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Female Suffrage in Britain

Britain’s road to the female vote offers a lesson on change

The discourse in the 19th Century concerning the role of women in an industrialised era had keen eyes on the best sphere of life for women - traditionally the household, jeopardised by rising female employment in the 19th Century. This discourse, the ‘Woman Question’, influenced those who campaigned for female suffrage. It influenced the motivations, methods and values of suffrage campaigners. Feminist historians have tended to view the Woman Question as central to the question of suffrage, since the argument for voting rights could only be made by casting aside the idea that men were society’s main actors. A contemporary, Teresa Billington-Greig, made this point in 1912, saying that “the newly-awakened women of this generation will continue to be rebels so long as the badge of outlawry is placed upon their sex”. For her, the role of women should not be confined to the household such that it prevents their right to vote.

Campaigns for the female vote did not exist in a vacuum. They were part of a new British society which saw notable female involvement in the campaigns concerning Corn Laws, slavery and girls’ education. One of the finest and peculiarly feminine tastes of success in the 19th Century was the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1886 after the efforts of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA), led by the philosophical Josephine Butler. Subliminally discriminatory on the basis of sex, these Acts illuminated a double standard in Britain. Parliament celebrated delicate and homely feminine qualities, but the Acts made what amounted to a form of state regulated prostitution, helping to protect men in the Army and Navy from venereal diseases. Prostitution and the treatment of female prostitutes were soon brought into the Question. However temporarily, Butler and the repeal rattled Parliament, with one MP admitting that Butler’s approach had “shaken us very badly in the House of Commons... this is very awkward for us, this revolt of women” (my italics). This highlighted the unprecedented nature of women’s political role in this case. But the profound influence of this almost women-only campaign did not end with the Acts. Women including Florence Nightingale allied themselves with the female cause, and Butler herself toured the country disseminating her message, distributing hundreds of pamphlets which would be referenced in pamphlets in the suffrage movement. The position against the Acts was also used as a philosophical springboard to endorse female suffrage from the top. While in Edinburgh, the liberal John Stuart Mill, himself a hero of the suffrage cause, argued that suffrage is needed for “self-protection” and that laws and their administration treated women “as they could not long be treated if they had the suffrage”. Even within the domestic sphere, women could be treated unjustly as long as they had no share in the power to decide who may pass laws. Yet even within this sphere, women would have a new incentive to learn and cooperate, thus improving themselves as members of democracy.

Women were on the political scene. But their newfound political sensitivity did not compel all female campaigners to worship the vote. The campaign of the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was scarcely forthcoming on getting the vote at all costs and Lydia Baker of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS) even attempted to alienate Elizabeth Wolstenholme - one of the founders of the LNA - on grounds of her premarital pregnancy. Indeed, suffragists were relatively conservative. Two letters in 1912 from Women’s Liberal Associations and NUWSS to the liberal government addressed and distanced themselves from the ‘deplorable’ actions of militant suffragettes and endorsed reform through the constitutional framework in the spirit of Butler. Such campaigners not only opted for reform within acceptable methods but refused to sacrifice their morally superior identity as women, responsible as the homely, respectable role model. Even in the campaign for the vote these women felt bound by the notion of separate spheres. Teresa Billington-Greig argued for the vote because it would have been important for women in the home, and without this importance it is not unreasonable to conclude that she would have accepted the argument against female suffrage based on women’s sphere being the home. She scarcely extended her position to advocate for a change in female identity and, with others, became alienated from the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) that she once endorsed.

We can adopt the spirit of Butler and confront the ignorance of the establishment, but maintain that very establishment, tradition and custom, keeping our identity everywhere as we seek compromises for the greater good. We should not lose ourselves for any cause. Surely history has taught us that doing so is risky business at best. Martin Pugh agrees that the suffragists were content to campaign within the “grain of politics”. Members of WSPU even severed their links with the Labour Party in 1907 while the suffragists at the NUWSS winced at a divergence.

“I know that the defeat of the Amendments will prove to thousands of women that to rely only on peaceful, patient methods, is to court failure, and that militancy is inevitable” was Emmeline Pankhurst’s informal remark to ears of the suffragists at the beginning of 1913. Her outlook was to some extent determined by her interpretation of history, which was revealed later that year in a leaflet that called for violence because progressive events such as Magna Carta and the death of tyrants would not have occurred without it. This helps us capture the differences between the two major campaigns. While many of those behind non-militant methods of campaign were more inclined to a Whig interpretation that emphasised accomplishments of the 19th Century, militant groups seemed to embody their struggle with past militants who were unwavering on their principles but fought against the tide and lived on to see their victory. Barbara Caine reflects on these conflicting approaches in the struggle for the vote.

All of them felt, at various times, that they and other women had only very limited opportunities to influence or to bring about change in their society. Hence the wrong move or the wrong approach would be disastrous, setting back the whole feminist cause irremediably. This sense of vulnerability obviously placed great strain on feminists and helps to explain the intensity of opposition some of them felt to others who were ostensibly engaged in the same general cause.

Aspects of the Woman Question concerned with employment found an effective voice in campaigns for suffrage during and after WWI. It was perhaps this deadly conflict and the domestic experiences thereof, rather than the (obviously lesser) outbursts of Pankhurst’s lot that helped deliver the vote for women. The employment aspect of the Woman Question scarcely featured in the campaigns of suffragettes and suffragists until it became vital for the national war effort. It was men working within the existing structure who eventually highlighted the industrial contributions of women. As argued by Nicoletta Gullace, “in the parliamentary wrangling over new voting laws, women’s heroic war work, their loyal sacrifice of sons, and the patriotic service of suffrage organisations would be evoked again and again by male legislators explaining their “conversion” to the cause of women’s suffrage”. The female war effort was addressed directly as a reason for enfranchisement by NUWSS in its letter to the Prime Minister in March 1917:

We hold Women’s Suffrage to be a measure essential to the welfare of the country at this crisis. War conditions have greatly extended the sphere of industrial service for women. As a consequence of their wider national service it would be positively dangerous for a Parliament which did not represent women to deal with the problems of industrial and social reconstruction which have to be considered after the war.

WWI was an event that helped shape interpretations of the Woman Question, turning the notion of separate spheres on its head and bringing aspects like employment into the campaign for the vote because campaigners may have sensed that the balance of the Question had turned in their favour. It was the perfect time to emphasize the importance of female employment, and especially exploit messages like, “wherever the women cooks were employed, there was cleanliness where there had been dirt, good cooking where there had been indifferent, and economy where there had been waste” (London Evening News, November 1917). Such sentiment demonstrably helped to bridge the gap between the two spheres, but because the values associated specifically with women were applauded in both. Did the Woman Question or interpretations of women really change? I think the 1960s gave a firmer affirmative to such a question, not the era that gave the female vote. Both suffragist and suffragette would raise a firm eyebrow at the 1960s

It is best for those who live under any laws and customs to have an informed say in their existences. But chaotic, unjustifiably prejudiced or uninformed behaviour in individuals or the masses will suspend laws or make us worse off if such individuals and masses have a say in law, order and custom. Barbaric behaviour is risky business for change. We can talk of the French Revolution. We can remember Jordan Peterson’s command to get our own homes in order before we seek to change the world. The suffragette movement came rather late. While it may have breathed fresh life into a stalling suffrage movement, it is hard to imagine that the female vote would not have arrived soon anyway with continued discourse and the art of persuasion and downright reasonableness. The suffragists had the stronger nerve. In the spirit of Mill, we should keep an open mind, learn and understand the experiences of others. And we should hazard to give others a chance and not have to rely on our experiences in major events to justify enacting some change. It is the understanding from such experiences that helps us convince each other, propels us forward and justifies our movements. Society built on listening and a healthy discourse with reasonable individuals is a society built on a rock. But a rock is uneasy to move, so by way of the existing establishment should change be delivered, and only by comparing two times far apart should two very different establishments be discerned.

Adaptation. Such is Great Britain.

Jack Margetson

The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs


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