Women's Suffrage

Account for the Degree of support for Women's Suffrage in the Edwardian Period. By Suzanne Francis

The Women's Suffrage movement owed much to the growing involvement of women in progressive causes, such as Chartism and temperance reform in the Victorian era. It is difficult to judge the degree of support for Women's Suffrage in the Edwardian Era. Only a minority of women were active participants in the movement and some women were staunch anti-suffragettes. Men also tended to be anti-suffragist, although there were notable exceptions such as John Mill. However it seems likely that many people were gradually won over by the suffragists arguments. When these were complemented by legal changes that enabled women to take a greater role in politics people’s perceptions of women began to change. The role of the militants in this process is widely debated and is crucial to this question.

There were many arguments against Women's Suffrage and these were gradually undermined by a number of factors. These included changes in the law, women’s growing involvement in politics and the Women's Suffrage movement itself. One of the most important changes in this period is the increased involvement of women in local politics. The Municipal Act of 1869 granted the vote in local elections to Female householders. This Act enfranchised about 15% of women and therefore gave some women a voice in local politics. Many of these women also began to pay taxes when it became plausible for it to be argued that they should be involved in how that money was spent. In the late C19 women were also beginning to stand on school boards and as Poor Law guardians. All these developments combined to challenge the traditional notions of women as passive creatures who were uninterested in politics. However, many people who were still hostile to women having the vote could justify these measures as representing women’s natural concern for domestic issues - for example housing, education and health. However as the government’s role began to expand, the "distinction between national and local politics began to blur". This increasing participation in local politics gave women a chance to develop their political skills and many progressed into national politics when the situation was more welcoming.

Legal restrictions on the financing of elections began to take its toll on the political parties in the late nineteenth century and they were forced to take on volunteers to canvass for support. This gave many middle class and upper class women a chance to become involved in politics. Martin Pugh’s book, The Tories And The People, offers an interesting insight into one of the volunteer organisations of the period: the Primrose League. This was an association of the Conservative Party and contained many upper class women, who comprised about half of its members. These women were initially hostesses for Conservative dinner parties, but they began to take of more important role when they were recruited to canvass for candidates at election time. These upper class ladies were in a good position to canvass as their status gave them the respect that their male counterparts might not always receive. Pugh suggests that through their unique position of not being able to vote themselves they were able to flatter their target’s superior position and be more likely to win them over. Thus they too began to counter one of the main anti-suffragist arguments; that of men and women being confined to "separate-spheres". They were able to intervene on the traditionally male world of politics in a way that prevented them from being viewed as a threat. In fact many Conservative MPs saw how necessary their help was and started to support Women's Suffrage. To some extent this was reflected in their voting in the House of Common. In 1897 110 Conservative MPs voted against a bill for Women's Suffrage, whereas in 1908 this figure was reduced to 30. The women who joined the Primrose League therefore further undermined the anti-suffragist arguments that defined a woman’s role as being a purely domestic one and "women speakers began to be taken for granted on Conservative Platforms and audiences often called for a speech from the candidate’s’ wife".

Women also gradually became an economic force in the British Isles. And in the 1901 census it was revealed that 5,309,900 women were employed in the labour force. They therefore deserved a voice in how the country was run, especially in order to protect their own very vulnerable position in the labour force. However, this mainly concerned working class who would probably not be enfranchised anyway and middle class reformers and politicians were less likely to take their views into account.

Another fairly convincing argument against the enfranchisement of women was the "violent" nature of elections. Many anti-suffragists believed that these would pose a threat to the femininity of women and reduce their energy for their domestic duties. Nonetheless these arguments were undermined by the introduction of the 1872 Secret Ballot Act and the 1883 legislation to reduce corrupt expenditure. Gradually elections became a more civilised affair.

Another major fear held by many men was that as women constituted a majority of the population they would be able to force their will on men. This was a particularly potent argument where issues such as British imperialism and temperance reform were concerned. It was believed that as women were unable to fight they would not appreciate the need to sustain British imperialism and would place more emphasis on issues such as health and education. They also believed that the more sober sex would force stringent legislation onto them banning the consumption of alcohol. However, these arguments did not take account of existing franchise, which was limited to male property owners. The suffragists were aware that attaining adult women's suffrage would be an impossible task and they therefore demanded only suffrage on equal terms to men. This would mean only a minority of women had the vote. This has been estimated as including about a million widows and spinsters. Thus women would be unable to force their views onto men.

However, it was not only economic and legal changed that determined the amount of support for women's suffrage. The suffragists were crucial in placing the issue on the political agenda. The issue of how suffragist tactics affected the levels of support for the enfranchisement of women is a controversial one, The movement was roughly divided into two branches: the constitutionalists, who were represented mainly by the NUWSS and the militants who were represented mainly by the WSPU. The NUWSS relied on peaceful ways of attracting support: They organised petitions, sent speakers into the localities and kept in close contact with MPs sympathetic to their cause. They have been widely criticised for relying on backbenchers’ bills to extend the franchise to women. Nevertheless, although these bills were unlikely to be given sufficient Parliamentary time to be passed they were highly significant in raising MPs awareness of the issue. The bills also show a steady increase in support. The NUWSS also insisted on non-party adherence and this worked well until 1912 when they affiliated with the Labour Party. Before this time no party had adopted an official policy on the issue and thus by being equally supportive of all sympathetic MPs they gathered a lot of support. They were also clever in presenting the issue differently to the different parties. Hence when they were addressing the Conservative members they would emphasis the vote as a duty. When they were addressing Liberal or Labour MPs they would stress the vote as a fundamental right. In 1912 they allied themselves with the labour Party and offered to help with finance and volunteers at election time. In return Labour promised not to agree with any suffrage reform that did not include women. The fact that the Labour Party was able to do this was an important stage in the fight for women's suffrage. In previous years many socialists believed that agreeing to the enfranchisement of women on the very limited terms it had been proposed would slow down the process of achieving adult male suffrage. The fact that they agreed to support the NUWSS owed a lot to the influence of Kier Hardie who was able to see that any extension of the franchise would be beneficial and pave the way for further reform.

However, it is true to say that the constitutionalists had not achieved much until the militants raised the issue. It was only after they had brought widespread public attention to the issue that the constitutional suffragists began to see the benefit. The most controversial of the militant’s tactics was that of violence. By widespread attacks on property and the hunger strikes of the suffragists in prison public awareness of the issue of women's suffrage was raised. Many people were able to sympathise with the forcible feeding of inmates and the rough treatment of the militants. But nevertheless the public could not be expected to agree with breaking the law on this scale. Therefore the militants’ action had a dual effect: it may have raised public awareness but it also made the anti-suffragists’ denunciations of women as emotional and over-emotional ring true. Therefore why should women have the vote? They did suspend militancy briefly in 1911 after the successful reading of the Conciliation Bill looked likely to create a government bill. However, when their hopes were dashed they quickly resumed violence.

The militants have also been criticised for fighting against Liberal candidates at by-elections as they lost the support of sympathetic backbenchers. Pugh has pointed out that there were benefits to this policy, as if a Liberal candidate lost it was attributed to the militants. The militants attracted more people to the non-militant side of the movement, because although many did not agree with their tactics they did feel sympathy for the cause. This is shown by the fact that NUWSS membership rose from 12,000 to over 50,000.

Therefore it was a combination of factors that raised and sustained popular support for women's suffrage. Legal changes enabled women to take a more active role in politics and the suffragists both raised the issue of women's suffrage and countered the popular image of women. "The Suffragettes smashed the image of women as a passive, dependant creature as effectively as they smashed the plate glass window of Regent Street!". Although the militants may have detracted support for the cause after 1912 before this date they were vital in pushing the issue up the political agenda. The constitutional movement acted as a counterweight to them, attracted support from people who were put off by their violence and hysteria.

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