In the fight for women’s suffrage, the opponents are usually portrayed as men – politicians, policemen, irritated husbands and resistant fathers. However, a significant number of the anti-suffrage voices were women’s including, to my surprise, a few of the women who also feature in the FT-She 100. They include Lucy Duff Gordon, who viewed the whole movement as ‘a huge joke… and rather undignified’ and Octavia Hill, who as late as 1910 was still sticking to her anti-suffrage guns.
Neither of them felt strongly enough about the issue to engage actively in the anti-suffrage campaign but many other anti-suffragists were motivated by the militancy of the WSPU to get organised and make their own views known. On the same day in 1907 that Laura Annie Willson was arrested during a pro-suffrage rally in London, a petition was presented at the House of Commons signed by 37,000 women opposing the expansion of the franchise and in July 1908, a group of anti-suffragists came together to form the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (ASL).
The founding president was Mary Augusta Ward (Mrs Humphrey Ward). She came from an educated and literary family: her grand-father was Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby and fellow of Oriel College, and her uncle was the poet Matthew Arnold. She was brought up in Oxford, married a fellow at Brasenose and had her engagement photo taken by the Rev Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), a family friend.
She married young and had three children in quick succession. Denied a university education herself, she fought to give other women the opportunity to study and was closely involved in the founding of Somerville College, Oxford, working on its opening while she was heavily pregnant.
She took up writing in her 30s and was hugely successful, contributing far more to the family income than her husband.
So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that she was so vehemently opposed to women getting the vote.
Other unexpected recruits to the cause were Janet Hogarth and Gertrude Bell. They were among the first women to study at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford during the 1880s, where Gertrude obtained a brilliant First (but like all Oxford women at that time was denied her degree).
She shrugged off any traditional expectations by scaling the Alpine peaks and starting a series of exploratory trips in the Middle East.
Janet meanwhile became the first superintendent of women clerks at the Bank of England.
The fact that many of the strong voices in this movement made other life choices where they challenged social and gender norms made me even more curious about their anti-suffrage rationale.
The anti-vote position
In xxx the Anti-Suffrage League published its manifesto. ‘It is time that the women who are opposed to the concession of the parliamentary franchise to women should make themselves fully and widely heard.’ Their key arguments were:
- Parliamentary work largely focused on matters such as warfare, diplomacy, finance and industry, in none of which women could participate (at this point there was no welfare state and education and housing were managed by local authorities).
- Women’s views in the areas of social reform and social causes were given greater weight because they were not tied to a party political agenda.
- There were other ways for women to drive change without having the vote on national issues
- There wasn’t a way of addressing the existing franchise inequities without creating new issues: if women were given the vote on exactly the same terms as men, the property requirement would exclude married women; if it was extended to the wives of those currently able to vote they might start arguing with their husbands about politics; if all adults were able to vote, women would be in the majority.
Their position, broadly, seems to be one which was in line with the ‘separate spheres’ philosophy of the Victorian era: women were necessarily less capable than men but they should be applying their skills and knowledge to different areas of activity, ones that were more connected to social issues such as poverty and education. They were able to vote in local elections, take on roles in local government and sit on local school boards: that was where they should focus their energies. The over-riding impression is of conservative women for whom the status quo was working and change felt threatening.
The anti-suffragists mobilised quickly, forming over 100 local branches, publishing a monthly Anti-Suffrage Review and securing 250,000 signatures for an anti-suffrage petition in 1909. By June 1910, they had more than achieved their target, with petition signatures having reached 320,000. The party was reported to have 15,000 paying members against the 60,000 or so women who were members of the three pro-suffrage groups, the Women’s Freedom League (c.4,000), the WSPU (c. 5,000) and the NUWSS (c.50,000).
The rise of the ASL had some benefits for the pro-suffrage movement: for the first time in the forty-two years of the Women’s Suffrage movement, said Millicent Garrett Fawcett, they had to face ‘an organized and manifestly influential opposition’.
One of their first responses was to launch a new pro-suffrage magazine, The Englishwoman, in February 1909. It was ‘intended to reach the cultured public and bring before it, in a convincing and moderate form, the case for the Enfranchisement of Women’. On the founding Committee were Lady Frances Balfour, Lady Jane Strachey, (mother of Lytton) the writer, Cicely Hamilton and the artist Mary Lowndes. The first editor and co-founder was Mrs Grant Richards, born under the rather fabulous name of Elisina Palamidessi de Castelvecchio.
The NUWSS set up debates where they could challenge the anti-suffrage arguments and try to convert women to their cause. The Anti-Suffrage women did not help themselves by using these as an opportunity to attack other women. During one debate Edith Somervell, wife of the composer Arthur Somervell, was shouted down when she referred to an author of a particular book as a member of one of those ‘disreputable associations composed of old ladies and fighting harridans’. Writing in The Englishwoman in January 1910 on ‘The Year’s Progress in the Women’s Suffrage Movement’ in January 1910, Clementina Black put the activity of the Anti-Suffrage League in the credit column:
‘I am sometimes inclined to doubt whether any propaganda carried on by convinced defenders of the Women’s Suffrage brings over so many adherents as does the adverse propaganda of our professed opponents. It has helped immensely in breaking up the great mass of the indifferent. Some of these, already mildly inclined towards the suffrage, have been transformed by indignation into warm supporters, while others, mildly averse, who could not have been drawn to a Suffrage meeting, have gone willingly to Anti-Suffrage meetings.. proceeded to think matters out for themselves and eventually joined a Suffrage society.’
However, it was clearly not all good news. The split in women’s opinions was now more visible: writing in response to a claim in 1909 that half the students at Girton College were anti-suffrage supporters, Hélène Reynard responded that in fact the Girton College Women’s Suffrage Society had 105 members while the Anti-Suffrage Society had ‘only’ 28, roughly in line with the national split but a result that seems relatively high for a progressive women’s college. This was grist to the mill of men in the anti-suffrage movement: if not even all women wanted the vote, what did that say about its value to them?
After less than two years, the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League suffered an appropriate fate: it ‘merged’ with the Men’s Anti-Suffrage League to create the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. Men took all the leadership positions and women were pushed to the side.
The women’s Anti-Suffrage League may have had a short life but some of their arguments have lived on. If you watched ‘Mrs America’, you might recognise some parallels between the leading women anti-suffragists and Phyllis Schlafly.
The arguments she used to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s bear some striking similarities to those of the anti-suffragists: women didn’t want to be treated equally in all areas of their lives and the unique and important role that women played in the home was threatened by the ERA. And like many of earlier soul-sisters, she refused to embrace this domestic goddess role herself, taking on significant roles in political organisations, writing columns and books and hosting radio shows. But unlike the campaign of the ASL, Phyllis Schlafly’s was successful.
Daily News 22/07/1908; Manchester Guardian 25/3/1909; Common Cause 3/6/1909; The Englishwoman Feb 1909; Jan 1910;
‘Discretions and Indiscretions’ by Lucy Duff Gordon (1932)
‘Women against the vote: Female anti-suffragism in Britain’ by Julia Bush (2007); ‘The Missing Two Million: The Exclusion of Working-class Women from the 1918 Representation of the People Act’ by Anna Muggeridge (2018) in Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique 23-1