Harold Smith on Women's Suffrage Essay

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  • Subject: Sports - Women
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Women's Suffrage in the UK

Harold Smith emphasizes that the origins of the women's suffrage campaign in Victorian England stemmed from a larger campaign for reform concerning the franchise in general. Smith is, in fact, careful to note at the very beginning of his study that there has been a recent historiographical shift, which emphasizes the "specifically women's protest against a gender system" by adding some distance between women's suffrage and the different (but related) campaigns for electoral reform in the U.K. In the earlier nineteenth century (Smith 7). In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, for example, British qualifications to vote were determined not only by gender (males only) but also by property ownership and monetary worth, meaning that effectively speaking only 3% of the adult male population could vote. (There were also additional difficulties in this period related to religious qualifications for electoral office: until 1829, a Roman Catholic could not take a seat in Parliament even if lawfully elected.) The situation had become untenable and organized calls for reform were starting to take place in the time period; however, in the case of women the initial intellectual interest in women's rights which had surfaced in the 1820s was explicitly squashed by the 1832 Reform Bill -- after the suggestion of extending the franchise to women who met the property requirements of the Bill, Parliament would instead make explicit in the text of the law the fact that it enfranchised "male persons" (Smith 7). Thus it would seem that the initial result of even raising the question of women's suffrage was a step backward, enshrining male supremacy specifically in the text of the law. As a result, the campaign for electoral form picked up in earnest after 1832 although it was often given a subsidiary role in the consideration of women's issues -- for example, in the period between 1832 and 1865, arguably women's education was considered a more pressing issue than women's suffrage. By 1865, however, the tide began to change -- that year, the election of philosopher and social reformer John Stuart Mill as a Liberal Member of Parliament showed an advocate of women's suffrage received a political and social platform (he had written his essay on The Subjection of Women four years earlier, but would not publish it until 1869), and in this period the establishment of smaller municipal women's suffrage societies reflected an overall interest and involvement of women in public affairs. When the 1867 Reform Act had expanded the franchise yet again, but still denied it to women, thius would seem to be a turning point: as Smith notes, it "effectively cut through the smokescreen of anti-suffrage arguments to the crucial point: suffrage was a gender issue which was resisted because it would grant women the power to undermine existing gender structures that disadvantaged them" (Smith 11).

In terms of the ideological justification for reform, those who were insisting on women's equality merely as a matter of principle -- and who followed a tradition that stretched to the late eighteenth century with Mary Wollstonecraft and followed that of John Stuart Mill in the late 1860s -- were actually a minority. Instead, the basic issue was one in which the gradual recognition of legal rights for women where none had existed before -- on issues like divorce, inheritance, and property ownership -- had begun to indicate a fundamental lack of equal treatment under the law. This is probably a sufficient ideological explanation for why women's suffrage was unable to get much of a political hold in the environment of the nineteenth century, when the establishment of other legal rights and other social opportunities (such as education, authorship, and participation in the national political conversation) would be emphasized before the actual right to vote would be insisted upon. However it is worth noting that both ideological strains did exist at the same time in the nineteenth century. Thus, by the end of the century, the two pre-eminent organizations by the end of the nineteenth century adovocating for women's right to vote were the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which was formed out of various older advocacy groups that had gone through their own schisms and disagreements to result in this merger in 1897, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett: the NUWSS were the "suffragists." Their methods, which were staid and political, came in direct contrast to those who were derogatorily referred to as "suffragettes," and who were usually affiliated with the most signficiant ideological and organizational rival to the NUWSS, which was the Women's Social and Political Union, or WSPU. The WSPU was founded six years after the NUWSS, in 1903, and was spearheaded largely by the Pankhurst sisters, Emmeline and Christabel. The WSPU was the more radical organization by any standard, with a women-only membership and a revolutionary slogan that emphasized "deeds, not words." Initially women were permitted to be members in both organizations, however the militant and propagandistic character of the "deeds" of the WSPU -- which frequently involved public spectacles, protests, stunts, and other techniques -- led to a 1908 standoff between the two organizations when the NUWSS publicly condemned the "militant methods" of the WSPU (Smith 26). The NUWSS's methodology had been expressed amply in the previous year with the famous "Mud March" of 1907, which was basically a massive open-air gathering and demonstration of support for the cause of women's suffrage. But the militancy of WSPU tactics would only increase in the remaining years before the First World War, with very public spectacles like hunger strikes (ended by force-feeding) and the death of Emily Davison, who threw herself physically in front of the King's own horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, and was trampled to death. Smith states that "historians traditionally have portrayed the NUWSS and the WSPU as rivals, and stressed the differences between them" (Smith 25). It is easy to see why. There were basic ideological differences between the two parties, in which the slow and peacable methods of NUWSS reflected Fawcett's claim that women's nature was different and morally superior to men's -- as a result, the use of forceful shock tactics by the WSPU was viewed by the NUWSS as a discredit upon the nature of women generally. Of course Fawcett's organization with its underlying ideology would also (as we shall see shortly) be more hospitable to other ideological creeds like pacifism, which fit in with Fawcett's idea of the superior nature of women.

The immediate campaign for suffrage would be profoundly affected by the political situation leading up to World War One, however: this was a period in time when the Liberal Party would be eclipsed almost completely by the Labour Party, and to some extent the suffrage movement reflected this political shift which would destroy the political fortunes of the Liberal Party almost completely by 1922. We can see it in the attitude of the NUWSS under Millicent Fawcett's leadership: Fawcett was, politically speaking, closely aligned with the Liberals, who were the best Parliamentary hope for achieving the suffragists' aims. However, the peculiarity of the Parliamentary coalitions in this time period -- which included a large bloc of Irish swing votes, essentially, that lobbied strongly for Irish Home Rule -- meant that the Liberal Party made women's suffrage a subsidiary issue. As Smith phrases it, the "Liberal Party lost its majority and…depended upon support from the Labour Party and the Irish Nationalists to remain in office." (Smith 32). As a result, Fawcett and the NUWSS essentially became a crucial part of the electoral success of the Liberal Party, through support and activism (if not votes), and so this finally led to a legislative push in 1910-1913 to pass some version of the Conciliation Bill that would extend the franchise to women, although Liberal leader Lloyd George had pressed instead for an alternative bill. Although Lloyd George was a supporter of women's suffrage, his house would be burned down by the WSPU as one of their many "deeds" to protest Parliament's delay on addressing actual legislation. At this point the NUWSS would take a stronger stance against the anti-suffrage Liberals who were delaying legislative action -- largely through the use of their political funding organization (the EFF) -- and would also work to increase the number of Labour Members of Parliament because, by 1913, the Labour Party was the only one that actually endorsed women's suffrage specifically as a plank of the party platform itself. The large support for suffrage among the Liberal Party had, of course, never resulted in an official party endorsement, and reflects perhaps the doubtful cohesion of a coalition party that would, indeed, effectively cease to exist within ten years' time, being largely replaced by Labour.

However, the progress on women's suffrage would be delayed further by the entry of the United Kingdom into the First World War in the following year, 1914. The chief effect of the First World War upon the suffrage issue was…

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