How important were the Women's Suffrage Campaigns in the decision ot grant women the vote in 1918?
How important were the Women’s Suffrage Campaigns in the decision to grant women the vote in 1918?
On June 19th 1918, the House of Commons voted 385 to 55 to accept the Representation of the People’s Bill, thus granting the vote to women for the first time. This represented the culmination of a long process of change in the 19th and early 20th century, when many middle class women had made significant advances into the male sphere, especially in work and politics. Women’s suffrage was constantly kept on the political agenda. They had become much more involved in a range of serious activities across society which made it harder for politicians to justify not giving them the vote. With ⅔ of adult males having the vote by 1884, it seemed unfair that women, like mentally unstable people and criminals, were denied the basic right to vote. Therefore, as no one in any political party was campaigning for ‘votes for women’ the Suffrage societies formed. Both the Suffragist, and later the Suffragette, campaigns were extremely important in convincing politicians to grant women the vote, as they brought ‘the cause’ to a national audience and highlighted the political inequalities between men and women at that time. However, there are other factors such as the Great War, which gave women the opportunity to show that they could keep the country going in a time of need that played significant roles in the decision to extend the franchise to women in 1918. It is largely assumed that the decision was made as a reflection of MP’s appreciation of the women’s war work, though historian Martin Pugh suggests that it was just a continuation of the pre-1914 majority in Parliament for women’s suffrage. Above all, the campaigns of the women’s suffrage societies were vital in the passing of the 1918 Bill, as the vote may not have been granted to women had they not been so effective before the war. It is certain that the pre-war suffrage movement, especially that of the Suffragists, prepared the basis for votes for women.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1887 under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. They were the first group of women to argue for women to receive the vote. All suffrage movements before this were localised and so had no real impact on politicians. The NUWSS was made up of middle class women who campaigned in reaction to the further enfranchisement of men after the Second Reform Act of 1867, where skilled working class men gained the vote, yet all women were excluded. These middle class women campaigned in the NUWSS as they had free time and comprehensive social networks, and were influenced by liberal equal rights ideology, such as “On Liberty” by J.S Mill, a philosopher and MP who, in 1865, became the first member in Parliament to call for the vote to be given to women. The campaign brought this issue to the attention of politicians, and although many women were opposed to them gaining the vote - they saw it as threatening to both their comfortable status and identity as women – the Suffragists, as they became known, grew from local suffrage societies all over the country and had thousands of members. Their peaceful tactics, such as petitions, silent protests and public speeches aimed to raise awareness and win wider support by persuasion. In February 1907, for example, over 3000 women marched through the streets of London from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall advocating for women’s suffrage in the cold and wet, proving to the WSPU that the NUWSS was equally vigorous in fighting for reform. These tactics were designed to undermine the stereotypical view that women were disorganised, irrational and politically illiterate. They won over many politicians such as Lloyd George, who even though the rest of their party were against the idea both expressed support towards women. The Suffragists campaign was pretty successful pre-1914, as is evident from the 1911 Conciliation Bill. By 1914, with 53,000 members across 480 branches, the Suffragists were having an impact on the views of politicians towards them, as seen by politicians such as most Liberals who had growing support for these women, clearly shown in the 1911 Conciliation Bill, where 255 MPs were for votes for women, and many abstained, whilst 40 Private Members Bills were also taken to Parliament between 1867 and 1907 requesting the enfranchisement of women, showing the growing backing for them. The Suffragists also won Labour supporters from the 1912 pact, where Labour candidates would stand for election in constituencies where the Liberal candidate opposed ‘votes for women’. This meant that Labour candidates could benefit by gaining votes of Liberals who favoured votes for women. Sandra Holton states that “what can be confidently asserted is the importance of women's suffragists' own efforts, especially the efforts of the democratic suffragists, in securing the strong position enjoyed by their cause at the outbreak of war.” It can also be argued that the cause was more or less won by 1914 and that women receiving the vote was inevitable in the near future, thanks to the Suffragist campaign. By 1914 most Liberals were in favour of extending the franchise to women, portrayed in the Conciliation Bill of 1911 when approximately 1/3 of the Liberal party voted for granting votes to women, but were not obvious because the government collapsed and the Bill did not become law, thus illustrating the success of the electoral pact.
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However, there is evidence to suggest that politicians just ignored the Suffragists. Their success can be questioned, as all 40 of the Private Member’s Bills were rejected, and in the 2nd Conciliation Bill, MPs voted against enfranchising women. Also, without having the support of Asquith, Prime Minister at the time, the Suffragists were never going to be able to gain women the vote before 1914. In order to stop women gaining the vote, Asquith dropped the Second Conciliation Bill of 1911 and instead wished to put forward a bill that would give more men the vote, initially angering the WSPU. It is clear that some politicians did not see the Suffragist campaign as much of a threat, as in 1905 they held a mock debate, where MPs discussed a measure that would force horse and cart owners to have lamps, just to avoid even debating women’s suffrage. This angered many members of the Women’s Movement, the group of upper middle class women who wanted to gain more political rights and a more prominent place in society for women, and some even broke away to form their own, more forceful Women’s Movement.
The breakaway movement from the NUWSS was formed in 1903 and named the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Sylvia and Christabel, they were prepared to be more active in an attempt to gain women the vote. Nicknamed the Suffragettes, they were rather extreme, with some of their tactics including pouring acid on golf courses where the MPs played, cutting telephone wires and even chaining themselves to railings during loud and often violent protests. These women even went to the extreme of destroying major works of art for publicity, for example, Mary Richardson who became known as ‘Slasher Mary’, attacked the ‘Rockeby Venus’ by Velázquez in the National gallery seven times with an axe in 1914, which gained a lot of news coverage. Suffragette militancy was the result of politicians trying to ignore the issue of “votes for women” in the early 19th century. It is arguable that their militancy set the cause back, as seen by the rejection of the idea of votes for women in the results of the 2nd Conciliation Bill in 1912, and Asquith’s refusal to consider concessions until all militancy stopped. Even some women did not believe that having the vote was necessary, as they were content with their position in society. Many men were also opposed to women having the vote, and in 1909, a petition by the Men’s League Opposing Women’s Suffrage was signed by thousands of males like Lord Curzon, Vice President of the above league and of the Conservative Party who firmly believed that militancy resulted from the mental instability of women. These factors all seemed to prove that the militant approach did not work, and when Sylvia was kicked out of the WSPU in 1913, it was regarded that the Suffragette movement was too radical and aggressive by many. Their tactics angered politicians, who claimed that they showed women to be untrustworthy and unworthy of the vote. MP’s thought that these women were mentally unstable and so were not in a suitable state of mind to vote sensibly. When Asquith agreed to meet in June 1914, he only met with the East London branch of Suffragettes. At this meeting, he agreed that it would be unjustified to grant limited suffrage to women with unlimited suffrage to men. This suggested a willingness to accept women’s suffrage if it was part of a broader scheme. Yet, he did not meet with all Suffrage organisations. Suffragette militancy took the cause to the attention of the whole country. For example, the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913, which was passed as hunger strikes were making the Suffragette prisoners ill, so they were sent home from prison to recover, then ordered back to serve their full sentence, allowed the whole nation to see how serious these women were about the cause, and at what lengths they would go to, to get their point across. Britain’s awareness was further raised when Emily Davidson ran out in front of the King’s horse at the Derby in 1912, subsequently killing herself. She was perceived by some as a martyr to the cause, but mainly as a fringe lunatic, as the WSPU didn’t even know of her plan. In addition, the Suffragettes proved to politicians that they were responsible and dedicated to helping the nation when they ceased their campaign when war broke out in 1914.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, women were advancing in the workplace, being employed as secretaries and typists, working in offices or shops and even as teachers in schools. This was due to the growth of the Civil Service and the building of new department stores throughout Britain. These jobs were permitted because they didn’t require the women to have much training, although women were paid less than men. By 1911 366,268 women were employed as shop assistants and 39,773 as civil servants. Women were granted more legal rights, such as being able to divorce their husbands if they were being violently abused and gained more rights over their children and money. They were even granted the right to vote in local elections in the Municipal Franchises Act of 1869, but only if they owned property themselves. As women were granted a better education in the late 1800s, the range of subjects taught to young women broadened and were improved, some women were permitted to go to university; a change which would have been seen as unacceptable in previous decades. However, educational opportunities were very different for working class women and middle class women. They were offered different access to education, which led to unequal job opportunities. These new educational rights for women benefited the middle class, but reinforced the working class’ domestic role by limiting their educational choice. The changing status of women during the early 20th century was rapidly sped up by the outbreak of war in 1914.
The Great War was significant in the decision to grant women the vote, as women made a vital contribution to the war effort. Their work impressed politicians and convinced the Government of the political and strategic importance of women in a “total war” situation, as they were prepared to step up and help their country in a time of need by working in munitions factories, in the Women’s Royal Air Force working on planes as mechanics, on farms in the Women’s Land Army and also in shipyards.
They quickly adjusted to their new role in society. It is evident that politicians like Asquith were convinced of women’s importance, as shown by his backing of the 1918 Bill. The suspension of the Suffragette campaign at the outbreak of the Great War allowed the Government to grant votes to women once the war had ended. Moreover, the creation of a National Government in 1916 helped the women’s campaign, as it brought sympathisers into Government, especially when Lloyd George became Prime Minister. Women now had much more of a chance of gaining the vote, since the PM was in favour of ‘votes for women’, as shown by his advocation for women’s suffrage at various meetings. He only opposed the First Conciliation Bill of 1910 because it offered too limited a franchise. The Great War introduced many politicians who supported women’s suffrage into Parliament. The Coalition Government contained several of them, and political opinion was coming round to support a limited form of women’s suffrage. It is also supposed that women were enfranchised because the war had changed male perceptions about women’s role in society. It was now evident that women were being accepted into the public world of work, which then led on to the acceptance of women into the world of politics too. In addition, the war allowed a number of hostile MP’s to end their increasingly weak position of opposing women. They realised that reform was inevitable and so used the war work as a pretext to save face. Politicians such as Asquith didn’t necessarily change their attitude towards women, but had been proved wrong that women were not trustworthy enough to receive the vote. These politicians were also reluctant to support a basically sexist position, and were outnumbered by the growing majority of politicians who now supported votes for women, and couldn’t be seen to reject a plausible argument based on fact.
Immediately after the war, however, there was a severe backlash of women in the workplace, and they were treated as though none of their war work mattered anymore. Men came back from fighting and wanted their jobs back in the factories and on the farmland. Women were angered by a trade union conference in 1918 calling for women to be banned from ‘unsuitable’ trades, and some women were even attacked by protesting, unemployed ex-servicemen in Bristol. By 1921, most women had left their wartime jobs as a result. These events show that for many, the women’s war work was expected and was not seen as the women’s capability to survive in what was considered a man’s world. The Great War was the best opportunity for women to show that they were responsible enough to have the vote and of serious use to the country when it needed it most, although the Act which followed it did not please many of the women who had worked during the war in the hope that they would be enfranchised. The war did accelerate changing social attitudes, however, which had already been in existence before 1914 as shown by women’s advances into the male world in the early 1900s. This social change greatly affected the decision to pass the 1918 Bill, as the government would have been reluctant to introduce the radical and traditionally opposed idea of votes for women without the major social change.
The Suffragist campaign continued even after WW1 had started, and the “Speakers Conference” was held to try and resolve the franchise issue. The conference delayed considering the decision until January 1917 as it was so controversial, but realised that it had to be resolved to avoid further protest. The members of the conference indicated support for women’s suffrage by a vote of 15 to 6, but rejected equal suffrage by a vote of 12 to 10. They decided that an age limit should be introduced as to how old women had to be before they could vote, but left it to Parliament to decide whether that age should be 30 or 35. This was a major step towards reform, but it did not guarantee that women would get the vote. As a result of this, Fawcett led a deputation from 22 suffrage societies that met with the Local Government Board’s President in February, 1917. Fawcett was arguably the most important figure in the Suffrage campaigns, as she argued strongly against anti-suffragists and kept the Suffragist campaign going during WW1, even though the Suffragette movement ceased. It was decided that if the government put the Speaker’s Report in its bill, then the women’s societies would have to accept it and not argue for more reform, like equal franchise. The Board’s President urged the Cabinet to agree to this as it would prevent any further radical activities. Fawcett was critical to this also, as she persuaded the Suffrage societies to accept the agreement. The Speakers Conference was very important, as it indicates the importance of the Suffragist campaign. Gradually, the traditional perceptions that a woman’s role in society was to cook, clean and to look after their children, was eroded and generations of men, women and politicians witnessed the growing influence of women. These made the common male argument that women shouldn’t get the vote appear illogical. After 1918, this reason became less and less sensible, and there was little serious opposition to the 1928 Bill giving the vote to all women over 21, which was never in danger of being defeated. The changing social and political status of women before 1914, however, can be considered as the biggest impact in the decision to give women the vote, as it helped to create a political conscience on ‘votes for women’ and reinforced the Suffragist message, even though the majority of the public weren’t in favour of women getting the vote.
Overall, the Women’s Suffrage campaigns had very significant importance in the decision to grant women the vote in 1918 because they demonstrated that women were not just housewives of less importance than their husbands and who were of no use, and that they were smart and determined people who had a dedicated desire for society to change to include women more. The Great War was important as it proved that women were more skilled that originally thought and gave politicians the chance to recognise this, but postponed the decision to give women the vote. However, without changing social and economic status of women before the Great War, it can be assumed that Britain’s people would never have supported women’s suffrage and thus the vote may not have been granted to women by 1918.