The Women's Suffrage Movement

{See also The 1868 registration battles}

{See also Press cuttings}

{See also The local vote}

{See also Images of suffragists}

{See also Watching MPs}

{See also Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1867 }

{See also Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1870 }

{See also Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1871 }

{See also Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1878 }

{See also Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1883 }

{See also Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1892 }

Before the 1832 Reform Act, hardly any men had the right to vote for MPs. Between 1754 and 1790, only 17% of males had the franchise, and they constituted only 4% of the population. They were all rich; working men had no representation.

No statute prevented women from voting. The word used was 'people', and men with legal clout disagreed for centuries about whether women were people. According to Judge Bovill (in 1868) in the reigns of Henry IV (1399?1413), Henry V (1413?1422) and Edward VI (1547?1553) women 'appear to have been' voters. Under Elizabeth I (1558?1603) Dame Dorothy Pakington returned two MPs. In the reign of James I (1603?1625) a case known as Holt v. Lyle established that a feme sole (spinster or widow) freeholder had the right to vote for MPs and, if married, her husband must vote on her behalf. Then Lord Coke opined that women could not vote. However, in the reign of Charles I (1625?1649) a Mrs Copley voted. In 1690 a treatise on parliamentary law stated explicitly that women were not eligible to vote. The case of Olive v. Ingram, heard in the King's Bench in the 1730s, suggested that women could vote if they were amongst 'persons paying scot and lot'.

The lofty deliberations and contradictory decisions of senior lawmen were irrelevant, anyway: the vast majority of women eligible to vote declined to do so. A tiny handful voted by proxy, assigning their vote to a male friend or relation, but most simply abstained, because it was considered unladylike for them to get involved in politics; improper for a male candidate to canvass a lady; and shameful ? and also risible ? for a prospective MP to be dependent on the votes of mere females.

By the 18th century, about 10% of property was in female hands, but still very few voted. Egalitarians were fond of stating that no person who paid taxes ought to be excluded from voting and that no person who was subject to the laws should be excluded from a voice in making them. In 1789 Jeremy Bentham wrote: 'Of the two sexes of which the species is composed, how comes all natural right to political benefits to be confined to one?' His friend, James Mill (the father of J.S. Mill) disagreed: women did not need the vote because their interests were the same as that of their enfranchised fathers, brothers and husbands. Later Bentham conceded that supporting women's suffrage was 'altogether premature' because the idea was so widely, publicly ridiculed and scorned.

In June 1832 the Reform Act gave the vote to a greater number of upper and middle class men and, for the first time, the words 'male person' was introduced into law. It specifically disenfranchised women in England and Wales. (Curiously, the wording on the Scottish Act remained as 'person'.) Two months later Henry Hunt MP brought a petition from Yorkshirewoman Mary Smith, who claimed the right to vote because she was duly qualified. The Age raised a cynical eyebrow at a woman publicly announcing her status as a propertied spinster and commented: 'we suspect that the petition is nothing more than an advertisement for a husband'.

Attempts to obtain the parliamentary vote for women

Women's Disabilities (Removal) Bill, brought by Jacob Bright (1871-4), William Forsyth (1875), Leonard Courtney (1878)

  • [1870] 245 against; 119 for. Signatories to petitions 134,561
  • [1871] 220 against; 151 for. Signatories to petitions 186,976
  • [1872] 242 against; 163 for. Signatories to petitions ?
  • [1873] 222 against; 155 for. Signatories to petitions 327,917
  • [1883] 114 against; 130 for.
  • [1884] Amendment to the Representation of the People Act defeated by 136 votes.

An average of 200,000 signatures a year were collected in support of votes for women from 1870 to 1880. Women speakers, including Mrs Ronniger and Millicent Garrett Fawcett , Miss Becker, Miss Cobbe and Miss Taylour addressed meetings all over Britain.

The subject was debated in the House of Commons eighteen times between 1870 and 1904 (1870 (twice), 71, 72, 73, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 83, 84 (twice), 86, 92, 97, 1904). The reason for years without debates was that suffragists were unable to secure a date, or the proposed Bill or resolution was blocked, postponed or crowded out. From 1886 onwards, every vote taken had shown the majority of MPs in favour of women's suffrage, but it was still not allowed to proceed to become law.(3) It was the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles, speeches and meetings. Numerous arguments were put on both sides.

Supporters of women having the vote argued that:

  • Women have always been allowed the vote; only the 1832 Reform Act took this away from them
  • There were a million more women than men and therefore must be represented in parliament
  • Women had to pay taxes and should have a say in how they were spent
  • Women had to obey the laws and should have some say in what they were
  • The progress of human rights demands it
  • Women needed influence to change laws that oppressed them, and to end husbands' brutality to wives
  • Politics would be improved because of women's involvement
  • The whole nation would benefit from women's input
  • Parliament needed to know how women felt about certain subjects pertinent to women and children
  • It would increase women's social standing and respect
  • It would educate and elevate women, and make them more serious and less frivolous
  • Women had presented hundreds of petitions containing thousands of names
  • Women were stigmatised and insulted by being denied the vote
  • Women were more moral, sober and law-abiding than men and that would be a good influence on parliament
  • Men have never looked after women's interests and have in fact passed many anti-woman laws
  • Once they get the vote they could one day become MPs and serve on juries, to the benefit of society in general
  • Women's interests are the same as men's interests, and therefore they too should be represented in parliament
  • Women's interests are different from men's interests, and therefore they need to be represented in parliament
  • It is absurd that a farm labourer has a vote while the woman farm owner who pays his wages does not
  • Soon all men will have the vote; there is no justification for leaving women out
  • Women are already involved in politics: political parties already use them for publicity, admin and canvassing; why not give them the vote as well?

Those opposed to women having the vote argued that:

  • Women are by nature and also according to God and the Bible meant to be subordinated to men
  • Politics was none of women's business; they knew nothing, and indeed should know nothing, about it
  • Women knew nothing of trade, commerce, finance, the military or the law, and therefore had nothing to contribute to politics
  • Women are - or should be - far too busy with their home and community duties to take part in politics
  • Women were too dainty and delicate for the rough and tumble of politics
  • The majority of women did not want the vote, that it would be placing an unwanted burden on them
  • Men are made for public life; women for private
  • Allowing women any say in parliament would make it weak ('petticoat government')
  • Elevating women's status was contrary to the Bible and contrary to God's intended plan for women
  • It was a Trojan Horse: if you let them vote then soon they'd demand to become MPs, which, it was self-evident, would be absurd
  • Anyone can get up a petition and get ignorant women to sign it
  • If women took part in politics they would be 'timid in time of panic and violent in time of outbreak'
  • If women were on the electoral register they would have to serve on juries, and would hear things women should not hear (i.e sex crimes)
  • Only people who could fight in a war ought to have the vote, and women clearly could not
  • Only people who could be police officers, JPs, jurymen and bishops ought to have the vote, and women clearly could not
  • Women of all classes are already represented in parliament via the votes cast by the men in their family
  • Women already had a huge amount of influence over men, and therefore over parliament; giving them the vote gave them too much power
  • Only men should legislate for women because only men know what is good for women
  • Women have no grievances, or if they have, these can be put right by men
  • Women's interests in parliament are already protected by men
  • Men have lately passed several laws in women's benefit
  • Because it 'one of the most preposterous and, at the same time, one of the most revolutionary suggestions that could possibly be agitated'
  • Women would be hardened and sullied by politics, would become manly and unfeminine
  • Women would be over-excited by politics and would have nervous breakdowns
  • Women are too easily influenced by clergymen and their male relatives, giving the man who influences her, in effect, two votes
  • Men would cease to be courteous or chivalrous to women if they had the vote
  • (Said by Liberals) Women are Conservative by nature, and the Liberals would lose the next election
  • (Said by Conservatives) Votes for women will lead inevitably to socialism
  • (Said by Labour party)Votes for women would merely enfranchise even more of the propertied classes
  • Men are logical, stable, thoughtful and strongminded; women are ornamental, quick-tempered, illogical, fickle and emotional
  • If women cease to be under men's protection they would be in competition with men and, being weaker, they would be oppressed and eventually go under
  • If women had votes they would be relentlessly harassed and pestered by politicians on polling days
  • If women had votes they would outnumber male voters, parliament would become feminised and Britain the laughing stock of the world

The editor of The Times asserted in 1868: 'No woman has yet pretended to be on a level with men in physical strength. The fact is that physical strength has a good deal to do with politics in innumerable ways, and, for that reason alone, women are not capable of holding their own in the rough contests of the world. If they attempted to do it, they would sacrifice that delicacy, that gentleness, that submission that are now their most potent charms. They have at present the privileges and the protection of the weak. Let them undertake to defend themselves, and they must be content with the bare rights they can enforce. Instead of gaining any additional rights, they would risk some of the rights they possess; and they would inevitably lose the peculiar influence which is now derived from their very subordination.'(2)

Some MPs proposed that only spinsters and widows should get votes. This raised the objection that 'immoral' women (unmarried mothers, kept mistresses and prostitutes) would have the vote whilst 'respectable' women (wives) would not. Some argued that a woman, having enjoyed having the vote, would refuse to marry because that would mean losing it. Furthermore, spinsters and widows are not representative of the female sex, because the vast majority of them were married

Some MPs proposed that wives should also get the vote. This raised the objections that, as a married woman had taken a vow to obey, giving her a vote amounted to giving her husband two votes. Either that, or it would cause arguments within the home, which would change from a place of peace and tranquillity to a place of strife. Voting would drag women away from their domestic duties and their children.

During the eighties, English women organized a number of leagues for cooperation with men: the Primrose League (1883), The Woman's Liberal Federation (1885), and the Woman's Liberal Unionist Association (1888), thus demonstrating their interest in politics.

The attitude of Queen Victoria to the women's rights movement

In a private letter to Sir Theodore Martin in 1870, having heard that Viscountess Amberley had become president of the Bristol and West of England Women's Suffrage Society and had addressed a public public meeting on the subject, Queen Victoria wrote:

'I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of "Women's Rights", with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety. Lady Amberley ought to get a good whipping. Were woman to unsex themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection."

More about Lady Amberley

Lady Amberley's Ten Point Plan

Photo of Lady Amberley

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All pages © Helena Wojtczak 2009. Corrections and additions are warmly welcomed. Email me