To What Extent Was The Use Of Peaceful Tactics The Most Important Factor In The Achievement Of The Vote For Women Between 1880 And 1918

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The closure of WW1 marked a significant period in women’s history. The franchise was extended to women over 30 in 1918, enabling them to vote in national elections. However, this was less than the ‘universal adult suffrage’ they had sought, and even by 1918, it would take a further decade to achieve this. The key debate over this achievement, however, is over the contribution of peaceful tactics.
Even before the creation of a specific national suffrage movement, certain rights had already been gained by women. Women could stand as members of Boards of Poor Law Guardians and also on local School Boards under the (Forster) Education Act of 1870. This gave women a chance to prove their ability in areas of political decision making – involving a female presence in the ‘public sphere’ for the first time – diminishing the anti arguments that women were not intellectually fit to do so. Moreover, the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 was extended female rate payers, initiating a female presence in the democratic process. Women were able, furthermore, to stand as candidates in local elections by 1888, enabling women to challenge opposition views that had always denied them their rights, and the increasing roles of women in society indicated greater social acceptance. However, limitations persisted in that these responsibilities were seen as ‘domestic’ and women were still openly denied the parliamentary franchise. In addition, these crucial changes remained restricted to only middle class women, thus losing crucial support from working class women who had already established highly developed unions.
Hence, the Radical Suffragist Party focused on working class women thus ‘radical’ for these views. These contributed to social reform through peaceful means and set up successful women’s trade unions which created equal rights for women in payment and working hours. Evidently, local suffrage, activism in council education and the formation of a network of unions had certainly illustrated the extent and rate at which women had progressed and broken out of the so called ‘separate spheres’, albeit only to some extent. Yet, these women faced hostility from both men and middle class women as middle class women sought suffrage on the same terms as men.
Although women did not have the right to vote in national elections they did however have an active role in politics. Undoubtedly, women were highly active in parties such as the Conservative’s Primrose League of 1883 which consisted of 49% women membership. Furthermore, in 1887, the Women’s Liberal Federation was established and different parties began to establish branches for women. Although women were a source of free labour which aided the parties, it did however once again challenge the ideas that women were emotional beings, incapable of making political decision and that politics corrupted both women and their chivalry. Nevertheless, although women were not engaging in Conservative politics to become candidates, they gained experience in organising and campaigning. Yet, in reality, what they were creating were Conservative MPs, who a vast majority were anti female suffrage and in the parliamentary voting regarding female suffrage, all Conservative MPs had voted against female suffrage.
Additionally, the increasing educational and job opportunities brought about further demolition of the ‘separate spheres’, showing through peaceful means widespread support was obtained. In 1837 there was “no High Schools for girls” but that by 1901, “every town of any size had a girls High School”. There were also by this stage “2000 women graduates and 8 women had received honorary degrees” . All this with social changes indicated that women had broken out of the separate spheres to some extent and proved their intellectual strength, being accepted by a stereotypical society. Nevertheless despite all these achievements aims still remained divided and focus lay on obtaining social rights rather than suffrage.
Finally through the merging of several minor parties in 1897, the NUWSS was established, resulting in a focused aim. This increase in membership and supporters allowed large scale demonstrations to initiate such as the Mud March in February 1907 which consisted of over 3,000 women and in June 1908, the ‘Women’s Sunday’ in Hyde Park was organised. Nevertheless, this raised much awareness and fixed women’s suffrage debate strongly on the political map and finally became a vital debate in Parliament. Moreover, the Mud March had a substantial impact because of the novelty of reputable women rallying through the streets which required a great courage beyond that needed for subsequent processions. The demonstrating women put their reputation and employment at risk and ridicule from the crowds. Important meetings such as what became known as the first ‘Women’s Parliament’ at Caxton Hall on February 13th 1907 were created, which attracted large audiences and were highly successful in raising awareness and gaining membership.
Nonetheless, by 1906 disillusionment grew as many felt that peaceful campaign was not having the impact which they hoped and thus a more militant approach was seen to be the key. Militancy within the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) embarked in 1905 by Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, her right hand women, during the Liberal assembly in Manchester. Militancy itself began diminutive with the heckling and interruption of meetings such as that of the Christabel incident where the refusal of silence was made along with physical attack on a policemen, finally leading to her arrest. Although this is not seen as extreme today, the stereotypical boundaries and expectations of middle class women were broken therefore proclaimed as militant, shocking the nation, at first gaining sympathy. Emmeline Pankhurst described this in her book ‘In My Own Words’ writing ‘to be satisfied with nothing but action on our question. Deeds, not Words was to be our permanent motto’. This emphasises the extent to which Pankhurst felt militancy was crucial.
Indeed, 1908 and 1909 saw the escalation of intense militancy. Arson became a frequent weapon of the WSPU alongside pillar box bombing and window smashing, rooting through an incident in London 30th June 1908, where Mary Leigh and Edith New smashed the windows of the Prime Minister’s house during a riot that was developed through a peaceful rally. This provoked sympathy since the authorities retaliated ruthlessly, indicating militancy was a key part due to the reactions it provoked, attaining widespread support. Albeit initial sympathy and was gained alongside raising the profile of the female suffrage campaign, it did however turn them very supporters hostile against them.
Militancy increased as the Suffragettes became vilified by the government. Nevertheless, despite gaining initial publicity, militancy gave legitimate reasons not to give women the vote; reasons before their campaign were based solely upon prejudice because women never had undertaken roles outside the home. This meant that opposition to them became stronger and alienated the general public from their cause. Under the influence of the autocratic Pankhurst’s, influential individuals like the Pethick-Lawrence’s who raised £3,000,000 towards the WSPU were expelled in 1912. Additionally, all links with the working class and the Independent Labour Party were dismissed alongside the removal of Sylvia Pankhurst. By 1912, Militancy had become excessive and constant ratcheting was required to maintain attention such as in 1913, Emily Davidson gave her life by running in front of the king’s race horse. The attacks became spontaneous, sparking off without the consent of the leadership, reinforced by the riots of Black Friday where 300 women became involved in bloody fighting. Due to militancy the WSPU membership declined between 1912 and 1913, membership falling by 34% and in the following year a further 42%. Disillusionment led to party divisions such as that in 1907 where the WSPU spilt into the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), taking a third of the membership. These actions were criticized openly, arguing that the aim should be focused on the suffrage rather than raging a ‘sex-war’. Millicent Fawcett had criticised the WSPU of doing ‘more harm than good’. This turned many against the WSPU showing that militant thoughts were unpopular since divisions were created within the party itself. This evidently caused a unified aim to be lost in addition to sympathetic figures as Winston Churchill and Lloyd George.
Although, by exerting this pressure on the government, the government became more reluctant to give in and be highlighted as ‘inferior’, indicating the negative effects of militancy. Men saw militant women as enemies in a battle whereas pacifist women were being seen more and more as equals. Militancy undermined such perspective. Evidence of the nation’s resentment was seen after such extremes when the ‘Rokeby Venus’ was slashed in the National Gallery. The populace retaliated by assaulting WSPU members with cake. The press ridiculed the WSPU, portraying them as ‘wild’ and ‘sexually deviant’ with ‘mental disorders’. Women had argued that criminals should not be enfranchised, just because they were male, however their militant actions were no different to those of a criminal, thus not qualifying to vote, highlighting that militancy gave legal justification for the anti arguments which peaceful tactics had slowly deteriorated.
In spite of this, the NUWSS began to make real gains at this stage. The isolation of the NUWSS from the WSPU allowed them to regain their strengths lost due to militancy. The NUWSS had picked up the resigning members and membership between 1910 and 1913 inclined drastically as membership from the WSPU declined during this period. Clearly women themselves felt that militancy was undermining the cause. Moreover, the NUWSS aimed to process the first Conciliation Bill in 1911. The peaceful campaign was given much attention and understanding due to the disillusionment militancy had brought. 146 local councils gave their official confirmation to the Bill allowing the second reading to pass by 255 votes to 88. The second Bill in 1912 was defeated and the militancy of the Suffragettes was quick to be blamed, illustrating the resentment towards militancy. The NUWSS also recognised the reluctance of the Liberal government to push for female suffrage which repelled the party towards Labour. Thus in 1912, an electoral pact was soon signed in which the NUWSS would support Labour candidates in elections and in return, the Labour party would embrace women’s suffrage as an official party policy. This was a tremendous leap as now the Suffragists had an official well-established party and with a potentially greater number of labour MPs in Parliament, it now it seemed more than ever that female suffrage would be gained as the cause was to be taken on as a policy if Labour MPs were to be elected.
During the Great War, all militant activity ceased instantly when the war began in 1914 and the opportunity arose for women to prove themselves to being able to ‘defend the realm’. However, ironically the war had pushed suffrage off the political agenda after it had been finally been fixed after many years. The patriotic Pankhurst’s ceased their militancy and took on war work in factories to produce ammunition and other vital occupations such as the emergency services since all men were sent to the front due to conscription. Despite the long term, poisonous effects of the chemicals, turning the skin yellow and causing infertility, the women continued to work for the country, being named as the ‘canaries’. This signified the physical power of the women, a constant anti suffrage argument. However, despite the Suffragettes’ active and physical contribution, the Suffragists who although opposed the war due to their pacifist nature, did contribute such as home front farming. This activeness showed women as strong, patriotic and adaptable to the nation and most importantly the government. Doing these dangerous jobs helped break down the rigid concepts of what were seen as male activities. Women gained a large deal of pride and confidence through their new responsibilities and new standards of behaviour were established. This moment showed more clear than ever that women could defend the realm without the alleged physical and mental deficiencies. Women gained support through active and patriotic acts such as helping with the war effort rather than active and militant, clearly showing the insignificance of militancy.
The Representation of the Peoples Act (ROPA) passed on the closure of the war gave the national vote to all women over 30 however; these being only 8 million of the populace. Additionally, this was only a subsection to the ROPA, which was mainly built upon the enfranchisement of returning soldiers and sailors who would not have met residency requirements under the existing law. Women were added on as an amendment which was a compromise to prevent the initiation of militancy, therefore suggesting that militancy forced the government make a compromise, which can be seen as a delayed effect. However, not all women gained suffrage; women that had participated it war work and campaigning had mostly been below the age of thirty, who the Act did not include in enfranchisement. This means that militancy had a greater impact since at the time of high aggression, the government considered giving the vote to all middle class women, therefore including a greater percentage if not the total percentage of middle class women. This suggests that militancy was a key factor, in the question of anticipation of the suffrage. Whereas it can be argued that the vote was given due to the absence of militancy during the war, nonetheless it was indeed the fear of militancy returning which resulted in female suffrage.
Other factors such as international context also played a part in gaining the vote for women. Social breakthroughs had already occurred in other European countries such as Switzerland and Germany. Britain being a power did not want to have the humility of falling behind, pushing the debate for the vote towards the movement. Conversely, the women included had not generally participated in the war work.
In conclusion, suffrage was gained due to many interlinked factors for example, the contribution to the war effort, the fear of the return of militancy and the eradication of separate spheres, albeit to a certain extent, nonetheless it cannot be ignored that suffrage was awarded as a compromise as it was not granted on the same grounds as men. Certainly, militancy did raise mass awareness to the cause and it was due to militancy that the fear of returning militancy developed and allowed focal parliamentary and public attention to turn to the NUWSS. However, the successes of militancy were limited in that it gave justification to the arguments of the Anti’s which were coherent throughout the struggle which had in fact influenced not only parliament but also the general public, and peaceful campaigning had in reality deteriorated these ludicrous debates which militancy had once again proved truthful. Moreover, it seemed extremely likely women would have gained the vote earlier if it had not been for militancy since it is argued that the second Conciliation Bill had been rejected in 1912 solely due to the extreme militant activities, demonstrating the negative impact of militancy on the vote. Furthermore, women gained much knowledge of politics through peaceful demonstrations which aided them significantly in that they became aware of the reluctance of the Conservatives to promote female suffrage and hence moved towards the Labour Party who were more liberal. Militancy on the other hand had repelled important individuals such as Lloyd-George and Churchill. Additionally, war work it itself was indirectly a way of campaigning peacefully as it allowed women to prove they could ‘defend the realm’ in addition to being physically and mentally able as their male counterparts. Evidently, peaceful tactics were of a greater significance as progress was increasing and at an immense rate, for example social rights had already been achieved by the 1880s, and women were actively participation in local politics, it undoubtedly seemed women would have finally obtained the vote by 1900.

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