English women’s fight for the right to vote began in the nineteenth century, and it started out politely enough. Bills were introduced in Parliament. Bills were defeated in Parliament.
What could be more polite than that?
In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies gathered local groups into a national organization and by 1914 it had 54,000 members. Most of them were respectable and middle class, and it’s not too much of a leap to assume that the campaign made a huge difference in individual women’s lives and in how they saw their role in the world. We can make a wild guess and say that many a couple argued about it over their respectable breakfast tables. Or didn’t argue and just let the tension build.
They also made the issue part of the national conversation.
The organization was efficient and nonviolent and the members were, for the most part, dedicated. And you know what? Women kept on not getting the vote.
Their work played out against a complicated background involving political parties and a lot of wrestling over not just whether women should vote but which men should. So as usual, we need a bit of background:
From as early as the 1830s, the Chartists, a working-class movement, had been pushing to open the vote up to all men. They presented petitions to Parliament: 1.25 million names on the first one, 3 million on the second, and nobody I checked with says how many on the third. In response, Parliament blew a raspberry and ignored them.
Before the First Reform Bill (that was in 1832) only 3% of adult males could vote. Your right to vote (or not vote) depended on how much you earned and what your property was worth.
After the bill, the vote was broadened but not to all men. Shopkeepers, tenant farmers, and small landowners got the vote. That’s in the counties. In the boroughs, householders who paid at least £10 a year in rent could vote and so could (gasp) some lodgers.
What’s the difference between counties and boroughs? Beats me, but that comes from Parliament’s own website, so it must be right. It’s probably about the difference between cities and the countryside, but don’t take my word on that. I’m a stranger here myself. The point is that more people could vote, but only a safely respectable kind of more. And since women had come into the conversation they were, for the first time, specifically excluded.
Isn’t progress a wonderful thing?
The Second Reform Act in 1867 did more of the same, doubling the number of men who could vote in England and Wales from 1 million to 2 million.
Leave Ireland and Scotland out of it, will you? This is complicated enough already.
By 1885, 8 million people out of a population of 45 million could vote–two-thirds of adult men. (Any numbers that don’t add up here can be blamed on women and children being left out of the accounting.)
So when women started pushing for the vote, the first question that popped its divisive little head up like a jack-in-the-box was, Which women? If all women had the vote, then presumably all men should as well. Or should only women who could meet the same property qualifications as men vote? Or how about unmarried women who met the qualifications, since married women were–or so the argument went–represented by their husbands. Or should it be only married women, since unmarried women were at best faintly embarrassing.
Or only women with those huge, amazing hats.
And this is where party politics came into it, because different choices were to the advantage of different parties.
And if that wasn’t complicated enough, the women’s suffrage movement was pulled between the women who wanted a single focus for the organization–votes for women–and those who wanted to address other issues too, because wasn’t the purpose of voting to have an impact on issues?
As women’s suffrage gained momentum, the Conservative Party could see the value of having propertied women vote: Well, of course they’d vote Conservative. And you could see why both non-propertied women and working-class (and presumably non-Conservative) men might oppose that. If the country allows only a small group of campaigners into the hall and they go in, closing the door on the rest of them, the people left outside might well ask themselves why they’d bothered supporting the ones who went in and didn’t return that support.
In 1893, the Independent Labour Party was formed–the forerunner of today’s Labour Party. Its goal was to represent the interests of the working class–a tough job at a time when large parts of the working class were still disenfranchised.
In those conflicting currents, the suffragists bobbed around, lobbying politicians and campaigning for candidates who supported women’s suffrage, getting their hopes raised and crushed with each new bill. But the question of whether women should vote was, increasingly, an issue that couldn’t be ignored. Even people who made fun of it couldn’t ignore it. The Liberal and Conservative parties formed party women’s groups. They weren’t where the power lay, but they involved women in the machinery.
In 1894, women who met the same qualifications as men gained the right to vote in local elections.
In 1897, a women’s suffrage bill that had looked promising was defeated. You probably know what follows when a movement with a lot of momentum runs into a wall. Either it collapses or it explodes.
It exploded. The Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in 1903. The names you might recognize here are Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela. The group appealed to working-class women, not just respectable ones, and they were called suffragettes by a hostile press. The name was meant as an insult but the group adopted it. Why not? The words Tory and Whig had originally been insults, and both groups ended by embracing them.
In 1905, Christabel and Annie Kenney got themselves arrested when they interrupted a political speech and unfurled a Votes for Women banner. And when I say “got themselves arrested,” I mean that Christabel had to work at it. The police threw them out of the hall and were going to let it go at that until Christabel spat in a police superintendent’s face and hit an inspector in the mouth.
That did the trick: They both got arrested, they refused to pay a fine, and they were jailed, one for three days and one for seven.
When they came out, they were met by a thousand supporters and the press, which got them national publicity.
By 1909 the WSPU was a national organization, selling 20,000 copies of its paper every week, and it had a genius for attention-grabbing actions. Members disrupted political speeches and by-elections. They tried to rush the House of Commons. They broke windows, blew up pillar boxes (which in other versions of the English language would be called mailboxes), attacked paintings in galleries, and bought gun licenses not so they could use guns but to scare the authorities into thinking they might.
They also chained themselves to railings, getting the grill that sectioned off the House of Commons Ladies Gallery removed by chaining themselves to it.
They took advantage of a Post Office service that allowed postmasters to “arrange for the conduct of a person to an address by an Express Messenger,” posting two women to the prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, so they could talk with him.
The delivery was refused.
The sad part was that social media hadn’t been invented.
It was the eye-catching actions that gave them their reputation, but most of what they did was legal and even peaceful. They drove (at the time that involved horses) around town with placards on carriages. They carried placards themselves, on foot. At a time when women were supposed to be quiet, passive, deferential, and to the best of their ability and training to imitate doormats, this was shocking enough, but they also addressed crowds in theaters and restaurants–crowds who hadn’t come to hear them and were often hostile. They threw leaflets from theater balconies. Many of them were roughed up by crowds of men or by the police.
In 1913, Emily Davison tried to stop a horse race and was hit by the king’s horse. She died of her injuries a few days later.
In a lot of these actions, women were arrested, and when they were released they were greeted by supporters, who sometimes pulled them through the streets in open carriages, increasing the visibility of their actions. And in prison, many of them went on hunger strikes and were force fed–a brutal and very painful process.
In The English Rebel, David Horspool asks whether their militancy delivered or delayed votes for women and answers that it probably did both. If you have trouble working that out, go argue with him. I’m not sure both are possible at the same time, but I can see his point anyway. The same argument goes on, although the parallels aren’t exact, when Black Lives Matter demonstrations spill over into rioting or looting. Does it help or does it hurt? It depends on where you do your counting and how. In the case of the suffragettes, even a century later historians can still argue over it.
Whatever the answer turns out to be, it won’t be a simple one.
In 1910, a bill that would have given unmarried women the vote failed. The Liberals thought it might harm their interests. The Conservatives weren’t strongly enough in favor. Militancy had been winding down, but the bill’s defeat wound it up a notch. Asquith’s car was attacked.
Somewhere in here, the Suffragists’ leadership–and the Pankhurst family–split over tactics. Should they work with men? How violent should their actions be? Should any bill introduced expand the vote for both men and women or should it only be for women?
I’ve been around political activism long enough for this all to sound familiar. If you get deep enough into politics, it can get very crazy very easily, but the alternative is–or at least seems to be–what someone I once knew called crackpot realism, where you dial your goals down to fit what looks possible, accomplishing somewhere between less than you wanted and nothing at all.
And there things stood when everything was interrupted by World War I. Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the European powers all dug trenches and shot at each other, and 20 million soldiers and civilians died. Another 21 million were wounded.
That was the war to end all wars.
Yeah, they really did say it would.
The more radical branch of the Suffragettes (that was Emmeline and Christabel’s) suspended their activities, partly, according to Horspool, because Emmeline and Christabel were exhausted but also because they were realistic about how much political oomph women’s suffrage could have in the circumstances. And they did something I find more interesting: They moved to the political right. They suspended the campaign for the vote, backed the war, changed their paper’s name from The Suffragette to Britannia, and diverted the organization’s funds to the war effort, but many suffragettes were pacifists and the organization broke up for good.
Their support for the war, according to Horspool, consisted of making speeches and editorializing in the direction of industrial workers, who were probably looking for their news and editorials elsewhere.
Sylvia’s branch of the Suffragettes had become the East London Federation. Its membership was working class and it aligned itself with the Labour Party, campaigning for both workers’ and women’s rights. And–since changing newspaper names was in style–it changed the Woman’s Dreadnought to the Workers’ Dreadnought.
In 1916, the government faced the prospect of an election in which most servicemen wouldn’t be able to vote because of a residency requirement.
The moderates (remember the suffragists, working politely away in the background?) made a pitch for women’s suffrage. The former radicals (remember half the Pankhursts?) withdrew their support for women’s suffrage in case if ended up disenfranchising servicemen.
Aren’t humans strange?
A compromise bill passed in 1918. It gave the vote to women over 30 who were qualified to vote in local elections or whose husbands were qualified. That was about 8 million women. And there it sat for the next ten years, when the voting age was dropped to 21 and all other restrictions were lifted–in other words, women voted on the same terms as men.
Christabel ran for Parliament as a Women’s Party candidate and lost. Later she became a born-again Christian and lectured in California. Emmeline moved to Canada for a while and lectured on social hygiene until the winters drove her out.
I know just how she felt–minus the social hygiene part.
What is social hygiene? “The practice of measures designed to protect and improve the family as a social institution; specifically: the practice of measures aiming at the elimination of venereal disease and prostitution.”
Bet you didn’t see that coming.