Giving the vote to women: a controversial issue


1. The women´s suffrage movement: aims and methods

First, it seems important to point out that both the constitutional and the militant women´s suffrage movements were mainly middle-class movements, although the latter originated as an attempt to organize working-class women. Another important point is that both branches´ claim was for the vote on the same basis as men, i. e. the vote only for classes of propertied and educated classes, and that it was restricted to unmarried women only.

It is hard to judge which one was the more influential or effective one. Both contributed to the enfranchisement of women, i. e. giving them th right to vote, in 1918 and 1929. They somewhat complemented one another and it would be wrong to see their effects in separate contexts. I hope to show, though, that much depended on political considerations like the maintenance of power rather than on genuine beliefs or principles.


2. The constitutional movement: The National Union of Women´s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)

The constitutional movement, best represented in the NUWSS under Millicent Fawcett since 1897, developed its policy gradually according to parliamentary principles. First, it concentrated on the support of private member bills. The aim was to influence the government through its own backbenchers. The problem with private member bills was that without firm government support they had virtually no chance to pass the House of Commons. Later, the NUWSS concentrated upon the support for amendments of these bills and finally, since 1914, on government bills, the only ones of real significance in an electoral context.

The first strategy had been pursued for a long time since the 1860s: with the introduction of a bill into Parliament almost every year. However, it proved to be ineffective. In 1906, there was a slight change in the Union´s policy, when the Liberals came back to power again with a Cabinet under Henry Campbell-Bannerman which contained only four suffragist Cabinet Ministers, that is ministers who supported women´s vote (Edward Grey, Lloyd George, Haldane and Birrell). The NUWSS therefore doubled its efforts. New tactics like support for suffragist candidates in by-elections, public processions and deputations were adopted. Again, these efforts showed little progress and it was only in 1912 that the Union undertook a drastic change in strategy: Disillusioned by the failure of the Conciliation Bill (which would have given the vote to unmarried women of property only), they ceased to support the Liberals in favour of the Labour Party which is considered to be the most whole-hearted political advocate of the women´s cause at that time. This shift brought about a dilemma for the NUWSS as it did not share Labour´s somewhat socialistic attitude. At the same time this proved to be a shock for Liberal politicians as common membership with the Liberal Party had in the past been a useful weapon for Lord Asquith who had relied on the constitutionalists.

When trying to assess the NUWSS´s strategy it should not be forgotten that whatever bill would have past the House of Commons it would have had no chance to pass the House of Lords at that time as it was the stronghold of the "antis" as the peers were called by suffragists. However, it is right to say that the NUWSS had for a long time supported the idea of pushing women´s suffrage through with private member bills which proved to be ineffective. It is without doubt, though, that it considerably helped to create an awareness for the women´s cause in Parliament, however, mainly through Liberal backbenchers and that, more importantly, they established a serious counterweight to the militants.


3. The militant movement: The Women´s Social and Political Union (WSPU)

Although the WSPU´s policy included constitutional as well as militant actions, it is best remembered for the latter which began in 1905 with attacks against Liberal Cabinet Ministers regardless of their attitude towards women´s suffrage and later against property, too. It adopted a totally non-party strategy, was in opposition to "whatever government in power" and was prepared for vigorous agitation upon lines justified by the position of outlawry to which women at present are condemned. This latter point was intended to justify their militant actions. One can see an increase of militancy in their development since their formation in 1903: whereas the early days were characterized by violent clashes with the police which resulted in many arrests, the second chase since summer 1909 became more violent with stone-throwing being a usual method. There was a truce, a kind of ceasefire, in 1910 and 1911 only during the readings of the Conciliation Bill as the militants as much as the constitutionalists believed that this bill had a great chance to pass the House of Commons. From 1912 onwards, militancy entered its most dangerous stage with arson being used as a regular weapon and extensive destruction of all sorts of property. It was at this stage that militancy proved to be more damaging for the cause it was supposed to promote. Lloyd George said in October 1913: "For the moment, the militants have created a situation which is the worst I have seen for women´s suffrage in Parliament." It was only with the outbreak of war that militancy came to an end.

In this context, one issue needs to be examined in more detail: hunger-striking of militant prisoners and the reaction on part of the government. Hunger-striking among imprisoned suffragettes had become a "normal" practice by August 1909. Since then 37 women had managed to terminate their imprisonment by applying this strategy. Their main objective, though, had not been to be released but to create martyrdom. The government first responded in September 1909 with the policy of forcible feeding. Outrages among suffragettes and the public, who saw this as a form of torture, which it doubtless was, forced the government to adopt a new policy: it introduced the "Cat and Mouse Act" on 25 April 1913. According to it, prisoners who damaged their health through their own conduct could temporarily be released to recover and then be re-imprisoned again. The effect on the WSPU was counterproductive: the licencees´ unwillingness to permit re-arrest and their involvement in further illegal activities, mainly arson, while they were free on license and after were making a mockery of the act. Out of 42 cases of arson during 25 April 1913 and 15 November 1913, only eight ended with arrest.

It is generally held that the WSPU was effective in its earlier actions, but that their cause was heavily damaged with the beginning of violent and excessive militancy. Both sides were reciprocally "blown up" by an increasingly intransigent behaviour on the part of the Pankhursts and a more and more reluctant response on the part of politicians. Sylvia Pankhurst was described by allies in 1911 as someone who "envisaged the whole suffrage movement in its present phase as a gigantic duel between herself and Lloyd George whom she desired to destroy". Probably the most damaging result of their unsystematic and often unwise actions was that some politicians who originally supported women´s suffrage were repelled against it by unjustified attacks on them, the best example being Winston Churchill, and that those who opposed it anyway were further confirmed in their view that giving women the vote would prove to be a great mistake. A strategy that blamed supporters, Labour as well as Liberal, and opponents at the same time proved to be counterproductive. However, one should not underestimate the dilemma for contemporary feminists: the constitutional efforts had shown no result and the cause was doing only little almost "invisible" progress. Women who felt that their cause was just and necessary had to look for different ways of expressing their will. I think, it is much due to the fact that politicians and the public were for the most part alienated because the suffragettes did not fit into this dominating "angel-in-the-house" image of the Victorian age. Male violent agitation was felt as being far less offensive.


4. Attitudes towards women´s suffrage within the Liberal Party

One has to look a little back in time to find the most whole-hearted supporter of women´s suffrage among Liberal politicians: It was the Radical John Stuart Mill in the 1860s who helped considerably to push the cause further by introducing private member bills, writing in favour of women´s suffrage and having close contacts to feminist activists.

As far as the whole party is concerned, there never was a clear-cut attitude. Gladstone, for example, opposed it strongly whereas many Liberal MPs supported the cause. It is Gladstone´s view on the question of women´s suffrage which is the best illustration of the Victorian attitude towards it and in many ways reflects not only the stand of contemporary opponents, but also of future ones. He said that the consent of the nation and of Parliament was needed and that many women were indifferent to receiving the vote and that some even objected to it. These seem to me to be no convincing objections, as one can think of many issues which were seriously discussed without direct consent of the nation and the people. The following objections seem to me to be of greater importance and credibility. Women´s suffrage would change the whole social function of women and it would be impossible to exclude women hence from membership of Parliament and other public institutions. These points illustrate the general fear of a social and with it political and economic revolution which the enfranchisement and emancipation of women in the end proved, in fact, to be. Gladstone´s last objection that women might suffer from the turmoil of masculine politics reflects the female image generally assumed in society at that time. Women ought to be looked after by their father or husband and their "natural destiny" was marriage. This image was most manifest in women´s legal as well as professional situation.

It is hard to judge to what extent other Liberal MPs were influeneced by Gladstone´s strong opposition. The fact that many "known friends" in the event of voting for or against a bill in favour of women´s suffrage voted against it gives evidence enough, I think, that the leader´s position was, at least, crucial in shaping the party´s stand in parliament.

Although with a Liberal government under Henry Campbell-Bannerman coming back to power again in 1906 hopes for a headway of the women´s cause had sharply risen, there was no progress in favour of women´s suffrage during his premiership. His attitude can at best be described as friendly, but not actively supportive. He held the view that women should generally be included in the electoral system, but not only a small, better-off minority which was likely to vote for the Unionists - an argument used repeatedly by many anti-suffragists.

The most crucial stage began with Asquith succeeding Campbell-Bannerman in premiership in 1908. His views on women´s suffrage were already well known as highly negative when he came to power. His argument was as follows: women could not be treated as equal cititzens as they were not serving in the army to defend their country. This "physical force argument", ironically, was to become one of the major ones for giving the vote to women in 1918. Asquith also claimed that women were influenced by emotional and personal considerations and that "their natural sphere is not the turmoil and dust of politics, but the circle of social and domestic life."

One sign of progress in the Liberal Party´s stand towards women´s suffrage, however, can undoubtedly be seen in Asquith´s willingness to consider the matter as an "open question" for the cabinet. This was the first time a Prime Minister had adopted this approach and meant a considerable improvement upon Gladstone´s attitude as members of the cabinet could thus hold another view on this issue than their leader, which, in fact, men like Edward Grey, Lloyd George, Churchill and others did. Indeed, at that time the majority inside and outside cabinet was in favour of women´s suffrage.

Supporters of Asquith have pointed out that he disliked the narrow basis of the Conciliation Bill preferring a more democratic measure, but as he made his dislike of any measure of women´s suffrage perfectly clear on every occasion, this has little relevance. Many other anti-suffragists argued in the same way, yet, it is difficult to give evidence for their "good will" as they did not make any attempt to introduce other measures more favourable to their view.

The greatest fear within the party in connection with the effects of women´s suffrage was that by giving only women of property the vote, the Unionists would win a considerable number of new votes at the next election. This was especially propagated by Liberal businessmen and influenced many MPs, notably Lloyd George and Churchill.

A crucial aspect in context with women´s suffrage was the parliamentary time given to a bill to be discussed in the House of Commons. Asquith´s attitude between 1908 and 1911 was that it was a matter for the House of Commons. Indeed, the postponement of the issue because of lack of parliamentary time was one of the most effective measures against women´s suffrage being settled at an earlier stage.

At the end of 1911, Asquith announced a government reform bill for the following session, capable of amendment in favour of women´s suffrage. On the amendment being ruled out by the Speaker in early 1913, he promised facilities for a further private member´s measure. This meant a hard blow for his credentials.

Roy Jenkins sees "failure of imagination" as the reason for Asquith´s sustained opposition, who was at the same time a "natural conservative on most subjects outside politics". Even after having at last accepted women´s enfranchisement and having expressed his admiration for womens´ war efforts, he still had doubts in 1920 about women´s interest in politics: "There are about 15.000 women on the Register - a dim, impenetrable, for the most part ungetatable element - of whom all that one knows is that they are for the most part hopelessly ignorant of politics, credulous to the last degree, and flickering with gusts of sentiment like a candle in the wind." (Who would in hindsight not think here of Elton John´s song dedicated to Lady Diana Spencer after her death in the 1980s, who was an activist against landmines.)

However, Constance Rover has rightly pointed out that Asquith had made a signal of contribution towards women´s suffrage by breaking the power of the House of Lords which does not seem to have been sufficiently appreciated. Yet, he did not undertake this step with the purpose to support the passing of a women´s suffrage bill.

I think it would be right to say that Asquith was one of the two chief obstacles to the passing of a women´s suffrage bill, the other one being the House of Lords. Millicent Fawcett, for instance, saw Asquith as the chief antagonist to the women´s suffrage movement. She considered the firm opposition of a leading Liberal as far more damaging for the cause than that from a Conservative.

Looking at other Liberals, it was Sir Edward Grey who was the most definite supporter among the suffragists. Still, he was not as whole-hearted as John Stuart Mill had been in the 1860s, the little almost non-existing literature on his support for the women´s suffrage cause giving evidence for this.

Lloyd George is the next one to be mentioned in this context, although in a more ambiguous sense. While speaking publicly in favour of women´s suffrage, he was one of the chief contributors to the failure of the Conciliation Bill. He objected to it in 1910 as he found it insufficiently broad and incapable of amendment. At the second reading he voted for it, while at the third again he caused great offence to its supporters saying that it had been "torpedoed" by the government´s proposed reform bill. Both Churchill and Lloyd George were associated with a "whispering campaign" behind the scenes against the bill to the effect that if it were passed, Asquith would resign. It is considered that this fear occasioned the defection of the Irish Nationalist supporters who saw Irish Home Rule endangered if Asquith resigned. This shows to which extent the issue of female vote was entangled with other, judged as far more important domestic political issues.

The controversy over Lloyd George´s attitude does not put into doubt that he genuinely favoured a broader based women´s suffrage, i. e. democratic franchise, but questions why he did not support the first step towards this goal, the step to break the sex barrier. Lloyd George must have known that no other bill than the Conciliation Bill had any chance of success and it is much due to his campaign against it that the passage of a women´s suffrage bill was delayed until 1918, thus causing preventable martyrdom on part of the militant women dying in prison. In this respect, Lloyd George could be accused of very short-term thinking in terms of the next election only which, he feared would bring considerable gains for the Unionists. Churchill is to be seen in the same context, although he was more than any other suffragist, repelled from his original attitude towards women´s suffrage by militant actions as he himself on one occasion admitted. But like Lloyd George he was opposed to the narrow basis of women´s enfranchsiement and feared heavy gains for the Tories. He opposed the Conciliation Bill out of this consideration and made propaganda against it in terms of figures he presented in Parliament on how many votes would go to the Unionists. His image among feminists was that he was prepared to pay lip service, but would have much preferred to see the question of women´s suffrage implemented in the "remote and speculative future" as Asquith once put it.

Sylvia Pankhurst´s assessment of both politicians was: "Chruchill, a weathercock towards this cause, as to many others, was probably an opponent at heart. Of Lloyd George, I never thought that; to me he appeared to be making an unsuccessful attempt to gather the sweets of two worlds, to win laurels as the heroic champion of women´s suffrage without jeopardizing his place in a cabinet headed by an anti-suffragist PM."

The women´s suffrage question seems to have been an object of hypocritical and ambiguous attitudes on the part of politicians who very much considered political strategy and the aspect of maintaining their power rather than being led by genuine beliefs and principles. Also, I think, much depended on personal relationships among those who particpated in the whole debate. It was much to the disadvantage of women that at the crucial time of debate on the matter there was no whole-hearted advocate of women´s suffrage of the kind of John Stuart Mill in the 1860s, that the Liberals were for a considerable time headed by a strong anti-suffragist and that too much depended on power politics and personal likes and dislikes than on the will for a neccessary change. Parallel discussions on the vote for women in other countries such as France and Germany in Europe and in Ottoman Turkey, which was about to make the transition to a republic, might have affected the debates within England or even the whole of Great Britain rather out of such power political considerations. Women had become some kind of canon fodder that so many of them had critized as being the characteristic of men that participated in war activities.


5. The constitutional movement: The National Union of Women´s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)

Change in attitude towards women came with expanding the social role of women during the war. Women became an important backbone of the munitions and other industries. In September 1916 the War Office announced: "Women have shown themselves capable of replacing the stronger sex [sic] in practically every calling." The "physical force" argument was no longer of value. In fact, it is gerenally held that women won the right to vote by their work for the war. Because women had aided the state in the most effective way, they had a special claim after the war to be heard in the matter of readjustment of men´s and women´s labour. It was this argument, indeed, which Asquith used in favour of women´s suffrage, yet he did not want to see it implemented during the war.

There were many war-wrought factors which helped the women´s cause in many respects: the most crucial ones were that, first, Asquith resigned on 9 December 1916 and was succeeded by the suffragist Lloyd George, and secondly that on 14 December 1916 two important anti-suffragists resigned as members of the Conference of Electoral Reform and were replaced by suffragists. During the war it had been felt that a revision of the electoral qualification was needed as sailors and soldiers could no longer vote under the current ones. At that time there was a remarkably lessened fear of adult suffrage as a whole which helped to strengthen the women´s cause. There was also some concern among politicians to avoid the renewal of pre-war militant conflicts after the war, but the crucial aspects were those I mentioned earlier on. The franchise was eventually granted for women over 30 only, thus avoiding the effect of a female majority on the electorate register (12.9 million men against 8.4 million women according to official statistics). The equalization of women´s suffrage in Britain only came in 1929.


written by Devrim Karahasan (1994)                       This essay has been updated and slightly corrected on 2 March 2015.