One way or another, we’re going to be seeing quite a lot of Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Mulligan in ankle-length coats with pale faces this season. They’re in the film Suffragette, which has been shooting in the House of Commons in recent weeks.
The suffrage campaign was not only successful, it was successful to the extent that any other course now seems a bit preposterous. But what’s rarely mentioned is that the bulk of the resistance to it was from other women. It’s quite easy to visualise the suffrage campaign in terms of men vs women and that’s obviously the focus of the film. But the fact is, lots of women campaigned against being given the vote on the basis that it was unwomanly. Not contemptible or particularly downtrodden women either, but vigorous individuals at the forefront of other campaigns for improving the condition of women and higher education for girls — women like Mary Ward, a founder of Somerville College, and Marie Corelli, the novelist. Many of them were keen on female involvement in local government.
It’s quite possible, though impossible to prove, that the majority of women were actually against being granted the vote. Gladstone intimated as much in 1892 when he wrote that ‘there is on the part of large numbers of women who have considered the matter for themselves, the most positive objection and strong disapprobation. Is it not clear to every unbiased mind that before forcing on them what they conceive to be a fundamental change in their whole social function, that is to say in their Providential calling, at least it should be ascertained that the womanly mind of the country is… set upon securing it?’
Right up to the first world war, it’s perfectly likely that most women didn’t actually want the vote. There was similar anti-suffrage sentiment in the US.
There have been two very good studies of the subject — Brian Harrison’s Separate Spheres (1978) and Julia Bush’s Women Against the Vote (2007). Both do justice to the sincerity of the female anti-suffragists and the extent of their support.
One reason why we don’t know whether women wanted the vote was the reluctance of suffragettes to ask them. The anti-suffrage leagues were keen on a referendum to determine women’s views, though there wasn’t consensus about who should vote in it; in Asquith’s cabinet the notion was discussed around 1911. The referendum issue surfaced throughout the debates: the chief anti-suffrage league declared that an important reform shouldn’t be introduced without a mandate.
In 1917 Mary Ward suggested radical local government reform which would supply ‘a large body of women electors from whom a referendum on the subject of the Parliamentary suffrage could be taken’. The suggestion wasn’t taken up lest, presumably, it come up with the wrong answer.
But what we do know is that women constituted the majority of the anti-suffrage movement, at least the rank and file. They made up more than two thirds of the subscribers to the anti-suffragist central office and five out of six subscribers at branch level. They made up, and collected, the half-million signatures against votes for women just before the first world war. This was grassroots stuff.
Obviously the question for us is why women would set themselves against their own interests… at least, as we’d see it. As the first big petition by women against the suffrage put it in 1889, ‘We protest against [women’s] admission to direct power in that State which rests upon force — the State in its administrative, military and financial aspects.’ In other words, women should be involved in politics relating to their own experience.
Some distrusted and disliked party politics; some felt that women would end up being manipulated by male politicians; others that women were so bound up with their real and fundamental work in the family that they didn’t have the expertise to vote properly on imperial matters; many felt that women had their proper and vital areas of expertise in the domestic sphere from which party politics would be a damaging distraction.
Others thought the vote was the thin end of the wedge undermining marriage and family. Lots were imperialists — and as a male anti-suffragist observed, what would India make of a Britain partly governed by women? But what you find, too, was a discernible resentment among some women at being bossed around by middle-class militant suffragettes. One polemicist who described herself simply as ‘a working woman’ wrote in 1910 about ‘these dangerous women, the unemployed rich, who by example and preaching are teaching their humbler sisters that housework is despicable… between us and them, there is a great gulf fixed… by poverty… As they stand in our doorways with their pretty skirts gathered round them, are they not shrinking from the unsavouriness within?’ If you can imagine the suffragettes of a century ago less as the agreeable Pankhurst and more as the Edwardian equivalent of Harriet Harman, you can get her drift.
History is never kind to the losers, but it would be wrong if the commemorations simply obliterated the ones in this fight — the silent, or at least less vocal, majority. The antis’ fight against the vote puts contemporary angst about getting equal numbers of men and women into frontline politics and boardrooms into perspective. A century ago women would simply have said they had other, better things to do. And perhaps they did.