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Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

There has, justly, been much celebration this year of the Representation of the People Act 1918, but as I wrote last month it is far from the whole story.

Last month, I wrote about the Conservative Government’s Act of 1928 that equalised the parliamentary franchise for men and women, and the campaign of the suffragette Lady Rhondda for equality. This month, I thought it might be of interest to look at the history before 1918, before even the big suffrage campaigns of 1907-14, of the first women to campaign for the vote, elect representatives and serve in elected office – who not only paved the way to 1918 but achieved so much in their own right.

The godmother of women’s suffrage in Britain was a woman from York called Mary Smith. She wrote to Parliament during the Reform Bill crisis in 1832, saying that she paid tax and should therefore be entitled to vote. Smith did not receive the courtesy of a reply, and the Reform Act was the first time that the vote was explicitly restricted to ‘male persons’, but the point Ms Smith raised became ever more insistent in the in the near-century it took to equalise the right to vote.

The question of the small number of women like Mary Smith who, through economic independence and property owning, would otherwise be qualified for the franchise was the start of the argument.

Suffragists pointed to Lord Brougham’s Act of 1859, which prescribed that ‘in all Acts of Parliament, unless the contrary is expressly stated, words importing the masculine gender shall apply to women as well as men.’ It took a rather bizarre court judgement, effectively saying that Parliament cannot have meant to include the franchise in this broad principle, for the anti-suffrage forces to get around it. It was not the last time that broadly worded equality Acts were subverted against women who tried to apply the principle to political representation (the same happened to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1919).

Suffragists had different views as to when they could consider their struggle won. Was it simply a question of equalisation, in which case the demand could be met even if the franchise was still restricted in other ways – property ownership, wealth and so on – and the electorate remained mostly male? Mary Smith and Lily Maxwell – a Manchester shop owner who tried to exercise voting rights in 1867 – were both examples of this ‘respectable propertied independent woman’ who was easier for the establishment to accept.

Or should the movement demand the enfranchisement of all women, and therefore join forces with advocates for the poorer working-class men who remained disenfranchised but whose economic agenda might be more radical than propertied women would like?

Politics and government were changing in ways that made the political involvement of women an inescapable question. With the widening of the franchise in 1867 and 1885 the number of women denied the vote explicitly for their sex, rather than being mostly a consequence of not having property, was increasingly pressing. Once there was a mostly democratic franchise for men, rather than a franchise only for the (all male) elite, anti-suffragists had to make explicit arguments about women’s supposed unfitness to vote.

A mass electorate had other effects. Political parties needed to organise and communicate with ever more voters and this involved creating ‘feminine’ types of political work – addressing envelopes, registering voters, tracing ‘removals’ (voters who had moved out but remained on the rolls), and canvassing. Male politicians had to acknowledge their efforts, as Lord Salisbury did to the Conservative mass membership Primrose League in 1886: “It is obvious that they are abundantly as well fitted as many who now possess the suffrage, by knowledge, by training, and by character.”

As Krista Cowman has observed: “Women were thus able to speak and act on behalf of parties, albeit in controlled and defined circumstances, many years before they were able to vote for them at national elections.”

Government in the later Victorian period also started to engage in more stereotypically ‘feminine’ work such as education, child care and providing for the sick. Most of this began with local government, which was being rationalised and democratised in a series of reforms and was the thin end of a powerful wedge to drive women’s participation in politics.The wedge was hammered in one night in 1869 in a sparsely-attended House of Commons debate on a Bill that tidied up some points of arcane and confusing electoral law.

Jacob Bright, at that point the principal Commons advocate for women’s suffrage, proposed an amendment that women who were ratepayers should have the vote in borough council elections. The principle was carried forward into Forster’s Elementary Education Act of 1870, which gave women ratepayers the right to vote and stand in school board elections. Women accounted for around 17 per cent of the local government electorate and turned out at similar rates to men. In many boroughs there were partisan local elections, so the party machines as well as including women had to pay attention to the views of women voters.

The remarkable Elizabeth Garrett (a pioneering doctor and surgeon as well as a political leader), and two women allies Emily Davies and Maria Grey, stood in the London school board elections in November 1870. Garrett and Davies were elected, Garrett with a landslide of 47,858 votes (to 13,394 for her nearest competitor) in the electoral division covering Paddington, St Marylebone, St Pancras and Hampstead – a feather in the cap for the current boroughs of Camden and Westminster.

Garrett subsequently married her campaign chairman, becoming Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and incidentally setting a quiet precedent for the rights of married women to participate in elected bodies. The personal is indeed the political.

Other, less well-known women served in local authorities, and while most were liberal or independent there were several dozen Conservatives among them, and local Conservatives or centre-right fronts tried to stand a woman in elections where multiple candidates were elected. Mrs Hancock, a Conservative member of the Sunderland school board in 1892, was called ‘the best man among them’ in the local press. Mrs Charles, a ‘tory-radical poor law guardian’ won a seat on the Paddington vestry in 1894.

Conservative, Liberal and non-party women board members shared many priorities and often came from similar backgrounds of philanthropy, education and social reform. The first two Tory women in major borough councils were Mary Coulcher in Ipswich and Ellen Chapman in Worthing. Chapman went on to be nominated for mayor in 1914, although she was blocked because it was somehow considered inappropriate to have a woman mayor during the War; she became mayor in 1920. Coulcher and Chapman were both partisan Conservatives and active women’s suffrage campaigners.

The laws about women and elections before 1928 were a thicket. In 1869 Bright had intended married women otherwise qualified could vote, but a court determined in 1872 that the common law overrode this. The legal profession, until relatively recently (the 1991 criminalisation of rape within marriage being an example of judges taking a lead), was more of a menace to equality than politicians.

Married women ended up included in some local government franchises (the rural districts and parishes) but not in others (boroughs). Nor was the right to stand for election harmonised with the franchise – in some areas women could stand but not vote, and in others vote but not stand, in some both and some neither.

The late Victorian politics of women’s suffrage crossed party lines. For much of the earlier part of the period suffragists were more associated with the Liberals. John Stuart Mill, elected in 1865, advocated women’s suffrage in the election campaign and presented Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies’s petition for the vote to Parliament in 1866. Bright of Manchester took over the parliamentary fight after Mill lost his seat and achieved the 1869 breakthrough.

Despite Gladstone’s own conservatism on suffrage, the women’s movement and Gladstonian Liberalism had a lot in common. Temperance was popular among women campaigners, who were concerned by alcohol’s part in fuelling domestic violence and child poverty. Gladstonian moral renewal and social reform also aligned with the women’s movement. Between 1865 and 1908 the Liberals achieved more, having made the first moves in local government in 1869 and 1870, and included women’s voting rights in their local government reform in 1894.

However, there is a sense in which the Liberals later tried to come up with arguments that would justify women’s participation in local government while denying the right to a parliamentary vote. The idea was that local government was an analogue of the ‘domestic sphere’, and therefore fit for women, whereas imperial and foreign affairs were for the chaps.

Labour and socialist politicians, increasingly important from the 1890s, were nearly universally in favour of women’s suffrage. Several women pioneers were socialist, such as match strike leader Annie Besant who was elected to the London School Board in 1888. John Burns, the Battersea MP, a socialist who remained within the Liberal Party, was a strong advocate for women’s voting rights throughout his career and as President of the Local Government Board piloted the Act that made women eligible to sit on borough and county councils in 1907. In 1912 universal adult suffrage became Labour Party policy.

The legislative record of the Conservatives before 1918 is patchy at best. In contrast to the local government reforms overseen by the Liberals, the Conservatives’ big reform establishing the county councils in 1888 did not provide for women’s suffrage. In 1899, a Conservative government established the London boroughs, and in doing so actually took a right away from women who had been participating in the vestry boards, the boroughs’ predecessors. The Commons voted to retain women’s representation but it was vetoed in the Lords.

Conservative MPs did display considerable willingness to vote to allow at least propertied women to have a parliamentary vote; both progressives and reactionaries (such as Lord Curzon) among the Conservatives seemed to sense that there were no proper resting places between complete disenfranchisement and equal participation.

The Conservative conference regularly passed resolutions in favour of equal suffrage, and this generation’s leaders (Benjamin Disraeli, Stafford Northcote, Lord Salisbury, Randolph Churchill, Arthur Balfour) expressed passive support. Others were more active, like Albert Rollit, the Tory MP for Islington South, who proposed a suffrage Bill in 1892 which more Tory MPs supported (92) than opposed (84).

However, the principal effect of the Conservative governments that dominated government between 1886 and 1905 was to throw a blanket over the issue – to suffocate it with warm words and good intentions, as much because franchise reform would raise difficult issues about votes for the poor as any reluctance about votes for wealthier women. With the arrival of the Liberals and their aim for wider franchise and constitutional reform, and the bovine opposition to suffrage from Asquith, the politics of women’s suffrage came straight back to the boil.

Further reading: Among many sources, Patricia Hollis Ladies Elect (Clarendon, 1989) and Krista Cowman Women in British politics c1689-1979 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) are useful.

5 comments for: Lewis Baston: How the fight for women’s votes began long before the Suffragettes

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