Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Why did women want the vote?

This is an extract from my forthcoming book: Sex, Work and Politics: Women in Britain, 1830-1918

The prolonged demise of Chartism during the 1850s sapped working-class calls for the franchise and the fragmented nature of party politics in the 1850s meant that the issue of parliamentary reform and calls for women’s suffrage, never a vocal force, died away. [1] A concerted campaign for women’s suffrage did not emerge until the mid-1860s. Although votes for women was an obvious area of feminist concern, it was by no means an overriding consideration and before 1914 proved one of the areas of least success for the movement. The constant denial of the parliamentary franchise to women when feminist campaigns were enjoying success in many other areas sets it apart not as their dominant concern but as the demand that successive governments were not willing to concede.

The emergence of the suffrage movement coincided with important changes in the relationship between the state and society. In 1860, a division between the public tasks of government and the private worlds of work, family, religion and property was still largely accepted. By the late 1890s. the expansion of social policies and social responsibilities had transformed and extended the local and national role of the state and the boundaries between what was public and what was private had been significantly blurred as the state increasingly interfered in areas of life previously regarded as private. Enthusiastic and radical local elites established a dominant niche in the enhanced and in some cases elective administration of education, poor relief, public health and in improving the urban environment within the policies and monitoring of the central state. Socially and ideologically, Britain was, or at least gave the impression of being, a more collectively organised country in 1900 than it had been in 1860. [2]

Women approached their demand for parliamentary suffrage from different directions. Their specifically political arguments centred on the issues of equality and representation while ethical arguments ranged from a simple declaration of justice to a belief in woman’s moral superiority and fitness. Suffragists recognised the force of contemporary opinion that potential voters should be demonstrably fit to exercise the franchise freely and intelligently, particularly when presenting the case to Parliament. [3] The transformation of the local and national state called into question the traditional view of citizenship. In 1860, it was assumed that the vote was not a natural right but a historic privilege grounded in an ancient, possible Anglo-Saxon constitution. [4] It was based on the independent man as head of the household and was used to justify the exclusion of women from the franchise. [5]

When Georgian men claimed to be ‘independent, they were drawing upon a political culture that privileged freedom from obligation, self-ownership, patriotism, straightforward manliness and constitutional balance. [6]

When the reforming Whigs legislatively defined the citizen as being an ‘independent man’ in 1832, it opened the door to generations of radical working men who, as breadwinners in their households, claimed that they too met this standard. Although property qualification retained their importance in the debates about electoral reform in the 1860s, Liberals and Radicals began to broaden their definition of property qualification to include the recognition of men’s property in their skills and sought to enfranchise skilled, respectable workers on this basis. The question was whether women were entitled to the vote on the same terms as men, an argument that gained credence as single women were given the municipal vote. Married women, who could not own property of their own before 1882, could not qualify. [7] Equality could simply mean the vote for single women and widows, who might own or rent property and pay their own taxes. Frances Cobbe Power argued that enfranchising a limited group of women might restore:

…the just balance in favour of an educated constituency against the weight of the illiterate male voters now entrusted with the franchise. [8]

After the Reform Act of 1867, which was gradually to extend the franchise to approximately 60 per cent of adult men, including virtually all urban householders, this could include all women who paid rates. After John Stuart Mill unsuccessfully attempted to amend the Reform Bill in 1867 to include women, Lydia Becker led a vigorous campaign for women who paid rates to be placed on the parliamentary register giving them the right to vote in the election of 1868. She suggested that in medieval and early-modern England, property had given women as heads of household the right to exercise the vote or to send deputies to vote on their behalf. She also argued on a legal technicality that the 1867 Act by using the term ‘man’ rather than ‘male person’ had generically included ‘women’. The basis of her campaign was ‘no taxation without representation’ and Becker organised a large number of potential voters in the Manchester area and elsewhere to register as voters. However, presiding barristers were unconvinced by either the historical or linguistic arguments and although a few claims to registration succeeded, they were rejected in a higher court and many feminists were unhappy at the conservative implications of limiting enfranchisement only to single women.

For many women, this approach led them to a surprisingly uncritical acceptance of the property terms of the Victorian male franchise arguing that acceptance of a restricted franchise was a matter of expediency rather than of principle. [9] For instance, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, later leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) recognised existing social and political conditions and maintained that voting was a right granted only to those whose proof of good citizenship or ‘fitness to vote’ could be weighed by the contents of their purse or the amount of their property. This was no more than equality with men, within the existing arrangements. Fawcett was not concerned with the merits or otherwise of the system, but more with its lack of logic: if propertied men could vote, why not propertied women? Feminists who accepted this position were asserting their rights as a female propertied class as distinct from their gender rights. Conservative women, in particular, focused on the contrast between the exclusion of middle-class women and the gradual extension of voting rights to working-class men. Feminists of all political views were unhappy with the performance of successive governments, not merely about women’s questions but in their attitude to a host of social and economic problems. Their analysis of those inadequacies rested on the unbalanced nature of representation that denied the vote to outsiders, women and the propertyless poor. The argument that women’s representation would force Parliament to consider matters previously neglected was as common a rationale as the broader moral reasoning based on a simple notion of equal justice. Not only was an unrepresentative government ‘despotic’ but it would also inevitably ignore the problems of the unrepresented.

The second case for enfranchising all women and men was based on grounds of their equal humanity and natural rights. Many feminists shared the views of the liberal John Stuart Mill, who in his works On Liberty (1859) and The Subjection of Women (1869) had written of citizenship as a means of self-development, offering the freedom to develop the individual’s fullest potential whether male or female. [10] Mill stressed the role of the intelligent, rational and educated citizen, man or woman, in a developed western civilisation. He feared, however, the destructive effects of democracy, a ‘collective mediocrity’ as he called it, arguing for educational qualifications and for forms of representation that safeguarded the power of the educated. Some middle-class suffragists, whether married or single, from the liberal elite, found Mill's ideal of citizenship one which offered them ways of expressing their own need for fulfilment in an active and committed life. For Barbara Leigh Bodichon, the most important effect of women’s suffrage was in increasing patriotism and establishing an ‘unselfish’ public spirit in which feminists could cast themselves as guardians of the national character. This was a less restricted view of citizenship since it did not necessarily exclude married women and was not incompatible with the sexual division of labour. These arguments could rest, explicitly or implicitly, upon the exclusion of others, whether the uneducated poor, or those still termed ‘uncivilised’, beyond the western world. White British women claiming suffrage could use the language of contrast, comparing their own progress and moral character to the drudgery and oppression of women in the rest of the world, a progress that could be carried even further if they were allowed their rightful place.

Others drew on the language of ‘separate spheres’, maintaining that the different qualities that women possessed, and the concerns which arose out of domestic and philanthropic responsibilities, for children, for public health, and for the poor, were needed in public life, locally and nationally. This was a language frequently heard, as women were gradually admitted into some areas of local government, though it also rested on the existence, and the implicit exclusion, of those such as the poor and married working-class women, on whose behalf such responsibilities were claimed. Independence and self-development also featured in their arguments. Political participation would release women’s potential to the full. The grounds on which women from different feminist organisations demanded the vote did not differ radically. Their arguments tended to cluster round these considerations; their clashes occurred far more commonly over tactics, over means rather than ends. All the suffrage bodies founded during the period before the Suffragettes used similar methods of persuasion but differed in how extensive a franchise they were prepared to ask for in the first instance.

Feminist societies largely maintained some distance from direct support for mainstream politics, whether Liberal or Conservative, and criticised both for their entrenched attitudes to women. A growing number of Conservatives began to support women’s suffrage, usually because they believed they would benefit from votes for propertied women. The Conservative argument placed less emphasis on rights and more on the duties of the citizen to the state. Nor was this emphasis confined to the right wing. It was increasingly a feature of both Liberal and Labour suffragism and of feminist propaganda. Many feminists professed political beliefs that coloured their feminist inclinations, but for the most part women of differing political opinions worked together. The various grounds on which women claimed their right to the parliamentary vote represented the entire spectrum of political opinion and reflected contradictions between the reality of women’s powerlessness and prevailing political ideologies.


[1] Saunders, Robert, Democracy and the Vote in British Politics, 1848-1867: The Making of the Second Reform Act, (Ashgate), 2011, pp. 1-26.

[2] The extension of the role of the state can be approached through Corrigan, P., and Sayer, D., The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution, (Basil Blackwell), 1985, Harling, Philip, ‘The powers of the Victorian state’, in Mandler, Peter, (ed.), Liberty and Authority in Victorian Britain, (Oxford University Press), 2006, pp. 25-50, and Harling Philip, The Modern British State: An Historical Introduction, (Polity), 2001.

[3] Bolt, Christine, ‘The ideas of British suffragism’ in ibid, Purvis, June, and Holton, Sandra Stanley, (eds.), Votes for Women, pp. 34-57, and Rendall, Jane, ‘Citizenship, culture and civilisation: The languages of British suffragists, 1866-1874’, in Daley, Caroline, and Noland, Melanie, (eds.), Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives, (New York University Press), 1994, pp. 127-150.

[4] Hill, Christopher ‘The Norman Yoke’, in his Puritanism and Revolution, (Secker & Warburg), 1958, pp. 50-112, considers this issue. Le joug normand: La conquête normande et son interprétation dans l’historiographie et la pensée politique anglaises, (Université de Caen), 2004, pp. 15-55, provides a more recent perspective.

[5] On the development of the notion of the ‘independent man’ see, McCormack, Matthew, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England, (Manchester University Press), 2011, especially pp. 187-200.

[6] Ibid, p. 201.

[7] On the reform of married women’s property law, see pp. 164-166.

[8] Power, Frances Cobbe, Why Women Desire the Franchise, (National Society for Women’s Suffrage), nd, p. 1.

[9] A similar view was expressed in the 1830s and 1840s by some radicals who saw the development of male household suffrage as a first step towards universal manhood suffrage. It too led to considerable disagreement within radicalism.

[10] Annas, Julia, ‘Mill and the Subjection of Women’, Philosophy, Vol. 52, (1977), pp. 179-194, and Smith, Elizabeth S., ‘John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women: A Re-examination’, Polity, Vol. 34, (2001), pp. 181-203. See also, Rendall, Jane, ‘The citizenship of women and the Reform Act of 1867’, in Hall, Catherine, McClelland, Keith, and Rendall, Jane, (eds.), Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the British Reform Act of 1867, (Cambridge University Press), 2000, pp. 119-178.

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