Saturday, 1 June 2013

Suffragettes and Suffragists

The Suffragettes are all over the media at the moment, thanks to some very significant anniversaries. This blog-post is going to argue that the Suffragettes were a lot less significant than they are cracked up to be, so, in an effort to divert abusive criticism, I had better make two things clear from the start. In the first place I have tremendous admiration for the courage and determination of those who carried out militant actions. In the second place I am a whole-hearted supporter of the rights of women then and now.

My main point is that the strategy and tactics of the militants were wrong-headed and probably counter-productive. Because of the way things panned out, with the First World War moving all the goal posts everywhere, it is quite likely that women in Britain would in any case have gained the vote in parliamentary elections when they did. But history is not about what might have happened, but about what did happen, and a good case can be made for arguing that the Suffragette militancy delayed, rather than speeded-up, the granting of the vote.

Far too few history teachers, and almost no members of the general public, seem to be aware that the House of Commons voted in favour of votes for women by an overwhelming majority in 1911. It is simply untrue that women failed to get the vote during the decade before the First World War “because men thought they were unfit for politics.” That point may be true, more or less, for the late nineteenth century, but by the early twentieth century things had changed. All sorts of male-dominated organisations (the Labour Party and the Church of Scotland for example) were in favour of votes for women. Women already had the vote in local elections and, as I have already said, the great majority of MPs were in favour. The arguments had been won.

The arguments had been won partly as the result of a whole host of social and cultural changes involving education, marriage laws, career opportunities and so on. They had also been won by the efforts of a number of dedicated and energetic women who had campaigned and argued for four decades on a whole range of women’s rights – Josephine Butler, Elsie Inglis, Elizabeth Garrett and others. Their leader, as far as the voting question was concerned, was Millicent Fawcett, and her organisation is usually referred to as the Suffragists. This label is a convenient way of distinguishing the “rational argument” group from Mrs Pankhurst’s avowedly militant organisation.

Given that the arguments in favour of votes for women had been won, there were four main obstacles to a change in the law. One was Queen Victoria, who disapproved of the whole idea. Well, she had been removed by death. Another very serious one was political disagreement about exactly which women should get the vote and on what terms. This was a time, remember, when not all adult men yet had the vote. (This obstacle will be easily understood if you have followed the arguments about reform of the House of Lords in our own day. Because the reformers are divided about the nature of the reform, the minority of anti-reformers are able to block all proposals.) A third obstacle, since we have just mentioned them, was the House of Lords. The issue was not tested by a vote, but it seemed highly likely that the Upper House, with its high proportion of crusty old dinosaurs, would vote against. And finally, by sheer bad luck, the Prime Minister, Asquith, was against votes for women. Prime Ministers can be overwhelmed by democratic or party pressure, but they are enormously powerful when it comes to setting agendas, finding parliamentary time and prioritising business. After the 1911 vote Asquith was able to put in place all sorts of delaying tactics.

This prevarication was what provoked the militant Suffragette outrages; the anger is entirely understandable. But as a tactic it was totally misguided. Mrs Fawcett was in despair. For a pressure group to be successful it must identify, and persuade, the key figures in the decision-making process (as the Suffragists had been doing for a long time). Lloyd George (a supporter) wrote to Mrs Fawcett that he feared the outrages would make political victory impossible, and so it proved. We expect modern governments to refuse to pay ransoms, or give way to terrorism. This line of argument reinforced Asquith’s position. One influential member of his cabinet was the famously obstinate Winston Churchill. He was hardly likely to support votes for women after an axe had been thrown at him.

In fact the War came along and changed everything. Asquith publicly admitted that his views had changed. So did other leading opponents. Lloyd George became Prime Minister. In the atmosphere of national unity in the face of danger, and in the surge of respect for the men who had volunteered and for the women who had given themselves fearlessly to war work, the passing of a new Reform Act raised no party-political questions. The absurd compromise of offering the vote to women over thirty provided they were rate-payers or the wives of rate-payers was enough to satisfy the remaining dinosaurs in the Lords. Mrs Fawcett was consulted by the Speaker’s Committee that drew up the Bill. It became law with very little fuss.

In fairness to the Suffragettes, it seems to me that their militancy may have had a favourable effect on the decision-making process at two points. One was Mrs Pankhurst’s 1914 declaration that she would put all the resources of her movement behind the war effort. The outrages had caused so much publicity that this was a moving gesture. The other, just possibly, was that the politicians in 1916, discussing the issue, may have thought “We can do without another wave of Suffragette militancy in the middle of this war. We had better include women in our Bill to give the vote to all fighting men.” But I have no direct evidence of this being said or thought.

If you want to follow up this blog with some more reading, I particularly recommend the work of Martin Pugh. His “Votes For Women In Britain, 1867 1928 2nd Ed (New Appreciations in History)”, for example, is excellent. If you would like something shorter, there is a piece by me available on Kindle:

I will, as a footnote, admit to some personal bias on this issue. My copy of “Millicent Garrett Fawcett” by Ray Strachey, was given by my mother to her mother as an Easter present in 1945. My mother was a London University lecturer in Chemistry before the Second War began, and I was very much brought up in the “rational argument” tradition of political persuasion. Also my study of history has shown me the extreme importance of the decision-making process – all too often neglected. 

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