conciliation Bill in 1910, 1911 and 1912. On 12th July 1910, the bill introduced by D. J. Shackleton, a Labour MP, passed its second reading by 299 votes to 189. The Cabinet, after debating the matter in three meetings, had decided not to allow further time for the bill that session. A few minutes after the bill’s success at its second reading, all hopes that it would be passed were extinguished when the Commons voted by 320 to 175 to refer it to a Committee of the Whole House. On 5th May 1911, a second and revised Conciliation Bill, introduced by Sir George Kemp (a Liberal MP) passed the second reading by 255 to 89. However, on 29th May, Lloyd George announced that the government had decided that further time would not be allowed for the bill that session, as other government measures would be jeopardised. In November 1911, Asquith stated that the government would introduce a suffrage bill next session providing for manhood suffrage and would permit amendments to be moved that would extend the bill to include women’s suffrage on the same basis as manhood suffrage. A third Conciliation Bill, introduced by J. T. Agg-Gardner, a Conservative MP failed to pass its second reading by 14 votes largely because of the lukewarm attitude of the government.

The government’s own manhood suffrage measure – the Franchise and Registration Bill – was given its first reading on 18th June 1912 and passed its second on 12th July. After the summer recess, it was debated in Committee of the Commons on 23rd and 24th January 1913. On 23rd January, Bonar Law, the Conservative leader asked the Speaker (Sir James Lowther, later Lord Ullswater) whether the insertion of amendments for women’s suffrage would so change the character of the Franchise Bill that it would have to be withdrawn and reintroduced after revision. Lowther did not reply immediately but after reflection concluded that, the insertion of women’s suffrage would have this effect. On 23rd or 24th January, Lowther informed some cabinet ministers privately of his view (though he did not inform the Commons of his ruling until 27th January). Asquith was surprised by the ruling maintaining that it was “entirely wrong and impossible to reconcile with what took place in the case of previous Franchise Bills”. However, there is no appeal against the rulings of the Speaker and the government had no alternative but to withdraw the measure.

The suffragettes immediately resumed and intensified their militant actions. However, there were two further attempts to get women’s suffrage. In May 1913, a private member’s bill introduced by Willoughby Dickinson was defeated on second reading by 47 votes. Also defeated, in the House of Lords in May 1914, was Lord Selbourne’s Women’s Enfranchisement Bill that lost its second reading by 44 votes. All the legislative activity surrounding women’s suffrage had ended in nothing. Manhood suffrage had also been lost because of its possible conjunction with women’s suffrage in the same measure.


The debate between 1903 and 1914 raised three important issues about women’s rights.

First and fundamentally, there was the issue of the vote. All the suffrage organisations saw this as central to their campaigns. There were, however, differences of emphasis. The Pankhursts saw the vote as an end in itself while other groups like the WFL and the Fabian Society saw it as part of a broader emancipation of women. This, however, led into debates on the economic role of women and the responsibility of men for their economic oppression and on the sexually oppressed role of women within the private sphere. Emancipation was broadened from simply being a matter of the franchise to one of the nature of economic, social and sexual power and the need for equality of opportunity.

The old division between ‘militants’ and ‘constitutionalists’, essentially between the WSPU and NUWSS, is no longer seen as a sufficient means for explaining the nature of suffragism in this period. The activities of the Pankhursts dominated contemporary perceptions of the issue, especially through the press, but their militancy was, until 1912, essentially an extension of the constitutionalist argument, a means of putting pressure on a seemingly intransigent government. It was also a policy of increasing extremism as the ‘shock-value’ of their militancy had to be escalated to maintain press coverage. Whether it was a self-defeating strategy is a matter of some debate since when the vote was finally achieved in 1918, it was the result of factors other than militancy. The focus of the historiographical debate has moved away from the Pankhursts towards other groupings within the suffrage movement. There has been a reappraisal of the role of the NUWSS and of other bodies like the WFL and the radical suffragists.

Historians have also reviewed the class dimension of the suffrage movement and its links to established political parties. The traditional middle class or bourgeois view has been challenged by studies that have given working class women a more positive role. In this scenario, the vote is part of a process of emancipation not an end in itself. The non-party view of the movement, exemplified particularly by the NUWSS and Millicent Fawcett, has also been challenged especially after 1912 when women’s suffrage became part of Labour Party policy.

The emergence of women’s history has resulted in a substantial reassessment of the nature of the suffrage movement after 1903. The dominant role of the Pankhursts has been downgraded. The role of militancy has been re-evaluated. The significance of constitutionalist arguments has been placed far more at the centre of the political stage. It is no longer enough to see the suffrage movement after 1903 solely in terms of the suffragettes. It was far more open and diverse than that. The suffrage movement is in the process of emerging from its one-dimensional existence and the complexity of the story being extended beyond that laid down in the 1930s by George Dangerfield and Sylvia Pankhurst.

[1] On this issue see Martin Pugh Electoral Reform in Peace and War 1906-18, London, 1978 and Ian Machin The Rise of Democracy in Britain 1830-1918, Macmillan, 2000, pages 121-139.

[2] The position of the House of Lords was clarified because of the Constitutional crisis of 1909-11, two general elections in 1910 and the Parliament Act of 1911. This Act removed the absolute veto of the House of Lords and replaced it with a conditional veto in which it could delay legislation for three parliamentary sessions (three years). The Act also reduced the length of time between general elections from a maximum of seven years to five.

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