Sunday, 6 May 2012

What if?

The history of the women’s movement from John Stuart Mill onwards is a fine blend of heroism and farce that came to an abrupt halt in 1914 by which time the movement lacked any obvious strategy for success. The failure of the suffrage movement to achieve its objectives by 1914 is frequently blamed on suffragette militancy and violence, coupled with the personal style of management adopted by the Pankhursts and its effects on both public opinion and the three major political parties. That there was widespread disgust at the activities of the WSPU, something fanned by an antagonistic national and provincial press, is undoubtedly true but this neglects the quieter constitutionalist campaigns whose non-militancy proved equally unsuccessful. Neither suffragettes nor suffragists succeeded in concluding a firm alliance with either of the Conservative or Liberal parties, the WSPU squandered its potentially useful link with the ILP while by 1914, the EFF had yet to deliver real success to the Labour Party. They were unfortunate that Asquith was so personally opposed to women's suffrage and that their campaign coincided with other, more pressing political issues. In many respects, the suffrage campaign was not in a much better position in 1914 than it had been in 1897. True, it was better organised, had developed new methods for getting its message across and had increased support across society but it now faced a well-organised and resourced anti-suffrage movement.

If war had not broken out in 1914, there would been a general election in 1915. If the Liberals under Asquith had won there is no reason to suggest that he would have changed his views of women’s suffrage while a Conservative victory was unlikely to have led to women getting the vote since parliamentary debates could have opened up the question of adult suffrage, an issue the party wished to avoid. Under the existing franchise, it is highly unlikely that the Labour Party would have made an electoral breakthrough and, without their continued pact with the Liberals, could have actually lost seats. In addition, there is the question of what would have happened to the WSPU. By August 1914, it had largely exhausted the scope of its militancy, had alienated many of its supporters and appeared to be in terminal decline. The NUWSS and WFL might have benefitted from this in terms of membership but their constitutionalist methods had failed to deliver change before 1914 and, without an alteration in attitude by the leaders of the political parties, there is no reason to believe that their methods would have been any more successful before or after a general election in 1915. So when would women have got the vote? Assuming a Liberal win in 1915 and assuming that Asquith was not replaced by Lloyd George who was increasingly suffragist in opinion or a Conservative victory, it is quite possible that the 1920 general election would have been fought under the existing franchise. It is unlikely that women’s suffrage could have been delayed beyond 1920 since international trends favoured enfranchisement. The result was that adult suffrage would have been introduced and the election in 1924 or 1925 fought with a broadened electorate that might have included all women, three years before they were actually fully enfranchised.

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