Fighting for the vote suffragists
In the course of the 19th century, the vote gradually became central to feminist demands. It was seen as important both symbolically (as a recognition of women’s rights to full citizenship) and practically (as a necessary way of furthering reforms and making practical changes in women’s lives). But winning the vote proved a complicated struggle, and one that lasted for decades. The determination and the persistence with which women argued, and increasingly demonstrated, for the right to vote makes an inspiriting story; all the more so given the equal determination, and at times the virulence, with which their claims were opposed. And opposed, often, by women as well as men.
There had been some early demands for women’s suffrage: William Thompson, influenced by Anna Wheeler, had eloquently made the case for their representation as early as 1825. Marion Reid, writing in 1843, dismissed current cliches about woman’s proper ‘sphere’, as well as the notion that woman’s supposed influence over man gave her everything she needed. She went on to stress the importance, not just of the vote, but of even a token presence in parliament. Perhaps ‘a few women among the constituents of members of parliament’ might induce that body ‘to pay some little attention on the interests of women’. In 1847, an elderly Quaker, Anne Knight, issued a pamphlet arguing for women’s right to be represented. Harriet Taylor, who became John Stuart Mill’s wife, argued for ‘The
Enfranchisement of Women’ in the Westminster Review in 1851; while in 1869, Mill himself made the case eloquently and at some length in The Subjection of Women. Women, he conceded, are not likely to differ from men of the same class; but ‘if the question be one in which the interests of women as such are in some way involved’, then they ‘require the suffrage, as their guarantee ofjust and equal consideration’.
There was, of course, nothing like complete male suffrage at this period. Even as late as the 1870s, only about one-third of adult men could vote, and though the Reform Act of 1884 increased that number, still only somewhere between 63% and 68% of men were enfranchised. But, ironically, the legal position of women had actually worsened with the Reform Act of 1832, which specifically excluded women by substituting ‘male person’ for the more inclusive and general word ‘man’, which, it could be argued, might be interpreted as meaning ‘human being’. In the same year, a radical known as ‘Orator’ Hunt was asked to present parliament with a petition (which had been drawn up by a wealthy Yorkshire spinster called Mary Smith) arguing that ‘every unmarried female possessing the necessary pecuniary qualifications’ should be allowed to vote. The petitioner, Hunt pointed out, paid taxes like any man; moreover, since women could be punished at law, they should be given a voice in the making of laws, as well as the right to serve on juries.
But the struggle for the vote was only beginning, and it was never straightforward. There were divisions between those arguing for adult suffrage, and those who wanted to campaign simply on behalf of women. And amongst the latter, there was disagreement about which women should be enfranchised. Many early demands for women’s suffrage concentrated on spinsters; Frances Power Cobbe, for example, argued the case for women property owners and taxpayers. These limited demands were partly a matter of tactics (if some women won the vote, it would at least set a precedent, which might later be more easily extended), but it was often assumed,
dismissively, that a wife’s interests were identical with her husband’s, and that giving her a vote would simply mean handing a second one to the man of the household. Some women believed that the passing of a married women’s property act would prove more immediately useful to them than the vote. On the other hand, Mrs Humphrey Ward expressed her anxiety that, if spinsters were allowed to vote, it would mean that ‘large numbers of women leading immoral lives will be enfranchised, while married women, who, as a rule have passed through more of the practical experiences of life than the unmarried would be excluded’. One member of parliament remarked sarcastically that if spinsters were enfranchised, it would be rewarding ‘that portion of the other sex which for some cause had failed to be womanly’. Other opponents of female suffrage argued that only a man might be called upon to fight for his country, and that ‘gives him a claim of some sort to have a voice in the conduct of its affairs’.
The debate offers some odd and revealing glimpses into attitudes towards women. Thus in 1871, the political philosopher Thomas Carlyle remarked that
the true destiny of a woman… is to wed a man she can love and esteem and to lead noiselessly, under his protection, with all the wisdom, grace and heroism that is in her, the life presented in consequence.
And a great many women, as well, accepted the notion that by nature and God’s decree, women were different to men. God meant them to be wives and mothers; if they deserted their proper sphere, it would lead to ‘a puny, enfeebled and sickly race’.
Progress, perhaps inevitably, proved very slow. Indeed, very many prominent women dismissed the vote as relatively unimportant, insisting, sometimes a shade disingenuously, that they, personally, had never suffered any disabilities from its lack. Florence Nightingale announced in 1867 that ‘in the years that I have passed
in Government offices, I have never felt the want of a vote’, and though she later conceded its importance, she always felt there were other more urgent problems facing women. The successful writer and journalist Harriet Martineau insisted that ‘the best friends of the cause are the happy wives and the busy, cheerful satisfied single women… whatever a woman proves herself able to do, society will be thankful to see her do’.
Beatrix Potter attributed her own ‘anti-feminism’ to ‘the fact that I had never myself suffered the disabilities assumed to arise from my sex’. The Liberal Violet Markham came up with an evasive paradox: many women are clearly ‘superior to men, and therefore I don’t like to see them trying to become man’s equals’. By 1889, the popular novelist and journalist Mrs Humphrey Ward was claiming that ‘the emancipating process has now reached the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women’. Queen Victoria was sometimes hailed by suffragists as an example of what a woman was capable of; Barbara Leigh Smith, for example, pointed out that ‘our gracious Queen fulfils the very arduous duties of her calling and manages also to be the mother of many children’. But Victoria notoriously exclaimed in horror against the ‘mad wicked folly of women’s rights’.
The Langham Place circle around Barbara Leigh Smith played an important part in the long struggle for the vote, as in so many other campaigns. Early in 1866, they organized a suffrage petition, with 1,499 signatures, which argued that ‘person’ should be substituted for ‘man’, and that all householders, without distinction of sex, should be enfranchised. Emily Davies, who had worked so effectively for women’s education, formally handed the petition to John Stuart Mill, whose book The Subjection of Women had just been published, and he presented it to parliament in June 1866. It was – as they had expected – defeated, by 194 votes to 73; but even this was welcomed as an encouraging start. Its effectiveness was perhaps confirmed by the number of hostile responses it attracted. The Spectator, for example, sneered that no more than twenty
women in the country were politically capable; women in general made political discussion ‘unreal, tawdry, dressy’.
In October 1866, Leigh Smith and a group of friends met at Elizabeth Garrett’s home in London to form a suffrage committee, which, the following year, became the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. They organized petitions which brought together more than 3,000 signatures. Leigh Smith also produced a pamphlet on ‘Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women’; several establishment papers, including the Cornhill and the Fortnightly Review, refused to print the argument for women’s votes. Around the same time, a woman called Lydia Becker formed a similar society in Manchester; she had been drawn to the cause after hearing a paper given by Leigh Smith; she formed a local Women’s Suffrage Committee, and in 1870 founded the Women’s Suffrage Journal. Pro-suffrage groups soon followed in Edinburgh, Bristol, and Birmingham; they proved important in keeping the issue alive through the decades ahead, and keeping up pressure on parliament. Public meetings were arranged, particularly in London and Manchester. Richard Pankhurst, who was involved in the Manchester group, had founded the Englishwoman’s Review in 1866, and this helped publicize the suffragists’ cause.
It was perhaps inevitable that the suffragists were at times plagued by disagreements, particularly about tactics; Barbara Leigh Smith soon withdrew from any formal participation in the London committee – she disagreed with John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, who insisted that it was useful to have men on the committee – though she later served as its nominal secretary. For all his early support, Mill shrank back nervously from later developments and more aggressive tactics; he disapproved, particularly, of the ‘common vulgar motives and tactics’ of some women in Manchester. And the campaign to win the vote was to prove more difficult, and much longer-drawn-out, than its early supporters could have predicted. The issue was debated in
parliament (and defeated) year after year, all through the 1870s. One Tory remarked in 1871 that women – who were sensitive and emotional by nature – should be protected ‘from being forced into the hurly-burly of party politics’. Woman’s proper sphere was the home; her duty – and her deepest pleasure – to be a good wife, or sister, or daughter. Moreover, if women had much influence in parliament, it would lead to ‘hasty alliances with scheming neighbours, more class cries, permissive legislation, domestic perplexities and sentimental grievances’. The largest vote in favour of women’s enfranchisement came in 1873, with 157 men in agreement.
It is hardly surprising, given contemporary beliefs about a woman’s role, that, for decades, suffragists achieved only small and undramatic victories, though, in the long run, these would prove very important in winning over public opinion. But, in the face of rejection and ridicule, they persisted. At the same time, many women were gaining experience and confidence by taking increasingly active roles in local government and other public bodies; they served on school boards and poor-law boards. And they were learning to speak in public; as the suffragist Lady Amberley once remarked, ‘people expressed surprise to me afterwards to see that a woman could lecture and still look like a lady’. Moreover, the campaigning women emerged from every political persuasion, with Conservatives like Frances Power Cobbe and Emily Davies as committed to the cause as Liberal and Radical women.
By the 1890s, as a growing number of men were enfranchised, women’s sense of disparity and injustice increased sharply. They pointed out that men who were poor and barely literate had been given the vote, while well-educated women, who paid rates and taxes, were still excluded from full citizenship. It has been argued that 1897 saw a real breakthrough: a bill in the House of Commons received a majority of 71 in favour of women, and the pattern was repeated in following years. None of this was translated into actual reform, but suffragists certainly felt encouraged.