The story of Votes for Women

Submitted by Matthew on 14 February, 2018 - 1:06 Author: Jill Mountford

The first leaflet in Britain to “insist” on woman’s suffrage was written in 1847 by a prominent woman Chartist, Anne Knight. Seventy years later women over 30, with certain property qualifications, were granted the right to vote as part of the Representation of the Peoples Act in February 1918.

The fight for women’s suffrage is best known for the militant campaign waged by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and conducted for almost a decade from 1905 to 1914. However, the history of the fight for women’s suffrage goes way beyond those militant nine years and the activities of the WSPU. From the very beginning there were women who argued clearly and specifically for votes for women but did so from a belief in universal suffrage.

Anne Knight argued the Chartists should campaign for “true universal suffrage”, asking “can man be free, if a woman is a slave?” In that first women’s suffrage leaflet she wrote, “Never will the nations of the earth be well governed, until both sexes, as well as all parties, are fully represented and have an influence, a voice, and a hand in the enactment and administration of the laws”. Anne’s demands for “true universal suffrage” came just before the decline of the Chartist movement from 1848.

It was Anne Knight and Anne Kent, founders of the Sheffield Female Political Association in 1851, who published the first petition demanding women’s suffrage in England. It was presented to the House of Lords and defeated. A year later, in the 1852 General Election, Anne Knight wrote, “...forbidden to vote for a man who inflicts the laws I am compelled to obey — the taxes I am compelled to pay... taxation without representation is tyranny”. More than fifty years later Dora Montefiore, socialist feminist, adult suffragist and member of the Social Democratic Federation organises a “tax resistance siege” demanding, “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay”. Seventeen years after Anne Knight’s leaflet a group of women suffragists, including Dr Elizabeth Garrett (later Anderson and sister of Millicent Garrett, later Fawcett), Barbara Bodichon and Dorothea Beale from the Kensington Society launched a new petition for votes for women. For some women. Established in 1865, their group was made up of women of “above average thoughtfulness and intelligence who are interested in common subjects”.

This was admirable aim, but theirs was, inevitably, an exclusive club of educated middle-class women with independent means and time to think. With three radical MPs supporting their demands — the recently elected John Stuart Mill, Henry Fawcett and Peter Alfred Taylor, — an amendment was put forward to the 1867 Reform Act to grant women the same political rights as men. The amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73. After this defeat the Kensington Society formed the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. Similar groups were being set up elsewhere in the country, one of the more prominent being the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

Previously it had been the Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women. It was established by Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy with Richard Pankhurst being an early member, 14 years before he met and married Emmeline Goulden. Richard Pankhurst, a radical barrister and advisor to Lydia Becker (who was now the Secretary of the MNSWS), drafted a successful amendment to the Municipal Franchise Act, giving the vote to women rate payers in local elections and granted women the right to stand in elections as Poor Law Guardians. As an active member of the MNSWS, Pankhurst drafted the first women’s enfranchisement bill to go to Parliament in 1870. He also worked with Wolstenhome-Elmy to draft the Married Women’s Property Bill. Elmy was secretary of the Married Women’s Property Committee. The Bill became the Married Women’s Property Act in the same year.

Barbara Bodichon had been infuriated by women’s non-existence in marriage decades early and in 1854 she researched and wrote a pamphlet, A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws concerning Women, listing all the laws that negatively impacted on women’s lives and opportunities. In 1856 she wrote another, more radical pamphlet entitled Women and Work. In it she argued “No human being has the right to be idle... Women must ... be trained to do some work in the world”. She argued that existing laws were degrading to women, that a lack of women’s rights within marriage made marriage little more than “legal prostitution”. In that same year Bodichon set up a small committee to petition for women’s rights within marriage and gathered 26,000 signatures calling for a change in the law.

Self-conscious of the size of the petition bundle, she asked an apple seller outside Parliament to keep it under her stall until she was able to meet John Stuart Mill who was receiving it. The apple seller asked what it was about and insisted she added her name to the petition.

It is crude and short sighted to dismiss the work of middle class or bourgeois feminists as only being concerned about the lives of middle-class and well-heeled women. Bodichon mixed with socialists, radicals and artists; she was insatiably curious, thoughtful and open minded. Along with other middle-class feminists they challenged the status quo, broke the norms imposed on women and, as Mary Foster , an Independent Labour Party (ILP) member from Leeds wrote “the bourgeois women’s movement in all lands has tended to open up the minds of women generally to an examination of the questions which especially affect their sex”. She went onto say but “it cannot be compared in importance and significance with the organisations for working women ... to advance the cause of labour and political freedom.”

From 1867 to the 1884 women’s suffrage was debated almost every year in Parliament. Supported by radical Liberal MPs, under pressure and persuasion from a variety of women’s suffrage societies armed with petitions and always prepared to lobby, Bills and amendments were drafted, argued and defeated time and again. The 1884 Reform Act increased the number of men who could vote in Parliamentary elections by around six million. It gave the counties the same voting rights as the boroughs, that is, to male householders and £10 lodgers. Around 60% of men now had the right to vote.

Despite petitioning and lobbying from 100 women of “liberal opinion” led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and 79 Liberal MPs supporting votes for women on the same grounds as men, the Liberal prime minister, Gladstone, refused to include women in the Bill. He claimed that doing so would lead to the whole Bill being defeated. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the movement for women’s suffrage started to gather pace. This coincided with a huge wave of industrial militancy around the “new unions” and the beginnings of organised labour developing its own political representation.

The movement for women’s suffrage was, inevitably, dominated by middle-class women but for the first time working-class women found a voice and articulated that the right to vote was of interest to them. Women such as Selina Cooper, an early member of the ILP and a seasoned trade unionist who had campaigned against sexual harassment in the workplace and for women’s equality in her union, became key figures in organising working-class women around the fight for women’s suffrage.

In 1897 seventeen women’s suffrage groups from around the country joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Millicent Fawcett was the president from 1907 to 1919. NUWSS had 50,000 members at its peak and organised thousands of working-class women, particularly mill workers in Lancashire and Yorkshire. As a “constitutionalist” campaign, the NUWSS was a cross-party organisation that lobbied, petitioned, and evangelised all over the country about a woman’s right to vote.

The history of women’s suffrage has been a bit too dismissive of the NUWSS and the working-class women involved with it, instead focusing on the militant campaign of the WSPU. Many prominent women in the labour movement, around different socialist groups, were not persuaded that women’s suffrage was the priority campaign above that of workers’ rights and particularly women workers’ rights. Women such as Margret McMillan, Katherine Bruce Glasier and Enid Stacey all became more active in socialist politics as a direct result of the industrial militancy of 1888-89. Stacey thought women’s rights to be a “middle-class fad”. It was not until 1898 that Julia Dawson, creator of the Clarion Vans*, said she was “converted to women’s suffrage”. However from the 1900s she focused on the fight for adult suffrage.

Others such as Mary Gawthorpe, Ethel Annakin (later Snowden) and Teresa Billington (Grieg), were all involved in socialist politics in the 1880s and 90s before women’s suffrage became a central political issue. All then placed their full-time focus on the fight for votes for women. Dora Montefiore started out as a campaigner for women’s suffrage in Australia. When she returned to Britain in 1892 she continued this work with the NUWSS. But not until 1898 did she get involved in socialist politics, firstly with the Clarion Van. As her politics evolved she joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), did a short stint in the WSPU, and then campaigned for adult suffrage.

Isabella Ford, Selina Cooper and Ada Neild Chew all managed to maintain their work as socialist propagandists while travelling all over the country campaigning for votes for all women. Five years after the launch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) a growing group of women were getting frustrated by all the “fiddle faddling” and lack of progress, as Elizabeth Wolstenhome Elmy, at the age of 70, complained.

Sylvia Pankhurst recalls how on, “the 10 October [1903], at 62 Nelson St a few women members of the ILP [met and] the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed.” And so began a new phase of struggle for women’s suffrage.

Part two of this article

* Horse-drawn carriages which toured small towns and villages in England and Scotland spreading socialist ideas.