The movement had had to struggle through a many number of barriers. The 1980s witnessed meagre funds, low membership, ineffectual political strategy and virtually no public support. Moreover antifeminist women and men made life very difficult, by 1900; the suffragists were facing an organised, vocal and well financed opposition. Little impression was made on the defenders of masculine prerogative who continued to insist that women belonged solely in the home “their mission is at home, by their blandishments and their love to assuage the passions of men as they come in from the battle of life”. Tindal and shi! Pg538
5.This period of 1896-1910, in the suffragette movement has by many historians been labled “the doldrums” because no states adopted woman suffrage amendments during this time. The years to follow however have been refered to as “the suffrage renaissance” as there was a definite rebirth of the movement due to new image building campaigns, progressive impetus to reform and the subsequent shift in public opinion.
First wave feminism however was not that easily defined, as the suffrage movement was clearly split between ……… but in the end we saw how winning the vote required both approaches and moreover it needed a fundamental shift in the public attitudes of legislatures as well as average citizens. Women were admitted to vote only after public opinion supported the view that women were capable of rational thought and action independent of their husbands and this was suitably demonstrated through women’s actions during the war.
Today the vote is considered the most basic act of citizenship, yet it took women more than seventy-two years of political activism to win the elective franchise. Consequently it is important to analyse why the suffrage movement and its fight for the vote was so significant, if indeed it was significant at all.
Undoubtedly it must be noted that the feminist campaign was much more than simply votes for women. Rather it was about promoting a new era for women, highlighting that for the first time in history women were capable of organising and mobilising themselves in an effort to fight for their freedom. Although a significant number of suffragist ideals were directly related to the oppression of women many of their arguments did move away from the vote to focus on other aspects of inequality between the sexes. Imparticular there was much focus on the economic dependence of women. Here the suffragist movement wanted to defend a woman’s right to work in the public sphere, criticising the ideal and emphasising the reality of motherhood and domesticity.
It must be emphasised that although the vote is noted as the most significant achievement owed to first wave feminists, there are many other successes prior to this which had a greater direct and positive impact on the position of women. These major achievements can be seen in the opening of higher education for women, reform of the girls’ secondary school system, including participation in formal national examinations; the widening of access to the professions, especially medicine; married womens property rights, recognised in the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, and some improvement in divorced and separated womens child custody rights.
Why then was the vote given impetus over these other advances which one could argue were more effective in their outcome?
Certainly from the onset, suffragism appeared to be successful and gaining the vote was deemed a great triumph in the feminist movement. looking back with hindsight however we can acknowledge that it was a shallow victory which achieved little in terms of real advances for women at that time, as sexist values continued to predominate and class and political differences between women remained unaltered. The celebration was also muted by the limitations in the franchise which were granted. It was only women over thirty years of age that could vote and furthermore the qualification was occupation or marriage to an occupier, rather than residential as in the case for men.
However despite these limitations, the partial enfranchisement was for many women the significant result of a long political struggle.
8. “the possession of the vote…..is a finer weapon than we have ever possessed; even before we actually held it in our hands we were made to feel its power, and at the moment our consciousness of that power is almost overwhelming.”
In 1918 an article written by Eleanor Rathbone she clearly asserts one of the key reasons as to why the vote was so important to the feminist movement;
7. “the parliamentary vote has been merely the keystone…until the keystone was firmly implanted we could not begin on the rest of the building, because its basis would not be secure”.
Clearly the wider goal of women’s equality and freedom was not achieved through gaining the vote yet as Rathbone emphasises, it did offer a new generation of activists a solid base on which to build the future.
For many the importance of the vote lies not in its actual achievement, rather it is more about the way in which it was fought for and the way it gained such widespread support and commitment. A crucial reason explaining why the suffrage movement gained such mass support can be linked to the inequality of the legal system and the ways in which it affected women. Specifically the laws surrounding married couples were severely unjust, causing much distress for the women, as it was always the wife who suffered in cases of guardianship of children, divorce and maintenance.
2Graham comments how the suffrage organisation and strategy left a legacy for the modern feminist movement, furthermore for political activists of all kinds.
No one can deny the fact that the suffragists had done a great thing. They provided Britain and America with models of a new democracy that not only enfranchised women but also gave other groups the means to protest their political and social exclusion in the years to come. Furthermore the history of the suffragette movement is often the first women’s history read by modern generations, and therefore the suffragettes are frequently viewed as the first role models and heroes for modern day women to look up to. Certainly first wave feminism was important for the second which occurred in the 1960s, both for what it bequeathed by way of achievement and example and as a source of lessons for the future.
In America the end of the 1920s signalled the failure of suffragette expectations. 3.Despite some legislation being enacted, notably the Sheppard-Towner Act for infant and maternal care, the overall conclusion was one of failure especially in comparison with male dominated lobbies.
Having passed the 19th amendment many left the fight for women’s rights
William O’Neil argues that once won the vote actually did little for women;
4. “it did not materially help women to advance their most urgent causes; even
worse, it did not materially help women to better themselves or improve their
status. The struggle for women’s rights ended during the 1920s, leaving men in clear possession of the commanding places in American life.”
He termed this period the “failure of feminism”. Here we can see just how powerful the issue of the vote was, as without it there was no agreed single issue to support. clearly the process of narrowing the women’s movement to the single issue of woman’s suffrage was what resulted in a successful pressure group and consequently it proceeded to cripple the emerging women’s movement after the vote was won. The adherence to single issue pressure tactics left the post 1920s woman movement without a slate of issues or a broad-based constituency in support of a feminist agenda. It must be noted however that O’Neils argument does infact give credit to the suffragists for winning the vote, rather his attack is on the utility of the ballot without a sustaining feminist agenda.
What made the women’s suffrage campaign so significant was the way in which it managed to capture the imagination and support of so many followers, over several million in America by the early 20th century.
The political and social context within which the suffrage movement operated worked in favour of its campaign. Discrimination under the law and at work, allied to the problem of surplus women, fuelled support for the movement that seemed to offer the hope of change and improvement in women’s social and political situation.
By 1914 the suffrage movement had successfully built a broad coalition of women’s organisations united for the purpose of winning the vote. The new positive image of suffragette organisations saw membership and financial support soar, by 1914 suffrage societies could look forward to more volunteers and better funding. Building on this, strategists put in place a new plan of organisation that capitalised on the movements new found momentum which succeeded in propelling the suffragists into the realm of practical politics.
The vote was important because it provided the first of only two examples whereby women organised to achieve a single goal and were wiling to make compromises on other important issues to realise that goal.
For many women suffrage was merely the first step toward a wide range of social reforms. Yet their exaggerated claims simply set the stage for an inevitable let down once the vote was finally won.
It can not be said that feminism died in the 1920s rather it was the energy which had gone into winning the vote that declined extensively. One suffragette commented “ after we got the vote, the crusade was over. It was peacetime and we went back to a hundred different causes and tasks which we’d been putting off all those years. We just demobilised.” Susan ware pg5
By the mid 1920s it became apparent that politicians had little to fear from female voters as women entered the electorate slowly. Turnout figures for women at the polls were low and those that did vote tended to vote just like their husbands. 6.As early as 1924 political scientists, Charles E. Merriman and Harold F.Gosnell, declared that the vote was insignificant to the post suffrage women’s movement because women refused to use their newly won privilege. They concluded that women were unlikely to vote because of such factors as apathy, disbelief in women voting and objections from husbands. Yet another argument could blame the state as there was no governmental and party involvement in educating the new voters on such things as how to cast a ballot, understanding party platforms, or the details of delegate selection. Many however argue that this is not a failure of suffragism but rather a causality of unrealistic expectations.Moreover the long term results have proved themselves now, as nearly eighty years after gaining the vote, women are infact more likely than men to register to vote and actually note, furthermore they are just as likely as men to engage in a whole range of extra-electoral activities.
Through gaining the vote women sought formal political equality, yet the old social, economic and sexual structures remained intact, which kept working women restricted by class and all women restricted by the domestic and maternal ideology.
Despite many apparent failures with the victory of suffrage, suffragists still had grounds on which to make the claim that the vote was important as it had an immediate impact during the whole inter war period. Millicent Fawcett a prominent British suffragette considered in ‘What has the vote done’ that the passage of seven Acts between 1918 and 1919 can be directly attributed to the suffragist victory. The legislation included improvement in laws concerning illegitimacy, midwifery and nursing. Furthermore it included the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 which intended to remove obstacles in the way of women who wanted to hold public office or civil and judicial posts. Millicent Fawcett argued that throughout the 1920s, the vote had achieved what suffragists claimed-favourable legislation for women; there were Acts on Married Women’s Property, Maintenance Orders, Infantcide, Maintenance in1922, Divorce in 1923, and Guardianship of Infants and Pensions both in 1925.
Many more women too felt that their struggle to achieve the vote had been worthwhile. 9. In Our Freedom and Its Results written by five suffragists in the 1930s Eleanor Rathbone referred to the legislation noted above and concluded that “this fine harvest of legislation affecting women’s status and special interests, which marked the first decade since are enfranchisement, gives us old suffragists no reason to feel disillusioned.
It certainly can not be denied that much of this legislation was indeed of direct benefit to certain groups of women. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 to cite an example was active in reducing inequalities in the law between the sexes in that it made it possible for women to sue for divorce on the same grounds as men. Additionally the Maternity and Child Welfare Act of 1918 was particularly productive for women as it set up welfare clinics for mothers and babies.
In the spring of 1918 Millicent Fawcett continued to emphasise the importance of the vote, giving voice to the movement’s elation at achieving the franchise when she spoke of the exhilaration for women having the power of the vote behind all they did. She also believed that achieving the vote signalled a momentous change in culture for women who for decades had been operating in women centred organisations. This was significant as despite having always liaised with men and been supported and assisted by men in political parties and other walks of life, yet they were now moving from the position of women exerting influence outside exclusively male operations, power by proxy as it had been, to women operating power in their own right but inside institutions which were overwhelmingly dominated by men.
The vote or lack of it was important because it was symbolic of women’s oppression and inequality.
Finally I wish to conclude with a statement written by Robert Cooney who is the director of the Woman Suffrage Media Project. “It seems clear that their efforts and sacrifices were no idle exercise in gallantry and that without the vote, no social or legal reform was either possible or lasting.” Moreover “the opposition to woman suffrage itself bears witness, in a perverse kind of way, to its significance; nothing unimportant would have been so bitterly resisted”!