Parliament and the Suffrage Movement

Chris Culpin

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WSPU procession - Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Mabel Tuke and Israel Zangwill - LSE Library

The problem facing all the campaigns for women’s suffrage was that they couldn’t make the all-male members of Parliament give them the vote; they had to persuade them that it was the right thing to do.

1. Contemporary attitudes towards women

One fundamental difficulty that the campaigners had to overcome was the view of the nature, and therefore the role, of women widely held in Britain, including by its MPs. Not all men held these views, of course, and certainly not all MPs. Further, these views changed a great deal through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, overcoming these prejudices was an obstacle that all suffrage campaigns had to overcome throughout their task of persuasion.

'Separate spheres': Victorian views on women

2. The right to vote

Not all men could vote in parliamentary elections before 1918. The right to vote – the franchise – was based on your wealth, judged by the value of your property.

The franchise changed three times in the nineteenth century, gradually widening it to include more male voters:

To put it another way – just over 100 years ago, four British men in ten did not have the right to vote. This presented a problem of tactics to campaigners for women’s suffrage. Should they demand the vote for women on the same basis as men at that time? Or campaign for the vote for all adults, men and women?

3. Petitions and private member’s bills

One way of making Parliament consider public opinion is to submit a petition, signed by as many people as possible, to indicate to MPs the level of concern. The Kensington Society petition, with 1,521 signatures calling for votes for women, was submitted in 1866. MP John Stuart Mill presented it to Parliament and, during the debate on the 1867 Reform Act, proposed an amendment that replaced the word ‘man’ with ‘person’. His proposal was defeated by 196 votes to 73. Disappointment at this defeat led to the formation of the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage, but it also showed that quite a number of MPs were sympathetic.

The NUWSS continued to petition Parliament as part of their campaigns – almost 17,000 petitions were submitted over the next 50 years. One, in 1896, contained 260,000 signatures.

These were often supported by private member’s bills. Any MP can put forward a ‘bill’ – a proposal for a new law. They are called private member’s bills because they are proposed by an individual MP, not by the government. Almost every year from 1867, an MP proposed a private member’s bill giving the vote to women and, on three occasions, the bill won a majority (Pugh, The March of the Women).

Parliament makes or changes the law through a lengthy and careful process. A bill is given a brief ‘first reading’. Time is then set aside for a ‘second reading’ and a full debate, followed by a ‘committee stage’ in which a smaller group of MPs examine the bill in detail and make any changes. The bill then has to be agreed by the House of Lords, as well as the House of Commons, in a ‘third reading’, before being approved by the monarch and so becoming an act – a new law. All this business takes time and organisation, which is controlled by the government and its ministers. Only with their support can a private member’s bill move on to become an act. Governments throughout this period were not prepared to give their support to private member’s bills in favour of votes for women (see 5 below).

4. Women and local democracy

A number of changes in the law in the 40 years after the Second Reform Act considerably improved women’s democratic rights. 

The extensions of the franchise in 1867 and 1884 had a profound effect on political parties. With an electorate of several million, and voting in secret from 1872, parties had to be better organised. Both parties recruited women to help: the Conservative Party founded the Primrose League in 1883, in which women were heavily involved, and the Liberals formed the Women’s Liberal Federation in 1886. Thousands of women joined one or other of these. Women were also active in trade unions and in the rise of the Labour Party.

All these changes disproved many of the prejudices listed above. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, one huge block remained to women’s right to take a full part in the democratic process of running the country: the right to vote and stand in elections to Parliament.

5. Political parties

All the main political parties were split over the issue of women’s suffrage. 

6. The crisis of 1910–12

Votes for women was just one of the issues that the Liberal government was trying to deal with – and not, for many of them, the most important. In addition to finding the money for the arms race with Germany to build battleships, and Irish Home Rule, they had a big social agenda, wanting to bring in sickness and unemployment benefits for workers, paid for by raising taxes. Opposition to these plans led to two general elections in 1910 as the Liberals called for public support, in which they lost seats, becoming dependent on the support of Labour and Irish MPs to continue.

In 1910, under pressure from both the NUWSS and the WSPU, a joint committee of MPs from all parties drew up a Conciliation Bill. The suffragettes called a halt to their protests while these talks were going on. The Bill proposed to give the vote to women on the same basis as men and was passed as a private member’s bill. Asquith refused to give it government time, leading to the violent suffragette demonstration in November in which many women were assaulted by the police.

The second Conciliation Bill was passed in 1911 with the same terms. Liberal leaders opposed it from two sides: Lloyd George because it left out thousands of working women, and Asquith because it would hand votes to the Conservatives. Asquith then proposed a government bill to give the vote to all men, hinting that it could perhaps be amended to include all women as well. Not only did he know full well that such a bill would never get through Parliament, but the Speaker announced that such an amendment would not be allowed as it was not amending but completely changing it.

The suffragette reaction was to step up their campaign of violence and arson. In 1912, the third Conciliation Bill was defeated, partly in reaction to the suffragettes’ campaign, but also because the Irish voted against it as they wanted government time to be given to their Home Rule Bill.

7. The Representation of the People Act 1918

In 1916, the government began to plan for the next general election after the war and set up an all-party conference, chaired by the neutral Speaker of the House of Commons. It was immediately obvious that the war had changed everything. 

Yet some of the old prejudices remained. If there was full adult suffrage for both sexes, women voters would outnumber men. Young women were believed to be too impressionable to use their vote sensibly. The Representation of the People Act 1918 therefore gave the vote to nearly all men over 21 and women over 30 who paid local taxes or were married to someone who did. As a result, 12.5 million men (an increase of 4.5 million) and 8.5 million women had the right to vote. Women could also stand for election as an MP.

The young women denied the vote were just the age group who had done the most war work. This anomaly was put right in 1928, when women gained the right to vote at 21 on the same terms as men.

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