Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Anti-Suffragist movement

The anti-suffragist movement aimed to resist any 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. The more active anti-suffragists were prepared to argue about their role in society, speak on public platforms, write articles and campaign for the causes which they believed allowed them to realise their potential for service and self-expression. As Violet Markham said in 1912:

We believe that men and women are different – not similar – beings, with talents that are complementary, not identical, and that they therefore ought to have different shares in the management of the State, that they severally compose. We do not depreciate by one jot or tittle women’s work and mission. We are concerned to find proper channels of expression for that work. We seek a fruitful diversity of political function, not a stultifying uniformity. [1]

The first meeting of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League took place on 21 July with Lady Jersey in the chair. [2] In addition to Mary Ward, its executive committee included Gertrude Bell, the writer and traveller, Ethel Bertha Harrison, a writer and reformer and Joseph Chamberlain’s daughter Beatrice, an active social worker. A small number of men were already actively involved in the League including John Massie and Heber Hart on its executive committee. The first issue of The Anti-Suffrage Review appeared in December 1908 that, especially when Mary Ward wrote for it, gave some intellectual respectability to the anti-suffragist cause. The organisation also included ultra-conservatives such as Lady Havesham and Frances Low who did not believe in Ward’s progressive social feminist view of ‘civic housekeeping’ but in maintaining the separate sphere ideology and resisted her desire for a ‘Forward Policy’. This linked anti-suffragism to calls for social reform, women’s participation in local government and to womanly self-development through the performance of womanly duties to God, family, nation and empire. It emphasised women’s service not women’s rights. [3] Difference between reformers and conservatives did not prevent them collaborating in a membership drive and publicity campaign that resulted in over eighty branches by July 1909.

Anti-Suffrage postcard, 1908

The rhetoric that informed both ‘anti’ and suffragist political argument was remarkably similar. Ward’s view of differentiated citizenship celebrated the distinctive roles of men and women in society while suffragists emphasised what men and women had in common. [4] Her reforming imagination, commitment to women’s service, and sympathetic literary depictions of friendships between women, the hallmarks of much of her fiction, lend weight to the argument that there is more common ground between suffragists and ‘antis’ than is sometimes supposed. [5] Suffragists and anti-suffragists shared beliefs in sexual difference but disagreed about the extent to which women should carry their particular gifts to the national arena. Suffragists believed that women should reshape national government through the vote, ends with which anti-suffragists disagreed. Millicent Fawcett always considered that Mary Ward was a social reformer whose forte was philanthropic work and that she had somehow wandered into the wrong camp on women’s suffrage.

The earliest achievements of the anti-suffragists were impressive. 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. Analysis of the branch distribution shows that London and the southeast accounted for most of the anti-suffragist effort, 42 per cent of the total membership between 1908 and 1914. The League’s regional pattern of support paralleled Edwardian rural and suburban Conservatism and Brian Harrison argues that, despite its elitist leadership, it appealed widely to the conservative working-class. [6] The movement was weaker in the industrial north and in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. [7] By 1910, Scottish anti-suffragists had established their own affiliated anti-suffrage organisation, the Scottish National Anti-Suffrage League, presided over by the duchess of Montrose and in 1913 affiliated to the League as the Scottish League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. The annual council of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage was told in 1914 that membership stood at ‘42,000 subscribing members and 15,000 adherents at the end of six years' work…a very good record which compares very favourably with the records of the associations organised by our opponents’. [8] This total included the members of the affiliated Scottish League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. Other records reveal that about five out of every six members of the League were female, and that branch leadership remained largely in the hands of women.

Charles Lane Vicary, Ye Anti Suffrage League, (Printed and Published by the Artists Suffrage League), 1908

In December 1908, male anti-suffragists launched a parallel and much less active Men’s Committee for Opposing Female Suffrage. Although it was skilled at fundraising, it failed to gain popular support. Dominated by the imperialist leadership of Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon, it was a collection of major public figures rather than a nationwide movement. Its supporters also included Rudyard Kipling, and A. V. Dicey but also newspaper editors such as Charles Moberly Bell, editor of The Times and John St Loe Strachey, editor of The Spectator. In a still largely deferential society, a great strength of the anti-suffragists was the list of great men who gave it support. Both groups were set up to be non-party organisations and had members from all parties even though Harrison maintains the Conservatives were the natural home of the anti-suffragists.

Within two years it was clear that both Leagues faced serious practical problems. The Women’s League had little parliamentary influence or sufficient campaign funds, while the Men’s League lacked active campaigners and female support. It was its success in raising a £20,000 anti-suffrage fighting fund that made the prospect of a merger enticing to the anti-suffrage women. They were eager to put their faith in complementary gender roles into practice though not at the cost of abandoning important priorities of the Women's League. In addition, both Leagues feared that a majority of MPs were now in favour of giving votes to women householders. Amalgamation was achieved after months of tortuous negotiation over the name of the new organisation, its constitutional gender balance and the continued endorsement by the Women's League of women's local government work within the objectives of the new, mixed-sex league. [9] In December 1910 the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage was formally launched, with Lord Cromer as president, Lady Jersey as vice-president and an executive of seven men and seven women. [10]

Between 1911 and 1914, the League’s performance was disappointing, though its achievements were far from negligible.[11] Lord Cromer wanted to focus the campaign on Parliament but anti-suffrage interventions during by-elections proved ineffective and the League was notably unsuccessful in influencing the views of Parliament itself. A parliamentary committee of the League led by Mary Ward’s son Arnold, MP for Watford between 1910 and 1918, failed to rally a united opposition, even though growing militancy checked the advancing tide of parliamentary suffrage support. [12] In addition, the League’s leadership suffered from divisions exacerbated by Cromer’s difficulty in collaborating with independently-minded women. Supporters of the ‘forward policy’ attempted to press ahead with a positive agenda of local government work and womanly social action, initially organised under the auspices of a separate women’s Local Government Advancement Committee and publicised through the Anti-Suffrage Review. Despite opposition from the League’s male leaders, Mary Ward firmly believed in increasing the role of women in municipal affairs and that the League should do more than occupy itself with ‘opposition and denial’. Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon were hostile to such diversionary activity, a position reinforced by their growing awareness that the anti-suffrage women themselves were far from united behind such a programme. Their hostility was further aggravated by local government campaigning that cut across party politics and appeared to set women’s perceived social needs above those of the anti-suffrage movement.

Although local government work was gradually relegated from the League’s programme during 1911 and 1912, Ward’s backing of Dr Elizabeth Jevons as a candidate for a seat on the London County Council contributed directly to Cromer’s resignation in early 1912. He may have been right in his belief that any attempt to promote wider women’s issues would be politically divisive but his resignation was testimony to the problems he encountered in holding this particular line. He commented to Curzon that he did not have the ‘health, strength, youth and I may add, the temper to go on dealing with these infernal women’. [13] Efforts by the League’s leaders to impose masculine authority within their own headquarters proved equally counter-productive. Lucy Terry Lewis, the leading Women’s League administrator, refused to be upstaged by inferior male colleagues and drew support from fellow supporters of the ‘forward policy’. [14] Though she was driven from office shortly before Cromer’s resignation, male replacements proved ineffective and antagonised the leading women. Peace was only restored when Lord Curzon, Cromer’s successor as president, acknowledged the formidable skills of Gladys Pott, another woman administrator during 1913. [15]

The League could justifiably claim some success in holding a number of large-scale public meetings that demonstrated the harmonious collaboration of male and female opponents of the vote. The most famous, at the Albert Hall on 28 February 1912, attracted 20,000 ticket applications and an audience of over 9,000.[16] Violet Markham, a Liberal Unionist, imperialist and womanly social reformer, made an imposing defence of progressive anti-suffragism, alongside male speakers from both major parties. The marchioness of Tullibardine had almost equal success at a 6,000-strong meeting in Glasgow a few months later, though on that occasion the most striking speech was undoubtedly Lord Curzon’s resounding defence of the British Empire against the suffragist threat. [17] Despite these successes, the anti-suffragists proved 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. They also found it difficult to recruit younger middle-class women. Anti-Suffrage League meetings were drab and its press office less effective than either the WSPU and NUWSS. Nonetheless, the League did have most of the press on its side ensuring it communicated its message effectively.

With the outbreak of war, the League swiftly suspended all campaigning, devoting its resources to the war effort. [18] This proved difficult to maintain when patriotic suffragists grasped every opportunity to strengthen their cause through well-advertised war service. Though weakened by the departure of male supporters, the League continued to publish its journal and maintained a low level of anti-suffrage propaganda throughout the war. By 1916, some London branches were demanding a more active stance. During the following year the suffrage issue was again before parliament and women leaders were once again to the fore at the highest levels of the League. By this stage, many long-term supporters including Lord Curzon were prepared to bow to the inevitable. By contrast, Mary Ward, confident in the latent anti-suffragism of the silent majority of British women, was acting chairman as the Representation of the People Bill passed through parliament but her frantic last-minute attempts to check its progress failed. At a determinedly positive final meeting of the League in April 1918, Lady Jersey, Mary Ward, Gladys Pott and Beatrice Chamberlain emphasised the justice of their cause to a post-war future in which women would need to be educated to use their votes wisely. For them, the gendered values of British womanhood remained worthy of defence.


[1] Markham, Violet, Miss Violet Markham’s Great Speech at the Albert Hall, (National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage), 1912.

[2] Ibid, Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: female anti-suffragism in Britain, pp. 163-192.

[3] Bush, Julia, ‘British Women’s Anti-suffragism and the Forward Policy, 1908-14’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 11, (3), (2002), pp. 431-454.

[4] This position was evident in the 1889 Appeal and especially in Harrison Ethel B., The Freedom of Women: an argument against the proposed extension of the suffrage to women, (Watts & Co.), 1908.

[5] For the contradictions in Ward’s work see, Saunders, Valerie, Eve’s Renegades: Victorian Anti-Feminist Women Novelists, (Palgrave), 1997, and Sutton-Ramspeck, Beth, ‘Shot out of the Canon: Mary Ward and the claims of conflicting feminisms’, in Thompson, Nicola Diane, (ed.), Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question, (Cambridge University Press), 1999, pp. 204-222.

[6] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp. 140-141.

[7] For the regional impact of anti-suffragism see, ibid, Wallace, Ryland, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Wales, 1868-1928, pp. 184-218, and ibid, Leheman, Leah, A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland, pp. 70, 106, 192, 215.

[8] Anti-Suffrage Review, Vol. 69, (July 1914), p. 110.

[9] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp.128-130.

[10] Owen, Roger, Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul, (Oxford University Press), 2004, pp. 374-378, examines his anti-suffragist activities.

[11] Ibid, Sutherland, John, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian, pp. 310-337, considers Mary Ward’s role between 1910 and the outbreak of war.

[12] Arnold Ward was dropped by the Conservative Party as their candidate in Watford for the 1918 General Election. His anti-suffragist credentials would have been a liability in the first election when women could vote.

[13] Cromer to Curzon, 8 February 1912, cit, ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, p. 134.

[14] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp.131-132.

[15] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, p. 184.

[16] Ibid, p. 149.

[17] Ibid, pp. 43, 75.

[18] Ibid, Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: female anti-suffragism in Britain, pp. 257-287, examines the anti-suffragists during the War.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Shifting Sands

Whether the Coalition Government will survive until May 2015 has been one of the questions posed by political pundits since it was formed in 2010.  My gut feeling is that it will be that the relationship between the two unequal partners will change the closer we get to 2015 but that it will survive in some form or another.  Yesterday’s speech by Nick Clegg, a leader whose political star has now sunk so low that it is almost imperceptible, appeared to take the line that ‘if it wasn’t for the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives would have made even greater cuts to the welfare budget and to public services’.  He may well be right but it’s an incredibly weak argument to say you can thank us that things aren’t worse when the public think that they are bad enough already.  So vote Liberal Democrat because the others would be worse is hardly a recipe for electoral revival!! 

As for the Conservatives, well electorally in as bad a place and in the shire constituencies threatened by UKIP especially if it persists with David Cameron’s morally right but politically inept desire to introduce gay marriage.  Whatever the justifications for gay marriage as opposed to civil partnerships and there are many, it was not in the Conservative manifesto in 2010 and in the midst of economic crisis it appears to have little resonance with the public. I can’t see any electoral advantage to be gained by pursuing it at this time, not that politics should be all about electoral gain.    Prime Ministers do have to make decisions that the public may not like and their parties find unpalatable, that’s what leadership is all about.  The problem is that the ‘Westminster village’ is becoming increasingly divorced from the realities of people’s lived experience and with their political aspirations.  If you’ve lost your job, your benefits have been cut and the local government services you used have been closed, gay marriage really is an irrelevance.

There have been two seminal events in British politics in the past fifty years.  The Profumo Scandal in 1963 shattered what was left of the mystique of British government as the press circled the declining power of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.  The bank crisis and the MPs’ expenses scandal after 2008 reinforced the public’s view that politicians had little control over global crises and that their primary motivation appeared to be self-aggrandisement at the public’s expense.  That most MPs had acted honourably did not make up for the malfeasance of the minority.  The result is a ‘crisis of governance’ as states adopt policies that have little popular support justifying them as being ‘for the greater good’.  The chimera of representative government has been exposed and increasingly there are calls for a ‘new settlement’ between the people and the state in which the responsibilities of the people and the nature of the modern state are redefined. 

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.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Why not give women the vote?

Not all women wanted the vote. Queen Victoria who felt quite capable of ruling an empire and yet opposed women’s suffrage referring to it as ‘this mad, wicked folly’. [1] Many women campaigners, such as Octavia Hill, were convinced that reforms in civil and social rights were of greater moment than political enfranchisement. Most national and regional newspapers, especially The Times were hostile to the women’s suffrage campaign especially after militant action began although this did encourage newspapers to print stories about the suffragettes, providing them with the ‘oxygen’ of publicity. There was a deep-seated fear of change particularly sharing power with women who had never been seen as men’s equals. Opposition to women’s suffrage was frequently instinctively hostile and blatantly prejudiced but much of it was also carefully considered and cogently argued. Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian period, it was deep-rooted and influential, organised and vocal and the ‘antis’ came from across the social and political spectrum and involved women as well as men.

For those who accepted the notion of ‘separate spheres’, and many still did in the 1880s, the role played by men was different (and should be different) from that played by women. [2] While the masculine public sphere was for men, the feminine domestic sphere was for women. [3] Bax went so far as to deny that any oppression of women had occurred at all:

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.....[4]

Before the 1872 Ballot Act, voting was ‘open’, a public statement on the hustings and violence and harassment was common. [5] Many men believed that women as ‘the weaker sex’ would not be able to cope with the ‘hurly-burly’ of elections and should be kept out of the political arena. Their strength lay within the family providing support, inspiration and raising children. If the vote was given to women, it might cause political disagreements with their husbands and consequently accelerate the break-up of the family. In short, women were a civilising element in society. Forcing women into a public, political role would detract from their femininity or, as William Gladstone put it in 1892, ‘trespass upon their delicacy, their purity, their refinement, the elevation of their whole nature’. [6] Goldwin Smith, in a letter published in The Times, wrote that women’s real object was ‘nothing less than a sexual revolution…deposing the head of the family, forcing women into male employments, and breaking down…every barrier which Nature or custom has established.’ [7]

The ‘different biology and psychology’ argument was a widely held that women tended to be temperamental and prone to outbursts of emotion so how could such beings be trusted with the franchise? The militant tactics of the WSPU after 1905 reinforced this viewpoint. Anti-suffragists held a number of assumptions about female psychology and physiology. It was argued that women were physically and mentally weaker than men. They were more emotional, unable to grasp abstract questions and slow to make up their minds and that it would be a highly undesirable product of women’s suffrage if women came to shape policy. This was frequently reinforced by their lack of education and it was difficult for many people to believe that women were as capable as men of making intelligent choices as voters. For those who had to conserve their limited energies for the vital and debilitating business of childbearing, politics would simply be too great a strain. The medical profession in general supported these views with scientific authority despite being largely ignorant about female physiology in this period. Sir Almroth Wright, an eminent if eccentric medical practitioner, expressed this view, most notoriously, in the letter published in The Times in 1912 at the height of the suffragette violence that was reprinted the following year. [8] He attacked the suffragettes as frustrated spinsters venting their bitterness on men but he also claimed that women in general were prone to hysteria that made them inadequate to receive the vote. His attack on ‘militants’ as a justification for denying the vote to women was echoed by others. For instance, Harold Owen, wrote:

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....[9]

This delicacy of nature and also of physique unfitted women formed the key, traditional military role of the citizen. It was claimed, ‘The voter, in giving a vote pledges himself to uphold the consequences of his vote at all costs ... women are physically incapable of this pledge.’ [10] Male suffrage was justified by the fact that men could be called upon to risk their lives for their country, a sacrifice that women would not be asked to make and as a result, did not deserve full citizenship. Some opponents of women’s suffrage pointed out that the maintenance of the British Empire required a large army and because women did not contribute to the defence of Empire, they should not have the vote. Lord Curzon, an ardent anti-suffragist and former Viceroy of India told Glasgow audiences in 1912 that, if women received the vote, the sub-continent would be lost to the Empire.

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 [the anti-suffragists] 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... [11]

A further variant was the idea that, since women could not physically enforce the laws they made, men might simply refuse to accept them leading to a breakdown in law and order.

There were also fears about the practical results of enfranchising women. If adult suffrage were granted, there would be about 1.5 million more women voters than men. Government would reflect female views and as women were ‘less virile’ than men were it would result in Britain and the Empire being weakened. To concede even a limited vote would lead eventually to complete suffrage and a female majority that might well push anti-male policies. The eminent jurist A. V. Dicey warned that since women constituted the majority of voters they would be in a position to force Parliament into adopting policies opposed by the male minority.[12] There were also concerns that women would use their new political power to improve their position in the labour force or that they would neglect their domestic duties.

Some opponents of women’s suffrage suggested that the majority of women did not want the vote or at least, did not care whether they had it. This claim was plausible despite the suffragists’ best efforts to disprove it. The Anti-Suffrage League argued that the vote was overvalued. Even though some men had the vote, there was still plenty of poverty, unemployment and low wages. They maintained that it must not be assumed that female suffrage would solve all the problems of women. This view was reinforced by the argument that women themselves did not really want the vote. Suffragists, they claimed, were an unrepresentative and small, if vocal minority and their campaign for ‘their own emancipation’ was watched by most women with what in 1892 Asquith, who had long opposed women’s suffrage, called ‘languid and imperturbable indifference’. [13] Two further and somewhat contradictory arguments were put forward. There was the argument that women were already represented in Parliament by the men in their family. In addition, women already exercised some control over political decision making since leading politicians listened to the views of their wives, mothers and other female acquaintances. Also, since women were incapable of making decisions and would do what the men in the family told them to do, if they had the vote it would lead to some men, in effect, having several votes more than others.

Above all, the anti-suffragists drew strength from the fact that their membership was not exclusively male. Anti-democratic and hostile to the labour and feminist movements of their day which they saw as a threat to marriage and motherhood, they were ridiculed as absurd by supporters of the parliamentary vote for women. Many women, including some who enjoyed a prominent public role such as Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale and at one time Beatrice Webb, refused to support women’s suffrage although they were often enthusiastic about local government and the need for social action by women to improve the conditions of the poor. For them, involvement in local government was a ‘proper channel’ for ‘womanly’ influence and involved action in areas such as education and the Poor Law, areas of ‘home concerns’ or the upkeep of towns or ‘civic housekeeping’. Mary Ward called women’s civic duties the ‘enlarged housekeeping of the nation’ arguing that their domestic skills were need not just in the private sphere but in the public sphere as well. Bush suggests that the anti-suffrage women leaders were divided into three loose and overlapping groupings, the maternal reformers, the women writers and the imperialist ladies.[14] Although there was a diversity of view, most of the leading women drew their enthusiasm from deeply rooted convictions about womanhood, the nation and empire. It was almost universally assumed that differences between the sexes were natural, and that any major departure from women’s role as wives and mothers would bring social chaos to Britain and the Empire. [15] Their anti-suffragism was social rather than political and reflected the continuing development of their role as women in improving nation and empire. Theirs was a view of citizenship that saw women’s mission as essential to the proper development of the country and in that benign moral vision, the parliamentary vote had no place.

Many of the anti-suffragist arguments represented self-serving pleas by the traditional male elite anxious to preserve its position and authority. On the other hand, there is a danger in dismissing the entire anti-suffragist case simply because today we take it for granted that women should have the vote. From the view of the main women’s middle- and upper-class non-political organisations the anti-suffragist claims were far from absurd and reflected mainstream female opinion on desirable gender roles and on women’s positive role in national life. [16] Large women’s organisations such as the Mothers’ Union were not suffrage organisations and even the Women’s Co-operative Guild with 30,000 members did not adopt women’s suffrage until 1900. Anti-suffragist ballots to test public opinion on women’s suffrage suggested that those opposed to votes for women outnumbered suffragists by two to one. [17] Historians need to explain when and why certain parts of the anti-suffragist case lost their force. In the 1870s and 1880s, it is not obvious that most women were enthusiastic about the vote. Suffrage societies were small pressure groups until well into the first decade of the twentieth century and shared similar beliefs with anti-suffragists about their social mission to strengthen the family both at home and in the empire through their participation in social activism.


[1] Queen Victoria to Sir Theodore Martin, 29 May 1870, cit, ibid, Rover. Constance, Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics, 1866-1914, p. 34.

[2] Hart, Heber L., Women’s Suffrage and National Danger: A Plea for the Ascendency of Man, (Alexander and Shepheard), 1889, pp. 89-188..

[3] Delap, Lucy, and Heilmann, Ann, (eds.), Anti-feminism in Edwardian literature, 6 Vols. (Thoemmes Continuum), 2006, Heilmann, Ann, and Sanders, Valerie, ‘The rebel, the lady and the ‘anti’: Femininity, anti-feminism, and the Victorian woman writer’, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 29, (2006), pp. 289-300.

[4] Bax, E. Belfont, The Fraud of Feminism, , (Grant Richards Ltd.), 1913, pp. 173-174.

[5] Kinzer, Bruce, The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English Politics, (Garland), 1982.

[6] Gladstone to Samuel Smith MP, 11 April 1892, Matthew, H. C. G., (ed.), The Gladstone Diaries, Vol. 13, 1892-1896, (Oxford University Press), 1994, p. 19.

[7] The Times, 26 May 1896.

[8] Wright, A. E., ‘Militant Hysteria’, The Times, 28 March 1912, reprinted in Wright, Sir Almroth E, The Unexpurgated Case against Woman Suffrage, (Constable and Company Ltd.), 1913, pp. 77-86

[9] Owen, Harold, Woman Adrift. The Menace of Suffragism, (Stanley Paul), 1912, pp. 138-139.

[10] NUWSS, Anti-Suffrage Arguments, (Templar Printing Works), 1913, a poster.

[11] Ibid, Strachey, Ray, The Cause, 1928, pp. 319-320.

[12] Dicey, A. V., Letters to a Friend on Votes for Women, (John Murray), 1909, pp. 69-70.

[13] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 27 April 1892, Vol. 3, c1510.

[14] Bush, Julia, Edwardian Ladies and Imperial Power, (Leicester University Press), 2000, pp. 170-192.

[15] Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain, (Oxford University Press), 2007, pp. 23-139.

[16] Ibid, p. 4.

[17] Ibid, p. 5, results were summarised in The Anti-Suffrage Handbook, (National Press Agency), 1912.