Saturday, 15 December 2012

Opposition to women’s suffrage

Organised opposition to women’s suffrage has almost as long a history as women’s suffrage. [1] 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 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. [2]

The first collective protest against suffragism occurred in 1889. [3] Encouraged by Frederic Harrison and James Knowles, editor of the Nineteenth Century, Mary Augusta Ward, the writer Mrs Humphry Ward published an article against demands for the extension of the suffrage to women, signed by 104 prominent women, prominent largely because their husbands were prominent. [4] More than 2,000 women from many parts of Britain signed an accompanying ‘female protest’, though they declined to form a continuous anti-suffrage campaign group. [5] Harrison suggests that this appeal had a considerable effect on decision makers and may have finally 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 and the case against the vote was advanced largely through the journalistic and literary debate over gender roles during the 1890s, a reaction to the prominence of the ‘New Woman’ in fiction and growing concerns over Britain’s imperial future caused by fears of social and racial degeneracy.

Organised anti-suffragism revived after 1900 especially after the House of Commons passed a suffragist resolution by a large majority in 1904. [6] Some parliamentary anti-suffragists were active and vocal supporters of organised anti-suffragism while others were more reluctant to fuel party divisions and confined their opposition to parliamentary debates and to the voting lobby. Within the Liberal Party, some members such as James Bryce, who had believed in organised opposition for twenty years, provided support for the ‘antis’ even when he was ambassador to Washington between 1907 and 1913. [7] Several MPs played an active role in the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage including John Massie, Rudolph Lehmann and Alexander MacCallum Scott. Asquith, as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister, could not become a member of the National League but he was undoubtedly supportive of its aims telling a deputation of anti-suffragists in Downing Street in 1910 that they were ‘preaching to the converted’. More Conservatives and Unionists supported anti-suffragism especially after 1906 when not in government and could be more forthright in their views. In addition to Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon, successive presidents of the National League who feared that women’s suffrage threatened the Empire, other front-bench politicians supported the League including Joseph and Austen Chamberlain, F. E. Smith and Walter Long in the Commons and Lord Lansdowne, Lords George Hamilton and Lord Northcote in the Lords.

Anti-suffragist cartoon, c1910

Women were also mobilising opposition with a number of women writing in The Times and The Spectator in 1905 and 1906 expressing their concern about the growing activity of the suffragists and suffragettes, arguing that it was time for the ‘antis’ to become active. They argued that there was a ‘silent majority’ that supported their views and later during 1908 produced an anti-suffrage petition containing 337,018 signatures. [8] The launch of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in July 1908 largely through the efforts of Mary Ward who remained as intransigent in her opposition to women’s suffrage as she had been two decades earlier. [9] Her obstinacy cost her dear and is one of the reasons why Edwardians such as Lytton Strachey and H. G. Wells were so keen to abuse and posterity to forget her as a traitor to her sex. Although progressive in her thinking about women’s education and their potential in social reform and local government, Mary Ward was unwavering in her opposition to women’s suffrage. [10] She thought that for women to want to vote was somehow unseemly and instinctively associated the militancy of the WSPU with the Irish outrages that had terrified her in the 1880s. She could tolerate constitutionalist suffragists even if she disagreed with them, but as Sutherland commented, ‘suffragettes were hardly better than Fenians’. [11]


[1] Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, (Croom Helm), 1978, should be complemented by ibid, Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: female anti-suffragism in Britain. See also, Faraut, Martine, ‘Women Resisting the Vote: a case of anti-feminism?’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 12, (2003), pp. 605-622.

[2] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp. 115-116.

[3] Ibid, Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: female anti-suffragism in Britain, pp. 141-162, examines anti-suffragism after 1889.

[4] Ward, Mary A., ‘An Appeal Against Female Suffrage’, The Nineteenth Century, June 1889, pp. 781-788, and see also, Fawcett, Millicent Garrett, ‘The Appeal Against Women’s Suffrage: a Reply’, Nineteenth Century, July 1889, pp. 86-96.

[5] Joannou, Maroula, ‘Mary Augusta Ward (Mrs Humphry) and the Opposition to Women’s Suffrage’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 14, (2005), pp. 561-580. See also, Sutherland, John, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian, (Oxford University Press), 1990, pp. 197-200, and ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp. 252-253.

[6] Bush, Julia, ‘National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage (act. 1910-1918)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/92492, accessed, 25 April 2012]

[7] Like his friend Frederic Harrison, Bryce was a radical by temperament but this did not prevent him strongly opposing women’s suffrage; see Bryce, James, The Hindrances to Good Citizenship, (Yale University Press), 1909, pp. 85, 90, 98, 175, 181, and Seaman Jr., John T., A Citizen of the World: The Life of James Bryce, (I. B. Tauris), 2006, pp. 96-97, 198-199.

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

[9] Ibid, Sutherland, John, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian, pp. 299-309, considers her role in 1908 and 1909.

[10] See, for instance, Ward, Humphry, Mrs, ‘Why I Do Not Believe In Woman Suffrage’, Ladies’ Home Journal, Vol. 27, (November 1908), pp. 21-22, ‘Women in Politics and the Vote’, The Times, 20 June 1910, and ‘Mrs Humphry Ward and the Suffrage’, The Times, 19 December 1911.

[11] Ibid, Sutherland, John, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian, p. 200.

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