Suffragists, sufragettes, and votes for women

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.

Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker. Not, obviously, a real one. A flower.

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. 

Crisis. Conference. 

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. 

The hazards of professional virginity

Like most people, Elizabeth I was born a virgin. Unlike most people, she made it into a career move.

Why wouldn’t she? She didn’t have a lot of conventional material to work with.  

Liz was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. When she was two and not yet thinking about career options, Henry had Anne beheaded and replaced her with an unsteady stream of wives. As wife replaced wife and minutely argued religious justification replaced tediously argued religious justification, Liz was alternately Henry’s legitimate child and his illegitimate child, a princess and not a princess, pushed off to the margins and brought into court to share in all the who-gets-it-next worries of Henry’s inner circle.

It all depended on which way the religious, political, and sexual winds were blowing. 

Irrelevant photo: A flower I don’t remember the name of.

Being born female wasn’t a great career move. Henry’s goal in life was to magic a male heir out of wife number whichever, and as he got older that seemed to depend more and more on magic, or at least on luck, than on the usual methods. And although Liz was said to be very bright, she never figured out how to grow the odd appendage that being a male heir depended on.

She was thirteen when her father died and her nine-year-old half-brother, Edward, became king. Or maybe he was ten. Maybe she was fourteen. It depends who you ask. I asked two different BBC posts, not some fly-by-night bloggers who make it up as they go along. (You know what bloggers are like.) The BBC’s generally reliable on these things, but Ed’s age a side issue, so let’s smirk and move on.

But let me insert a brief interruption here, since I’ve already interrupted myself. I’m about to stash Liz on the shelf for a while and talk about her relatives. And about religion. Because nothing in her life, including the whole virginity shtick, makes sense unless you know the background.

Edward was intensely Protestant (that’s a general link about the Tudors and the Reformation, not particularly about Edward), and more to the point, so were the men (or man–it’s complicated) who ran the country in his name. They set about consolidating the Protestant reformation that Henry, however inconsistently, had begun. If Henry can be said to have started the English reformation. Ask Lord Google something as simple as whether Henry was a Protestant and the answer seems to be yes. And also no. You can think of his Church of England as the Catholic Church but without a Pope. And with a bible in English instead of in Latin. And–

But we’re getting sidetracked. We weren’t talking about Henry, we were talking about Edward. He was Protestant, so everyone had to be Protestant, or at least live as if they were. Because that’s the way it was back then. The state and religion were as tangled together as that string of Christmas lights you drag out of the back of the closet every year. Or more so, because if you work at it you’ll get the lights untangled by Easter, but the religion and politics of the era were so completely welded together that you can just stop trying.

Liz was twenty (give or take a few months) when Edward died. After the collapse of a brief effort to put another Protestant on the throne, Liz’s sister, Mary, became queen. And Mary was as Catholic as Edward was Protestant, so now the country had to be Catholic. (The link is to a brief but interesting piece on Mary’s reign and the progression of her attempts to turn the country Catholic again.)

Mary brought back the old heresy laws. Protestants were burned at the stake. Everyone had a wonderful, time, thanks, and sent cards to say they wished we’d been there.

Then Mary died childless. It was a thing with the Tudors, not finding heirs where they expected them. So it’s time to take Liz off the shelf. 

Liz was now twenty-five, unmarried, female, and the new queen of an uneasy country. She was also Protestant, although more mildly so than Edward. She didn’t have a lot of choice about being Protestant. If she’d been a Catholic, her mother wouldn’t have been married, making Liz a bastard, which was an even worse career move than being a woman.

What kind of country was she now in charge of?

One that for years had been lurching from Catholicism to Protestantism to Catholicism, and now back to Protestantism. People holding church or public office had to swear that the queen, not the Pope, was the head of the English church. Everyone had to attend church or be fined for it. The service was in English, not Latin (score one for the Protestants), although it was full of fancy robes and incense and expensive toys (score one for the Catholis). The idea was to keep both sides happy and inside a single church. Liz famously said she didn’t want to open windows into men’s souls, meaing she didn’t care what they believed, but she did want them to play nice and do what she told them to, which included showing up at her church.

For a long time England had been a nervous place and it still was, with everyone looking over their shoulder, and over everyone else’s shoulder, wanting to know who hid Protestant books when the country was Catholic, who said an illegal Latin mass when the country was Protestant, who defended the Pope as the head of the English church when the monarch was its head or the other way around, not to meniton who claimed the queen was born not just a virgin but a bastard and who had a forbidden Jesuit priests hidden away.

And it wasn’t just individuals looking over their shoulders. Elizabeth’s government lived in fear of rebellion and invasion.

No one was being paranoid about any of this. Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth were real, as were rebellions. Spy networks searching for hidden Catholic priests were just as real. Catholic Spain tried to invade and was thwarted as much by the weather as by England’s navy. Everybody fought proxy wars in Ireland and the Netherlands. 

And just to complicate the picture, Protestant groups were pushing for a purer form of Protestantism, and predictably they weren’t all of one mind either. As soon as the bible became available in English for any literate person to read, it was also available for them to interpret, and their interpretations took them in a variety of directions.

Anabaptists believed in the separation of church and state and leaned toward social equality. Puritans wanted no bishops, no fripperies, no fun, and nothing that reminded them of Catholicism. We’ll skip over the other groupings and grouplets. It’s enough to know they existed. The one thing they all agreed on was that the Church of England was nothing more than a sugar-free version of the Catholic Church.

So this was a time of spies, plots, paranoia, torture, and bloodshed.

Who shed more blood, Elizabeth or Mary? I couldn’t find sources that would let me compare like with like, but I’m left with the impression that Mary wins–as in she killed more Protestants than Liz killed Catholics. But that hardly makes Liz’s reign a comfortable time.

Throughout this period, the country was split into three camps: 1. Catholics, who wanted freedom for their religion; 2. Protestants, who wanted freedom for their religion; and 3. people who were willing to be either Protestant or Catholic as long as whoever was in power would refrain from (a) throwing them in jail, (b) burning them at the stake, (c) fining them, or (d) noticing them at all in case they thought of something else to do to them.

This was before the introduction of public opinion, polls and if they’d been around you’d have had to be crazy to answer one honestly. Still, I think it’s a fair bet that the majority of the population fell into the third camp. They kept their heads down and if anyone had offered them a tin hat they’d have worn it as protection against the religious shrapnel that was flying in all directions.

What the country needed was stability–a nice long stretch of time when whatever the approved religion was didn’t change and people had time to get used to it. Enough time to remember what they were supposed to believe and, more importantly, what not to say in public.

And what did stability depend on? First off, the monarch had to not die.  Liz did a good job of that. Secondly, the monarch had to magic up an heir to the throne, preferably male, and here’s where Liz had a problem, because if there’s one thing everyone knows about virginity, it’s that it decreases the odds that you’ll produce a kid. And if your job title is virgin queen, you are now looking at an occupational hazard.

But virginity’s not a terminal condition, so why didn’t Liz marry?

There could’ve been a hundred emotional reasons, and if you’re writing historical fiction you have your choice of everything from early trauma to liking girls instead of boys. Sadly, we’re stuck with the facts, and we have none. Whatever Liz felt, she kept it to herself. This wasn’t a touchy-feely time. No one would’ve said, “Gee, Liz, that must’ve been hard. Want to sit down and have a good cry?”

So let’s look at the condition of women in Tudor England, because it explains a lot and it can be documented. Quick summary? It wasn’t a great time to be a woman. You can skip the next few paragraphs if that’s all you need to know.

Women were considered physically, intellectually, and emotionally weak. They not only weren’t fit to rule a country, they weren’t fit to rule a family. Hell, they weren’t fit to rule themselves. We’ll let the Scot John Knox stand in for an entire culture here. 

“God hath revealed to some in this our age that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above man.”

Even a man who meant to praise Liz could only manage to say, “Her mind has no womanly weakness. Her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.” 

The era was still working with the medieval Great Chain of Being, with god at the top, followed by the various ranks of angels and after them the various ranks of humans. Among humans, kings were at the top, which gave them divine right to rule. Then came the varied ranks of nobles and the descending ranks of commoners. And in all these ranks, men were set above women. It was the natural order, as handed down by god himself. It was catalogued all the way down through dragonflies and snakes and plants and rocks.

Male rocks were set above female rocks.

Salt, please, someone.

So when Elizabeth took the throne, crown lawyers worked up a  theory called the king’s two bodies to legitimize her. She wasn’t a woman, exactly: 

“When she ascended the throne, according to this theory, the queen’s whole being was profoundly altered: her mortal ‘body natural’ was wedded to an immortal ‘body politic.’ ‘I am but one body, naturally considered,’ Elizabeth declared in her accession speech, ‘though by [God’s] permission a Body Politic to govern.’ ”

Got that?

Me neither. You pretty much had to be there for it to make sense. 

Now let’s back up a bit and talk about marriage in general. If women were weak, silly, emotional creatures, what happened when one of them married? Well, for everyone’s good, she stopped having to obey her father and started having to obey her husband, and any property she inherited became her husband’s. The best move a woman could make if she wanted her independence was to become a widow.

This, unfortunately, wasn’t always easy to arrange.

And if a queen married? She’d be expected to take second place to her husband, of course. When Liz’s brother was king, Thomas Seymour was executed for–allegedly–trying to marry Liz so he could rule the kingdom. The assumption was that as her husband he’d have that right.

Any queen who meant to rule her own kingdom would have been wise to stay single, because her husband would be expected to rule her and own the property she inherited–in other words, her kingdom.

So no marriage for Liz. She became a professional virgin, married to her country. She flirted diplomatically with the occasional suitor and shed them all when diplomacy either dictated or allowed.

Most of the available monarchs or near-monarchs were Catholic in any case. 

That left the problem of an heir. And I repeat, because it’s a complicated concept: Not producing children is an occupational hazard if you’re a professional virgin.

The best solution was to work up a cult around Liz’s virginity, turning it from a problem into a virtue. And so Liz has come down in history not just as an unmarried queen but as the Virgin Queen, ablaze with capital letters. England, its church, and its culture were only minutes away from Catholicism, and a cult around a virgin must’ve seemed natural. The culture already equated virginity–at least female virginity–with purity, which was useful. 

The cultural obsession with whether or not a woman’s ever had sex strikes me as completely bizarre, not to mention intrusive. But again, you had to be there. All cultures get trapped inside their ways of thinking, and when you’re inside one it’s hard to imagine any other way for a mind to work. If virginity equals purity, then who could step outside long enough to question it? 

The lack of an heir hung over her reign and she managed to avoid making a decision about who it would be until she was on her deathbed, when she made a sign that one of her advisors conveniently interpreted as meaning she’d chosen the successor he thought was the best of the available choices.

Funny how that works.

*

Now let’s take a minute to talk about sex in the Tudor era. It’s not exactly relevant, but I did stumble into some information and it’s not completely off the topic.

The Tudor Society website (“the Tudor Society is a well established Tudor history group,” whatever that means) says people “were forbidden to have sex during Lent, Advent, Feast Days, Fast Days, Easter Week, Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays…. Women were also forbidden to have sex when they were menstruating, pregnant, for the forty day period after giving birth or when they were breastfeeding.”

So few days were left that no business got done on non-feast, -fast, or -reproductively related Mondays, Tuesdays, or Thursdays. Or Fridays, when they were catching up on their sleep.

Salt.

“The act of sexual intercourse within marriage was to be done only in the missionary style and there was no room or allowance for experimentation. The Church also taught that the missionary position was the best way to conceive a male child and other positions could lead to creating a deformed child. The Church believed that both men and women needed to produce seed to create a child, therefore it was necessary that a woman obtained an orgasm. ” 

I’m not sure which church they mean here–Catholic or Church of England–but I doubt that particular set of beliefs changed with the shift from Latin to English and back again, so it doesn’t matter.