WHY HAD THE WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT FAILED TO ACHIEVE THE VOTE BY 1914?
Sean Lang, Parliamentary Reform, 1785-1928 (1999)
standard version of the story of the fight for female suffrage sees it as
a straight contest between the suffragettes and a chauvinistic male
establishment, headed - not to say embodied - by the prime minister,
Asquith, and encompassing blinkered politicians, burly policemen and
brutal prison warders. This
[traditional] version has the merit of simplicity, with obvious heroes and
villains, which makes it well suited to general public consumption;
unfortunately it ignores some of the important paradoxes of the story.
most obvious was that, on the whole, male politicians were by no means
opposed to some form of female suffrage.
The Labour Party supported it, and leading Labour figures like Keir
Hardie and George Lansbury were deeply involved in the issue...
A substantial section of the Liberal Party, quite possibly the
majority, supported it, as did many leading Liberals, including Churchill,
Lloyd George, and Sir Edward Grey.
Although there was more opposition to it among the Conservatives,
as was perhaps to be expected, a number of leading Conservatives supported
it, including the party leader, Balfour.
Hunt had tried to amend the 1832 Reform Act to apply to women…
Female suffrage was a long-standing aim on the Left, ever since
1792… It was not a
peripheral issue, especially after John Stuart Mill's celebrated motion to
include it in the 1867 Reform Act.
The arguments in favour of it were regularly outlined in Lydia
and in the almost annual parliamentary debates on the private members'
bills on the issue from the 1870s onwards, at least three of which made it
to second reading….
1869 single women ratepayers got the vote in municipal elections and in
1870 in elections to the new School Boards; women could also vote under
the 1888 Local Government Act and in 1894 they were allowed to sit on
local councils. By 1900
there were something like a thousand female elected Poor Law Guardians,
including Mrs Pankhurst… Women
had begun to establish themselves in the universities and in the learned
professions like medicine and the law.
The development of new technology provided young women in
particular with a whole range of work in typing pools, offices, telephone
exchanges, department stores and elementary schools …
The central question would seem to be not so much how it was that
men could have been so blinkered as not to give women the vote, but rather
how it was that, with such a tide of emancipation flowing in their favour,
and given the deeply ingrained Victorian belief in giving the vote to
those who had proved themselves worthy of it, women should have missed
their chance so completely that by 1914 the vote actually seemed further
off than ever.
Why did they fail to get the vote when they had so much success and support?
of the answer lies in the parliamentary problems posed by defining the
suffragists' and suffragettes' actual aim.
The suffragette slogan was 'Votes for Women', but which women? At
the time there was no universal suffrage for men, so only those on the
Left who actually wanted genuinely universal suffrage interpreted it to
mean Votes for All Women (an aim which in turn raised the awkward prospect
of an electorate in which women would be the majority).
For others, Votes for Women would mean deciding where to draw the
line between voting and non-voting women…
It could be drawn along property lines,
but many in the Liberal and especially the Labour parties were opposed
to [giving the vote to] Conservativevoting ladies.
For this reason, politicians like Lloyd George, who supported
female suffrage, nevertheless opposed specific female suffrage measures,
such as the property-based Conciliation Bill.
bottom line was that no party, and certainly no party leader, would
support a measure which was likely to harm his own party…
In any case, with the House of Lords vetoing government proposals
far less controversial than female suffrage, the issue was highly unlikely
to get through Parliament even had it enjoyed government support, until
after the powers of the Lords had been reduced by the 1911 Parliament Act.
Even then parliamentary logistics worked against it.
It was established practice that measures affecting the franchise
were to be put into practice as soon as possible after they passed into
law, which meant drawing up new electoral registers and holding a general
election. For this
reason parliamentary reform bills were usually introduced towards the end
of a parliamentary session, so as to give the government time to get some
legislation under its belt before facing another election.
Where these measures were likely to meet opposition in the Lords,
as female suffrage most certainly would, this would not leave enough time
for the measure to go through the Commons the three times required under
the terms of the 1911 Act in order to overcome the Lords' veto.
House of Lords
question of which women should get the vote, and on what basis, had an
even more divisive effect on the already chronically divided women's
suffrage movement. Millicent
whole question of female suffrage was bound to be controversial and
divisive, but many of the suffragette tactics seemed deliberately geared
to aggravate these divisions. They
appeared to go out of their way to heckle and alienate Liberal ministers
like Lloyd George and Churchill who were actually in favour of female
increasingly autocratic and dictatorial leadership of the Pankhursts and
Pethick Lawrences, who demanded absolute obedience from everyone around
them, caused intense bitterness among their supporters.
In 1912 the Pankhursts even drove out the Pethick Lawrences, and
according to Sylvia Pankhurst her sister Christabel expelled her from the
WSPU saying `You have a democratic constitution for your [East London]
Federation; we do not agree with that ...’.
To make matters worse, although the WSPU proved good at mounting impressive processions and pilgrimages to link the cause to noble themes from British history, the good effects of these spectacles was outweighed by the Pankhursts' increasing obsession with issues of sex and prostitution… The Pankhursts [became] stridently anti-male, ruthlessly dropping even the most loyal of their male supporters from the WSPU, and claiming, as Christabel did in 1913 in The Great Scourge, that men were little more than carriers of venereal disease. This was simply ammunition for those who dismissed the suffragettes as cranks.
Obession with sex
by far the most controversial and divisive aspect of the whole controversy
over female suffrage was the suffragettes' use of violence...
No other issue split the women's movement so decisively.
The middle-class activists of the much larger NUWSS were dismayed
to see the effects of their hard work jeopardised by the suffragette
tactics; even stronger was the disgust of working-class suffragists.
One suffragette activist emerged from seven days in Holloway to
find she had to run a gauntlet of her suffragist workmates, who spat at
her as she walked between them.
It was all very well for middle-class suffragettes to get
themselves arrested, knowing they had servants at home to see to their
children and keep the household running; working-class women, for whom the
suffragettes had little enough time anyway, could hardly afford to engage
in that sort of behaviour - nothing alienated women from the suffragettes
more than this insistence on violence.
crucial point, of course, is not so much its impact on the suffragists but
its effect on the government. Obviously,
the WSPU itself justified its use of violence, pointing out that men had
used violence in 1831-2 and in 1866-7, and some historians have agreed
with them; the weight of evidence, however, seems to be very firmly the
other way…. it is very
hard to see what the suffragettes had to show by 1914 for ten years of
campaigning. On the
other hand, they had hardened attitudes against them in Parliament and in
the TUC. There was
already concern that, if given the vote, women would swamp parliament with
'female' issues of social reform or education, and considerable resentment
at the thought that women might get the vote and yet be exempt from
military service. Now
the suffragette campaign seemed to justify the widely-held belief that
women were not physically or mentally stable enough to be trusted with the
vote. Above all,
Suffragette violence had very effectively alienated the prime minister,
and in a political situation where so much depended on the personal
attitude of the prime minister this was a fatal mistake.
Asquith had been quite prepared to look at the issue of female
suffrage [but] suffragette violence not only repulsed him personally but
made it virtually impossible for him to bend on the issue even had he
wished to, since it would make it appear as if he were giving in to
threats. Bearing in mind
that he was also dealing at the same time with violent industrial conflict
and with the threat of civil war in
most that can be claimed for suffragette violence is that it kept the
issue on the political agenda and made it impossible for the government
to ignore [but] historians like David Morgan, who have looked at female
suffrage in its political context rather than in isolation, are in no
doubt that militancy harmed the women's cause: `while it kept the Suffrage
pot boiling [it] served little real purpose, losing in Parliament more
supporters than were gained, and hardening enemies as little else could
have'. Even outrage at
the treatment of suffragette prisoners had its limits: Edgar Feuchtwanger
describes how 'arrests, imprisonment followed by release ossified into a
kind of ritual and no longer moved the public' - a sort of `outrage
And working class women
And the government
And the Prime Minister
there is even a danger of overestimating the importance of the issue
itself to Asquith's government… the question was not discussed in
cabinet until June 1910, well after the cycle of hunger strikes and forced
feeding had begun. It is
quite clear that the government's main concerns lay with the forthcoming
battle with the House of Lords and the showdowns with the trade unions and
the Nationalists and unionists in Ireland, not to mention the naval race
with Germany and the increasingly unstable political situation in Europe;
female suffrage was essentially an issue of major but secondary
importance… It all
added up to a good case for delaying a decision on female suffrage until
things looked a bit more settled.
conclusion, therefore, the failure of the women's suffrage movement to
attain its objective by 1914 may be ascribed to a number of factors.
High on the list must be suffragette militancy and violence,
coupled with the personal style of management adopted by the Pankhursts…
Neither the suffragettes nor the suffragists succeeded in
concluding a firm alliance with either of the major political parties, and
the suffragettes squandered their potentially very useful link with the
ILP. They were perhaps
unfortunate in that Asquith was so personally opposed to women's suffrage,
but the depth and strength of his opposition was almost entirely a product
of suffragette militancy, to which must also be ascribed the low level of
public support and the generally hostile national press.
They were also unfortunate in that their campaign coincided with
other, more titanic struggles in