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Women's suffrage: a short history of a great movement/A brief review of the women's suffrage movement since its beginning in 1832

< Women's suffrage: a short history of a great movement





Reprinted with abbreviations, by kind permission of the
National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies
14 Great Smith Street, Westminster


In 1832, the word "male" introduced into the Reform Act (before "person") restricted the Parliamentary franchise to men, and debarred women from its use.

1850, Lord Brougham's Act came into operation, which ruled that, in the law of the United Kingdom, "words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed to include females, unless the contrary is expressly provided."

In 1867, John Stuart Mill moved an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill (Clause 4), to leave out the word "man" and substitute "person." This amendment was lost by a majority of 123.

In 1868, the judges in the Chorlton v. Lings case ruled that in the case of the Parliamentary franchise, the word "man" does not include "woman" when referring to privileges granted by the State.

Since 1869, Bills and Resolutions have been constantly before the House of Commons. Debates took place in 1870 (twice), 1871, 1872, 1873, 1875, 1876, 1877, 1878, 1879, 1883, 1884, 1886, 1892, 1897, 1904, 1905, 1908 (twice), 1910, 1911.

Altogether, besides resolutions, thirteen Bills have been introduced into the House of Commons, and seven passed their second reading, i.e. in the years 1870, 1886, 1897, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911. There has been a majority in the House of Commons in favour of women's suffrage since 1886.

Formation of the Conciliation Committee

In 1910 the Conciliation Committee was formed in the House of Commons. With the exception of the chairman, the Earl of Lytton, and the Hon. Secretary, Mr. Brailsford, it consisted of members of the House of Commons representative of all the political parties. This committee drafted a Bill which extended the Parliamentary franchise to women householders (about one million in all). This Bill, popularly known as the "Conciliation Bill," was introduced into the House of Commons by Mr. Shackleton. Two days of Government time were allotted to it, and on July 13, 1910, it passed its second reading by a majority of 110, a larger majority than the Government got for any of its measures, including the Budget.

Time was refused for the further stages necessary for its passage into law, and Parliament dissolved in November 1910.

In the new Parliament Sir George Kemp re-introduced the Bill; it was nearly the same Bill as that introduced by Mr. Shackleton; but it was given a more general title, leaving it open to amendment. The second reading of this Bill took place on May 5, 1911, and secured a majority of 167.

History of the Agitation in the Country

The first women's suffrage societies were founded in Manchester, in London, and in Edinburgh in 1867, and in Bristol and in Birmingham in 1868.

These united to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

This Union has grown into a large and powerful body, its progress during the last two years being especially remarkable.

In January 1909 there were 70 affiliated societies; in October 1911 there were 305 affiliated societies, and new societies are formed every week.

Societies of the National Union are now, therefore, in existence in all parts of Great Britain, and take an active part in electoral work. The National Union regards this part of its work as the most important it has to do, both as propaganda and as a means of bringing pressure to bear upon the Government. Its election policy is to oppose its enemies and support its friends, and in carrying out this policy it disregards all parties.

For the purposes of its peaceful propaganda, whether by public meetings, petitions, or other constitutional forms of agitation, the N.U.W.S.S. has, during the past year (1910), alone, raised considerably over £20,000. More than £100,000 has also been raised for suffrage work by the Women's Social and Political Union.

Public Meetings and Demonstrations

These have been organised in great numbers. For example:—

In February 1907, 3000 women marched in procession in London, from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall.

In October 1907, 1500 women marched in procession through Edinburgh.

In October 1907, 2000 women marched in procession through Manchester.

In June 1908, 15,000 women marched in procession in London to the Albert Hall.

In June 1911 more than 40,000 women, representing all the suffrage societies, walked in a procession four miles long to the Albert Hall.

Public meetings have been held all over the country by all the suffrage societies. It is obviously impossible to enumerate them. We content ourselves with a rough estimate of meetings held in support of the "Conciliation Bill." These amount to, at least, 5000 meetings, including a demonstration in Hyde Park, attended by half a million people, a demonstration in Trafalgar Square, attended by 10,000 people. Also six Albert Hall meetings (two in one week), and demonstrations held in other cities than London, e.g., Manchester (2), Edinburgh, Bristol, Newcastle, Guildford, &c., &c.

These figures include meetings held by the N.U.W.S.S. and other societies; but leave out of account out-door meetings held in such numbers as to make even a rough estimate impossible. During the summer and autumn of 1910 there were at least two or three hundred every week.

Growth of the Movement outside the N.U.W.S.S.

Many other societies have been formed, having women's suffrage as their sole object. Such are the National Women's Social and Political Union, the Men's League for Women's Suffrage, the Women's Freedom League, the National Industrial and Professional Women's Suffrage Society, the New Union, the New Constitutional Society, the Men's Political Union, the Church League, the Free Church League, the League of Catholic Women, the League of the Society of Friends, the Tax-Resistance League. Besides such groups as the Artists' League, the Suffrage Atelier, the Actresses' Franchise League, the Society of Women Graduates, the Women Writers' Suffrage League, the Younger Suffragists, the Cambridge University Men's League, the London Graduates' Union for Women's Suffrage, the Gymnastic Teachers' Suffrage Society, &c., &c.

There is also the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association, and an Irish Women's Franchise League.

Within the political parties there have been formed the Forward Suffrage Union (within the Women's Liberal Federation), the Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association, the People's Suffrage Federation (which demands the suffrage for all adult men and women).

The following organisations have officially identified themselves with the demand for some measure of women's suffrage:—the London Liberal Federation, the Women's Liberal Federation, the Welsh Women's Liberal Federation, the Independent Labour Party, the Fabian Society.

Other societies have repeatedly petitioned Parliament, or passed resolutions asking for a measure of women's suffrage. Among them the National British Women's Temperance Association (148,000 members), the Scottish Union of the above (42,000 members), the National Union of Women Workers (the largest Women's Union, numbers not exactly known), the International Council of Women, the Association of Headmistresses, the Association of University Women Teachers, the Incorporated Assistant Mistresses in Secondary Schools, the Society of Registered Nurses, the Nurses' International Congress, the Women's Co-operative Guild (the only organised body representing the married working-women of this country).

Resolutions in favour of the "Conciliation Bill" have been passed by 49 Trades and Labour Councils, and 36 Trades Unions and Federations. Moreover, during the year between October 1910 and October 1911 more than 130 Town and other local Councils petitioned Parliament in favour of women's suffrage; among the Town Councils who have done this are those of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Brighton, Dover, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Inverness, Dublin,[1] Limerick, Cork, Cardiff, and Bangor.

It is to be remembered that these bodies represent women as well as men, as women already possess the municipal franchise.

Women's Suffrage in other Countries

The suffrage movement has now become world-wide. The International Women's Suffrage Alliance, which meets quadrennially, includes societies in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bohemia, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Cape Colony, Natal, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States.

Women's suffrage was granted in—

Wyoming, U.S.A. in 1869
Colorado, U.S.A.  „ 1893
New Zealand  „ 1893
South Australia  „ 1893
Utah, U.S.A.  „ 1895
Idaho, U.S.A.  „ 1896
W. Australia  „ 1899
The Commonwealth of Australia   „ 1902
New South Wales  „ 1902
Tasmania  „ 1903
Queensland  „ 1905
Finland  „ 1907
Norway  „ 1908
Victoria  „ 1909
Washington, U.S.A.  „ 1910
California, U.S.A.  „ 1911

It will be noticed that all the Australian States have now granted women's suffrage. That they have done so proves that they realised its beneficial effects, where they could actually see it in working as State after State came into line.

  1. The Corporation of Dublin authorised the Lord Mayor and other officers to attend in their robes and present the Dublin petition in person at the Bar of the House of Commons.