Women's suffrage: a short history of a great movement/Chapter 3
THROWING THE WOMEN OVERBOARD IN 1884
"We have filled the well-fed with good things, and the hungry we have sent empty away."—From the Politician's Magnificat.
The year 1880 opened cheerfully for suffragists. There was a series of great demonstrations of women only, beginning with one in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, in February. The first little bit of practical success too within the United Kingdom came this year, for suffrage was extended to women in the Isle of Man. At first it was given only to women freeholders, but after a few years' experience of its entirely successful operation all feeling of opposition to it died away, and it was extended to women householders. The representative system of the Isle of Man is one of the oldest in the world, and the House of Keys is of even greater antiquity than the House of Commons.
The general election took place in March and April 1880, and the Liberals were returned to power with a large majority. Mr. Gladstone became Prime Minister, and it was well known that the extension of Household Suffrage in the counties would be an important feature in the programme of the new Government. Mr. Goschen declined to join Mr. Gladstone's Government, because he was opposed to the extension of the Parliamentary franchise to the agricultural labourers. It is strange how the whirligig of time brings about its revenges. Mr. Goschen held out to the last against the enfranchisement of the agricultural labourers, but after the election of 1906 he publicly congratulated a meeting of Unionist Free Traders on "the magnificent stand the agricultural labourers had made for Free Trade!" If his counsels had prevailed in 1880, not one of these men would have had a vote and could have made a stand for Free Trade or anything else. But in politics memories are short, and no one reminded Lord Goschen, as he had then became, of his stand against the labourers' vote a few years earlier.
As the time approached when the Government of 1880 would introduce their Bill to extend household suffrage to counties, the exertions of the women's suffragists were redoubled. One of the methods of propaganda adopted was the bringing forward of resolutions favourable to women's suffrage at the meetings and representative gatherings of political associations of both the great parties.
Resolutions favourable to an extension of the Parliamentary suffrage to women were carried at the Parliamentary Reform Congress at Leeds in October 1883, at the National Liberal Federation at Bristol in 1883, at the National Reform Union, Manchester, January 1884, at the National Union of Conservative Associations (Scotland) at Glasgow in 1887, at the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations' Annual Conference (Oxford) 1887, and so on yearly, or at very frequent intervals, down to the present time.
At the Reform Conference at Leeds in 1883, presided over by Mr. John Morley, and attended by 2000 delegates from all parts of the country, it was moved by Dr. Crosskey of Birmingham, and seconded by Mr. Walter M'Laren, to add to the resolution supporting household suffrage in the counties the following rider:—"That in the opinion of this meeting, any measure for the extension of the suffrage should confer the franchise on women who, possessing the qualifications which entitle men to vote, have now the right of voting in all matters of local government."
It was pointed out by Mr. M'Laren (now a member of the House of Commons and one of our mast valued supporters) that in the previous session a memorial signed by 110 members of Parliament, of whom the chairman, Mr. John Morley, was one, had been handed to Mr. Gladstone, to the effect that no measure for the extension of the franchise would be satisfactory unless it included women. Mrs. Cobden Unwin and Mrs. Helen Clark, the daughters respectively of Richard Cobden and John Bright, spoke in support of the rider, which was carried by a very large majority. But when the Reform Bill of 1884 came before the House of Commons it was found that the inclusion of women within the Bill had an inexorable opponent in the Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone. He did not oppose Women's Suffrage in principle. In 1871 he had taken part in a woman's suffrage debate in the House of Commons and had said:—
"So far as I am able to form an opinion of the general tone and opinion of our law in these matters, where the peculiar relations of men and women are concerned, that law does less than justice to women, and great mischief, misery, and scandal result from that state of things in many of the occurrences and events of life. … If it should be found possible to arrange a safe and well-adjusted alteration of the law as to political power, the man who shall attain that object, and who shall see his purpose carried onward to its consequences in a more just arrangement of the provisions of other laws bearing upon the condition and welfare of women, will, in my opinion, be a real benefactor to his country."
It is somewhat difficult to deduce from this statement the condition of the mind from which it proceeded; but it was generally thought to mean that Mr. Gladstone believed that women had suffered practical grievances owing to their exclusion from representation, and that it would be for their benefit and for the welfare of the country if a moderate measure of women's suffrage could be passed into law. When, however, it came to moving a definite amendment to include women in the Reform Bill of 1884, the most vehement opposition was offered by Mr. Gladstone; not indeed even then to the principle of women's suffrage, but to its being added to the Bill before the House. The idea that household suffrage was not democratic had not then been invented. The Prime Minister's line was that the Government had introduced into the Bill "as much as it could safely carry." The unfortunate nautical metaphor was repeated again and again: "Women's suffrage would overweight the ship." "The cargo which the vessel carries is, in our opinion, a cargo as large as she can safely carry." He accordingly threw the women overboard. So different are the traditions of the politician from the heroic traditions of the seaman who, by duty and instinct alike, is always prompted in moments of danger to save the women first.
Comment has been made on the curious ambiguity of the language in which Mr. Gladstone had supported the principle of women's suffrage in 1871. There was no ambiguity in what he said about it in 1884. In language perfectly plain and easily understood he said, "I offer it [Mr. Woodall's Women's Suffrage Amendment] the strongest opposition in my power, and I must disclaim and renounce responsibility for the measure [i.e. the Government Reform Bill] should my honourable friend succeed in inducing the committee to adopt the amendment." This was on June 10, 1884. The decision resulted in a crushing defeat for women's suffrage. The numbers were 271 against Mr. Woodall's amendment to 135 for it. Among the 271 were 104 Liberals who were pledged supporters of suffrage. Three members of the Government, who were known friends of women's suffrage, did not vote at all, but walked out of the House before the division. To one of them Mr. Gladstone wrote the next day pointing out that to abstain from supporting the Government in a critical division was equivalent to a resignation of office. But he added that a crisis in foreign affairs was approaching which might be of the deepest importance to "the character and honour of the country and to the law, the concord and possibly even the peace of Europe. It would be most unfortunate were the minds of men at such a juncture to be disturbed by the resignation of a cabinet minister and of two other gentlemen holding offices of great importance." He, therefore, was proposing to his colleagues that he should be authorised to request the three gentlemen referred to, to do the Government the favour of retaining their respective offices. As they had never resigned them, this petition that they should withdraw their resignation seemed a little superfluous.
The blow to women's suffrage dealt by the defeat of Mr. Woodall's Amendment to the 1884 Reform Bill was a heavy one, and was deeply felt by the whole movement. But though fatal to immediate Parliamentary success, the events of 1884 strengthened our cause in the country. Everything which draws public attention to the subject of representation and to the political helplessness of the unrepresented makes people ask themselves more and more "Why are women excluded?" "If representative government is good for men, why should it be bad for women?" "Why do members of Parliament lightly break their promises to non-voters?" It will be remembered that the Reform Bill of 1884 was not finally passed until late in the autumn. While the final stages of the measure were still pending, the Trades Union Congress meeting at Aberdeen passed a resolution, with only three dissentients, "That this Congress is strongly of opinion that the franchise should be extended to women rate-payers." Thus at that critical juncture the working men's most powerful organisation stood by the women whom the Liberal party had betrayed.
New political forces made their appearance very soon after the passing of the Reform Act of 1884, which have had an almost immeasurable effect in promoting the women's suffrage cause. The Reform Act had contained a provision to render paid canvassing illegal, and in 1883 Sir Henry James (afterwards Lord James of Hereford) had introduced, on behalf of the Government, and carried a very stringent Corrupt Practices Act. Its main feature was to place a definite limit, proportioned to the number of electors in each constituency, upon the authorised expenditure of the candidates. Political agents and party managers had been accustomed to employ a large number of men as paid canvassers, and to perform the great amount of clerical and other drudgery connected with electoral organisation. The law now precluded paid canvassing altogether, and, by limiting the authorised expenditure, severely restrained the number of people who could be employed on ordinary business principles, of so much cash for so much work. But the work had got to be done, or elections would be lost. It was necessary, therefore, to look round and see how and by whom the work could be performed now that the fertilising shower of gold was withdrawn. The brilliant idea occurred to Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Algernon Borthwick, and others to obtain for their own party the services of ladies. This was the germ of the organisation which soon became known by the name of the Primrose League. Ladies were encouraged to take an active part in the electoral organisation; they canvassed, they spoke, they looked up "removals," and "out voters," and did all kinds of important political work without fee or reward of any kind, and, therefore, without adding to candidates' expenses. The ladies were highly successful from the very first. They showed powers of work and of political organisation which heretofore had been unsuspected. Their political friends were delighted. The anger of their political opponents was unmeasured. It was then that the expression "filthy witches" was used in relation to the Dames of the Primrose League by an excited member of the Liberal party, who attributed his defeat in a contested election to their machinations. But anger quickly gave way to a more practical frame of mind, the Conservatives could make good use of women for electoral work, Liberals could do so also and would not be left behind. The Women's Liberal Federation was formed in 1886 under the Presidency of Mrs. Gladstone, supported on the executive committee by other ladies, mainly the wives of the Liberal leaders. The idea of the officers of this association from the outset was that the object of its existence was to promote the interests of the Liberal party, or, as Mrs. Gladstone once put it, "to help our husbands." Events, however, soon followed which created great dissatisfaction among the rank and file with this limited range of political activity. There were many women in the association who desired not merely to help their party but to educate it, by promoting Liberal principles, and of these the extension of representative government to women was one of the most important.
The Federation was formed in 1886; the very next year a women's suffrage resolution was moved at the annual council meeting, but was defeated. The same thing happened in 1888 and 1889, the influence of the official Liberal ladies being used against it. In 1890, however, a women's suffrage resolution was carried by a large majority. The earnest suffragists in the Federation continued their work, and in 1892 they became so powerful that fifteen of the members of the executive committee, who had opposed suffrage being taken up as part of the work of the Federation, did not offer themselves for re-election. Mrs. Gladstone, however, did not withdraw, and continued to hold the office of president. The retiring members of the executive took a considerable number of the local associations with them, and in 1893 these formed a new organisation called the National Women's Liberal Association. Some of those who formed this seceding Women's Liberal Association were definitely opposed to Women's Suffrage; others thought that while in principle the enfranchisement of women was right, the time had not come for its practical adoption. In practice, however, the Women's Liberal Federation has stood for suffrage with ever-increasing firmness since 1890, while the Women's Liberal Association has continued to oppose it.
The formation of women's political associations was encouraged by party leaders of all shades of politics. There is probably not a single party leader, however strongly he may oppose the extension of the suffrage to women, who has not encouraged the active participation of women in electoral work. The Liberal party issues a paper of printed directions to those who are asking to do electoral work in its support. The first of these directions is:—Make all possible use of every available woman in your locality.
Suffragists contend that a party which can do this cannot long maintain that women are by the mere fact of their sex unfit to be entrusted with a Parliamentary vote.
Even as long ago as his first Midlothian campaign, and before any definite political organisations for women existed, Mr. Gladstone had urged the women of his future constituency to come out and bear their part in the coming electoral struggle. Speaking to a meeting of women in Dalkeith in 1879 he said:—
"Therefore, I think in appealing to you ungrudgingly to open your own feelings and bear your own part in a political crisis like this, we are making no inappropriate demand, but are beseeching you to fulfil the duties which belong to you, which so far from involving any departure from your character as women, are associated with the fulfilment of that character and the performance of those duties, the neglect of which would in future years be a source of pain and mortification, and the accomplishment of which would serve to gild your future years with sweet remembrances and to warrant you in hoping that each in your own place and sphere has raised your voice for justice, and has striven to mitigate the sorrows and misfortunes of mankind."
In less ornate language Mr. Asquith, in January 1910, thanked the women of Fife for the aid they had given him and his cause during the election, and said that "their healthy influence on the masculine members of the community had had not a little to do with keeping things in a satisfactory condition."
The organised political work of women has grown since 1884, and has become so valuable that none of the parties can afford to do without it or to alienate it. Short of the vote itself this is one of the most important political weapons which can possibly have been put into our hands. At the outset, while the women's political societies were still young, and were hardly conscious of their power, the women's suffrage movement benefited greatly by their existence. If the Women's Liberal Federation had existed in 1884, the 104 Liberals who voted against Mr. Woodall's amendment would have probably decided that honesty was the best policy. In 1892 Sir Albert Rollit introduced a Women's Suffrage Bill, as nearly as possible on the lines of the Conciliation Bill of 1910-11. Before the second reading great efforts were made by the Liberal party machine to secure a crushing defeat for this Bill on its second reading: a confidential circular was sent out to all Liberal candidates in the Home Counties advising them not to allow Liberal women to speak on their platforms lest they should advocate "female suffrage." In addition to this, Mr. Gladstone was induced to write a letter addressed to Mr. Samuel Smith, M.P., against the Bill, in which he departed from his previous view that the political work done by women would be quite consistent with womanly character and duties, and would "gild their future years with sweet remembrances." He now said that voting would, he feared, "trespass upon their delicacy, their purity, their refinement, the elevation of their whole nature."
In addition to all this a whip was sent out signed by twenty members of Parliament, ten from each side of the House, earnestly beseeching members to be in their places when Sir Albert Rollit's Bill came on and to vote against the second reading. But when the division came, notwithstanding all the unusual efforts that had been made, it was only defeated by 23. A general election was known to be not very far off, and members who were expecting zealous and efficient support from women in their constituencies did not care to alienate it by denying to women the smallest and most elementary of political privileges. In surprising numbers (as compared with 1884) they stood to their guns, and though they did not save the Bill, the balance against it was so small that it was an earnest of future victory. This division in 1892 was the last time a Women's Suffrage Bill was defeated on a straight issue in the House of Commons. Mr. Faithfull Begg's Bill in 1897 was carried on second reading by 228 votes to 157. After this date direct frontal attacks on the principle of women's suffrage were avoided in the House of Commons. The anti-suffragists in Parliament used every possible trick and stratagem to prevent the subject being discussed and divided on in the House. In this they were greatly helped by Mr. Labouchere, to whom it was a congenial task to shelve the women's suffrage question. On one occasion he and his little group of supporters talked for hours about a Bill dealing with "verminous persons," because it stood before a Suffrage Bill, and he thus succeeded in preventing our Bill from coming before the House.
- Record of Women's Suffrage, p. 190, by Helen Blackburn.
- A few isolated associations of Liberal women had existed before this. There was one at Bristol started in 1881; but nothing was done on an extended scale till 1886.