Stand up and be counted: the suffragettes' legacy
It was a miserable day for a general election; the kind of day that ought to have seen press predictions of women’s apathy towards their new voting rights vindicated.
And yet – according to a report in Jus Suffragii, the official journal of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance – the dreadful weather didn’t stop them turning out en masse at polling booths all over the country on 18 December, 1918.
“One of the nicest stories is that of the practical housewife who emerged from the poll with the sole comment: ‘It’s easier nor buying currants,’ and crossed the road to join a long queue for that necessary ingredient of the equally necessary Christmas pudding,” the author writes, evoking a sense of victory tempered by loss and daily privations.
This year, the UK is set to go into overdrive marking the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act – the piece of legislation that allowed women to vote in a general election. On International Women’s Day, 2017, the government announced a £5m fund to stage events in seven cities, all of them in England, but there will be plenty of books, talks and exhibitions in Scotland too.
Many have welcomed the opportunity to raise the profile of historic women. Yet, given that the Act provided only a limited female franchise, and the election that followed was badly organised, others are already questioning the hype.
It is true the 1918 general election was clouded by controversy. Critics believed it had been called too quickly: many men had not returned from the war and registration was patchy. The government introduced a coupon system, whereby Liberal and Tory candidates who had supported the coalition led by David Lloyd George were rewarded with an official endorsement. And, although the number of voters vastly increased, the turnout was just 57 per cent: the lowest ever.
Nor were all women now able to vote: the Representation of the People Act provided a franchise limited to women over 30 – only 40 per cent of the adult female population – at the same time as extending it to all men over 21. The motivation was simple: war deaths meant women vastly outnumbered men. Politicians were convinced women would vote as a bloc and had no intention of handing over the keys of the kingdom.
Nevertheless, the Act and the general election were watershed moments. How must women like Arabella Scott, who had been force-fed in Perth Prison, or Elsie Inglis, who founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, or Eunice Murray, who was arrested addressing crowds at Downing Street, have felt as they finally got the chance to participate in the national democratic process?
Over the years, attempts have been made to strip some of these women of credit; to suggest the throwing of stones and burning of pillar boxes was counterproductive and that Votes for Women was an inevitable dividend of the war. We are also told pro-suffrage campaigning came to a halt in July, 1914, and that the passing of the Act stopped feminism in its tracks.
With this in mind, perhaps the best way to mark the 100th anniversary – is to reappraise the role of pro-suffrage campaigners before, during and after the war; and to reflect on the debt we owe them.
The prevailing narrative about the Representation of the People Act, outside feminist circles, is that women were given the vote in recognition of their contribution to the war effort. Yet this makes little sense. As Sarah Pedersen, professor in communication and media at Robert Gordon University, points out, if voting rights had been a reward for war work, it would have been more logical to give them to the younger women who dominated the munitions factories and drove the trams and ambulances.
“Also, French women were just as involved in the war, if not more so, as it was happening on their doorsteps, but French women don’t get the vote until 1945, so there isn’t a magic connection between war service and getting the vote,” says Pedersen, whose book The Scottish Suffragettes And The Press was published last year.
What seems more likely is that reframing the narrative in this way allowed the government to grant women the vote without appearing to have given in to violence (a perception that would have proved particularly dangerous at a time of rising tensions in Ireland).
Nor – according to the academic – is it true that campaigning was suspended for the duration of the war. Though all groups foreswore violence, efforts to secure votes for women went on. In Scotland, the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) continued to hold meetings, including rallies on the Meadows in Edinburgh, right up until the Act received Royal Assent on 6 February, 1918.
Before the war, pro-suffrage campaigners were largely split between the militants (many of whom belonged to the Women’s Social and Political Union – the WSPU) and the constitutionalists (many of whom belonged to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – NUWSS); in 1907, some members of the WSPU broke away to form the WFL in protest at the autocratic approach of mother and daughter Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, but continued to support direct action. Back then, the government and the press were relentless in their depiction of suffragettes as harridans threatening the fabric of society. Glasgow Women’s Library has a lively collection of postcards of witch-like women with their sharp tongues cut out to silence them.
The outbreak of the First World War, however, changed the dynamics. It created a new faultline between jingoists like the Pankhursts, who became recruiting sergeants for the conflict, and pacifists like Edinburgh-born graduate Chrystal Macmillan, who lobbied world leaders in an attempt to secure a negotiated peace, or Helen Crawfurd and Jessie Stephen, who organised the Women’s Peace Crusade: a 5,000-strong anti-war demonstration in Glasgow.
Those who did not vociferously oppose the war saw in it a new opportunity; if they could prove their worth as citizens then the government would have little choice but to give in to their demands. Perhaps the best example of pro-suffrage campaigners self-consciously exploiting their “good works” is Inglis setting up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. Having been rejected by the War Office – who told her to “go home and sit still” – the ardent suffragist turned to the NUWSS and its Scottish Federation, which raised enough money to send units to Serbia and France. According to A Guid Cause – the late Leah Leneman’s book on the suffrage movement in Scotland – Inglis rejected NUWSS demands that the initiative should be called the NUWSS Scottish Federation Hospitals, but agreed “NUWSS” would appear at the top of all appeals, press notices and papers.
“When Elsie launched the Scottish Women’s Hospitals she was very clear that the intention wasn’t just that women would go and do their bit, but that – because the whole enterprise would be run by women – it would provide a very clear demonstration of women’s capabilities,” says historian and activist Lesley Orr. “The suffragist colours – red, white and green – were flown at every hospital.”
As the war progressed, the attitudes of newspaper editors mellowed so much that in May 1915, the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch felt able to carry the headline: “Women’s War Work – Proving their Right to the Vote.”
“Throughout the war there was an ongoing discourse which said: ‘Look at these brave suffragettes, now they have stopped behaving like silly girls,’” says Pedersen.
The pro-suffrage campaigners’ response to such a belated and patronising endorsement of female merit, was understandably mixed. A sarky pamphlet, Women – A New Discovery, written by Murray, captures some of that ambivalence. Still, by and large there seems to have been an acceptance that the war provided both militants and ministers with a chance to jettison increasingly untenable positions. As Lord Balfour of Burleigh put it: “The war gave a very good excuse to a large number of excellent people who had at that time been on the wrong side to change their minds.”
On top of its relief work, the WFL continued providing speakers for various rallies; according to Leneman, in January 1916, Murray told the Dundee branch to go on demanding the vote, since, when the war ended, “many pressing problems will have to be faced, not least of these being the struggle that will have to take place between Capital and Labour and women’s place in the Labour market.”
For the first two years of the war, East Fife MP, HH Asquith – who opposed female suffrage – remained prime minister. In March 1915, he refused to meet a deputation of women pushing for an emergency measure granting votes to women. But by August 1916, he had given up his opposition and an all-party conference of members had been appointed to draft proposals for a new Bill. By the time it published its report, Asquith had been replaced by Lloyd George, who supported female suffrage.
The first proposals suggested the franchise should be limited to women over the age of 35. The NUWSS was not prepared to accept this age cap, but settled for 30. The Act passed through the Commons in June 1917 by 385 votes to 55. Some opponents pinned their hopes on Lord Curzon – president of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage – lobbying against the relevant clause, but he didn’t want to clash with the Commons and it passed through the Lords by 134 votes to 71. The new Act tripled the electorate from seven million in 1912 to 21.4 million, with women representing just over 40 per cent.
Though you might assume pro-suffrage campaigners would have balked at the continued disparity between men and women, most viewed the Act as the thin end of the wedge. “You have to remember that both the suffragists and most of the suffragettes had been campaigning not for all women to get the vote, but for women to get it on the same basis as men [and up until 1918 that meant men over 30],” says Pedersen. “They thought, ‘Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth; let’s start from here, then we can move forward.’”
Shortly after the legislation was passed, the government pushed through the Parliament (Qualification of Women Act), which allowed women to become candidates – they could already stand and vote in council elections. In the end, 17 women stood, including Christabel Pankhurst and Murray, but the only one to be elected was Constance Markievicz, who represented Sinn Fein and so refused to take her seat at Westminster.
A final fallacy is that once partial female suffrage had been secured, everything went quiet on the feminism front until the bra-burning antics of the 1960s. In fact, although the emphasis shifted, the campaigning intensified. After the Act was passed, many suffrage organisations transformed themselves into citizenship associations. Their focus was on educating women to ensure they would make good use of the vote they had been given. “These organisations weren’t saying: ‘You should vote for the Tories’ or ‘You should vote for the Liberals,’” says Pedersen. “They were encouraging women to think about what they wanted to change. They were saying: ‘Look, if you are concerned about your children’s schooling or housing or sanitation, here are the questions you should be asking.’”
From 1918 onwards, then, women in Scotland campaigned on many important issues, including education, birth control and equal pay. They continued to have different ideas about how to go about things: some insisted true equality meant no differences in the treatment of men and women, others that women had specific needs such as contraception and maternity leave. The more educated tended to focus on equality of access to the professions, while the less educated preferred policies that would allow them to stay at home and look after their children.
Dr Valerie Wright, research associate at Glasgow University, who wrote her PhD on women’s organisations in the inter-war years, says there was an explosion of female political participation between 1918 and 1928, though the existing gap between middle class and working class campaigners widened.
“There is massive class polarisation in the 20s and 30s,” she says. “The middle class groups are what, in Glasgow, you would call moderate and, in Edinburgh, you would call progressive. Then you have the working class women, who are involved in trades councils, the Co-operative Women’s Guild or the Independent Labour Party.
“Because middle class suffragettes tended to take a paternalistic approach – believing they could use their votes to help their ‘poorer’ sisters – it was groups like the Guild and the ILP which campaigned most vociferously for the universal franchise that finally came in 1928.
“The inter-war years are often seen as a period of ‘oh, the vote’s been won – we don’t need to bother with this any more,’” says Wright. “In fact, associational culture is thriving. Whether it’s political parties or grassroots campaign groups, women are joining things like never before. It’s not dramatic – it’s a kind of pragmatic plodding along – but it gets results.”
But what of those high-profile figures whose names were synonymous with the women’s suffrage movement ? Were they able to capitalise on their empowerment? Though Leneman says a few spent their time reminiscing about the glory days, many others went on to achieve great things. Ethel Moorhead – the first Scottish suffragette to be force-fed – edited the Paris Review, which published writers including James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Eunice Murray continued to be active in local politics, wrote books on women’s history and campaigned for the creation of a Scottish folk museum. Chrystal Macmillan, by then in England, qualified as a barrister and worked to stem the traffic in sex slaves.
Of course, the struggle for equality did not end with these campaigners. The resignation last week of BBC China editor Carrie Gracie over the gender pay gap shows us how far women have to go. But that’s why all the hoopla over the centenary of the first votes for women is important. It’s a chance to honour those who set the ball rolling; a chance to remind ourselves that the most difficult battles can be won.