Suffrage after 1903: Suffragists 1

 

Uncovering more evidence on the role played by various non-militants has resulted in the playing down of the significance of the Pankhursts. There is now far more evidence of support for suffragism among working class women, at least in areas like Lancashire where a high proportion of women worked outside the home. We also have biographies of both working class non-militants, such as Selina Cooper and middle class non-militants such as Isabella Ford[1] of the ILP. There are also grounds for thinking than in the last years before the war that middle class suffragists began to mobilise working class support for the first time.

 
A problem of language

There is, however, a problem of terminology. Existing terminology divides the British suffrage movement into two distinct wings, the ‘militants’ whose best know organisation was the WSPU, and the ‘constitutionalists’, most of whom were organised within the NUWSS. These organisations’ differences were generally taken to centre on the question of the use of violence in demonstrations. Yet few ‘militants’ were ‘militant’, and then only from 1912 onwards, if ‘militancy’ involved simply a preparedness to resort to extreme forms of violence. The analytical imprecision of the militant/constitutional division becomes even more evident. This usage is complicated further by many women belonging to both wings of the suffrage movement at the same time. Many suffragists did not view the two approaches as either mutually exclusive or at odds with each other. So what terms can historians use?

The term ‘radical’ carries similar problems when applied to suffragists. It was sometimes used to characterise the militant wing and to reinforce its distinctiveness from the old societies. More recently, it has been used to identify the movement among working class women in the textile towns of Lancashire. In both cases, the nature of radicalism is ill defined and where it is defined appears to hinge on links with the labour movement. There are, however, other very different candidates for the title of ‘radical suffragists’. The separatists among the militants, like the WFL, and the sexual libertarians around The Freewoman offered more fundamental challenges to the existing order of male-female relations, and Sylvia Pankhurst and other dissident socialist militants were involved in a far more radical challenge to the political order of the day.

One particular issue of recurrent discord and debate within all sections of the suffrage movement was the question of whether to relate the demand for equal votes for women to that for a fully independent Labour party in the House of Commons and the associated call for adult suffrage. Both militants and constitutionalists were to be found, at different times, working for an alliance between the two demands. Margaret Llewelyn Davies, a leader of the working class Women’s Co-operative Guild, coined the term ‘democratic suffragist’ to identify this body of opinion. Democratic suffragists covered a broad spectrum of political opinion from ‘progressive’ liberalism to revolutionary and ‘rebel’ socialism. Largely because of this they did not form an organised, united faction within the movement until after 1918. Even then, they worked through a number of organisations and their unity was short-lived.

The continued reliance on the division between militant and constitutionalist raises more questions that it resolves. Suffragism was far too diverse and fluid after 1906 to fit comfortably into one of these two categories. The difficulty that historians face is that the alternative categories do not provide for clarity of definition.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies

This can be seen clearly in the revival of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies after 1906. By 1914, it had over 50,000 members in 400 affiliated societies with an annual income of nearly £20,000. The ideas and political goals of the NUWSS broadened over time. It first tried to strengthen pro-suffrage sentiments in the Liberal Party, which it regarded as the women’s best hope and consequently focused more on the constituencies than on Parliament and to sponsor women suffrage candidates at by-elections. It aimed to recruit more members and publicise its efforts through attentions to visual imagery, mass demonstrations and marches, banquets and pageants, tours of the country, memorials, and meetings in drawing rooms and with Church groups, women’s organisations and political associations. It ran a professional operation by maintaining offices, an administrative staff, and team of organisers, a literature section and a newspaper The Common Cause. Recognising its strength in England, it paid close attention to forwarding the cause in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, accommodating the independent spirit of the Scottish and Irish workers. Its executive committee consisted of well-connected, able, reformist and frequently Liberal women headed by the then non-partisan Millicent Fawcett. In 1913, the NUWSS decided to hold a Women’s Pilgrimage to show Parliament how many women wanted the vote. Members of the NUWSS set off in the middle of June, and during the next six weeks held a series of meetings all over Britain. An estimated 50,000 women reached Hyde Park in London on 26th July. The meetings held on the way were nearly all peaceful. However, a serious riot took place at a meeting organised by Marie Corbett of the East Grinstead Suffrage Society and Edward Steer of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage at East Grinstead three days before the end of the march.

The NUWSS was impressed by the initiatives of its North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage and guided by the democratic socialists. It was anxious to bring pressure on the government, find new allies and broaden its social base. The non-militants were also frustrated and disillusioned by Asquith’s obstruction and as a result, the Liberal and Conservative members of the NUWSS abandoned their long-standing non-party strategy. In 1912, they offered a pact with the Labour Party. Labour had a better voting record on suffrage bills than the other parties. In return for adopting a party policy involving opposition to any franchise bill that failed to include women, Labour was to receive backing from an Election Fighting Fund. The NUWSS would channel both workers and funds to support Labour candidates in by-elections and general elections where they stood against anti-suffragists from other parties. The result was that the NUWSS became involved in a succession of by-elections during 1912-14 in which the Liberals lost a number of seats[2]. The shift entailed cultivating Labour leaders, employing working class organisers, promoting the formation of suffrage clubs for working men and women in industrial areas, setting up suffrage committees in poor working class areas and reaching out to the trade unions. It involved extending associate membership to working class women who could not afford to join its societies: by 1914, there were 46,000 such Friends of Women Suffrage. The initiative was significance, not in its initial impact but for what it could lead to in the future. This can be seen in two respects.  It helped to accelerate deteriorating Liberal morale. Liberal women activists were dropping out if not actually joining another party. The Liberal government could easily withstand by-election defeats but Asquith could not risk the possibility of a breakdown of the electoral pact with Labour at the general election that was expected for 1914 or 1915. The more constituencies Labour contested the more likely it was that Conservatives would win because of splitting the radical vote.  Co-operation between the NUWSS and Labour seems to have fostered wider contact between middle class feminists and the working class movement.

This development, though promising, should not be over-exaggerated before 1914. The small number of Labour MPs was insufficient to give a decisive boost to suffrage legislation. In addition, Ramsay MacDonald fully intended to maintain electoral co-operation with the Liberals and did not intend being sidetracked by women suffragists. The effect of this co-operation on the NUWSS was not always positive. The operation of the Election Fighting Fund generated a good deal of friction with some members leaving and others feeling that there was a danger of the women’s cause being submerged in broader issues of Labour. Nor is it clear that Asquith was going to change his position though there is evidence from 1913 and 1914 that he appeared more conciliatory towards suffragism.


[1] June Hannam Isabella Ford, Basil Blackwell, 1989 is one of the best biographies of a leading suffragist.

[2] Between 1912 and the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Liberals lost eight by-elections. The Labour Party did not win any of these but the electoral influence of the NUWSS increased the Labour party share of the vote and, in most cases, allowed the Conservatives to take the seats.

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