He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past (Orwell, 1984)
- The true history of universal suffrage is the history of the working class struggle, not primarily a gendered issue. Men, too, had to fight for the vote.
- At the beginning of the Victorian era only ~2% of men had the vote, and before that fewer still.
- When the suffragettes were campaigning only about half of adult men had the vote.
- Most men and boys who died, or were maimed, in the first world war did not have the vote.
- At recruiting drives, the Pankhursts exhorted men to “redeem their word to women” by going to fight in the trenches, fully aware that at least half of these men did not have the vote – whilst they themselves remained safely at home to campaign for the vote for women, only.
- There were 350,000 underage boys in the British army and navy in WW1. They died disproportionately. They were shamed into enlisting by the Suffragettes’ white feather campaign (in addition to other societal pressures).
- The primary purpose of the 1918 Act which gave the vote to women was actually to give the vote to working class men in recognition of the horrors of the trenches.
- There had been majority support in parliament for female suffrage for a long time before WW1, but it was a party-political impossibility to pass an Act enfranchising women before working class men received the vote.
- Women got the vote in 1918 as a collateral consequence of working class men getting the vote, because the barrier to female enfranchisement had been the disenfranchisement of working class men. It was little or nothing to do with the Suffragettes.
- That women got the vote owes more to the Kaiser than to the Pankhursts.
- That women (and working class men) got the vote was an indirect consequence of the deaths of men and boys in WW1.
- The film “Suffragette” depicts the suffragettes as a working class movement. This is an egregious re-writing of history. Emmeline Pankhurst was a high Tory. She kicked her own daughter, Sylvia, out of her movement for being a socialist. The suffragettes were a middle and upper class movement who cared little for the working class of either sex. It is conveniently forgotten that they were actually campaigning for the vote only for “tax paying women” – in other words, upper crust women with money. (Working class women were represented by Millicent Fawcett’s larger, but non-violent, Suffragist movement).
I have not conducted a poll but I feel fairly sure that to most people the phrase “universal suffrage” would be taken to mean “votes for women”. The popular belief may be summarised thus: (i) before the suffragettes women did not have the vote, (ii) before the suffragettes men already had the vote, and, (iii) the suffragettes won women the vote. All these beliefs are faulty, if not downright incorrect.
The principal misunderstanding which I wish to expose is that before World War 1 the main barrier to women being granted the vote was not the absence of support for the idea amongst (male) politicians. On the contrary, there was widespread support within the Liberal and Labour Parties. The main barrier to female enfranchisement was the fact that men had not yet achieved universal suffrage.
The true history of universal suffrage is the history of the working class struggle, not a gendered issue at all. The graphic which heads this blog tells the true story. With a suitable historical perspective, the bulk of men and women achieved the vote at much the same time.
If attention is confined to just the parliamentary vote, then (i) is almost correct. Even then, since the parliamentary franchise prior to 1918 was based on property, it is possible that some women (rich widows, perhaps) might have voted, though the numbers would have been very small. Of greater importance, though, were the local parish elections. Women voted in parish elections, and held local office, as far back as the early Victorian era (and perhaps earlier though evidence is scant), Refs.1,2.
These days we think of real power lying in the central Westminster government, whilst local government has relatively few powers. But in the Victorian era, and before, there was no welfare state, no state education, no national health service and most people did not pay tax to central government. The business of parliament was far narrower than it is today. Much of its business was war, conquest and empire. On the other hand those issues which touched more directly on ordinary peoples’ lives were addressed locally, primarily at the parish level.
The parish electorate in England and Wales was generally broad and inclusive. There was the potential for elections for a range of parish officers including constables, highway surveyors and overseers of the poor. Of greatest importance was administering the poor law, upon which most of parish funds were expended. This involved parish assistance to widows or abandoned women with children as well as help for the sick and elderly. These are the issues in which women would be most interested, rather than parliamentary issues. And in these local, parish issues women both had the vote and held office throughout the Victorian period.
From here on I confine attention to the parliamentary vote.
The belief that all adult men had the vote at the time when the suffragettes were campaigning is a most serious error. In fact, only about half of men over 21 had the vote at that time. As I shall show, this is the key fact that allows the true history of universal suffrage to be unravelled.
The property-based right to vote goes back at least to King Henry VI in 1432 when it was established that only people owning property worth 40 shillings or more could vote. Since this sum remained unchanged over centuries, the natural effect of inflation was to increase the size of the electorate. But even by the eighteenth century the electorate would still only be around 1% or 2% of the adult population (though virtually all men). By 1831 the electorate had become 516,000 but the Great Reform Act of 1832 increased this to about 809,000 (Ref.3), some 5% of the adult population, or 10% of the adult male population.
For the next ten years or so, until about 1842, the Chartists campaigned hard for universal (male) suffrage, but met with little success at the time. Nevertheless, the desire for an extended franchise had entered the political psyche. The second and third Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 both more than doubled the proportion of adults eligible to vote. There was little change thereafter until 1918. Consequently, during World War I (WW1) only about half of men over 21 were eligible to vote (and, of course, none of the many soldiers younger than 21 could vote).
Only with the 1918 Representation of the People Act did all men of 21 and older get the vote. This same Act gave the vote to all women aged 30 and over. A subsequent Act ten years later, in 1928, gave women the vote at 21, equal to men. (The voting age was lowered to 18 for both sexes only in 1969). The result is the graphic shown at the head of this blog, the data having been compiled from Refs.3-5.
My point is that, on an historical timescale, the enfranchisement of men hardly preceded that of women significantly. Much is made in some quarters that the 1918 Act did not give the vote to women at age 21. But the reason is clear. Women outnumbered men before the war, and outnumbered them even more emphatically afterwards by virtue of the war deaths. It was thought inappropriate to introduce women immediately as the majority voters, especially in view of the hardships men had faced in the trenches. Only ten years later, women became the majority of voters and remain so to this day.
As an illustration of the unreliable, partisan commentary you will find on web sites on the issue of the franchise, consider this quote from Ref.6,
Political changes were very slow in coming from 1750 to 1900. Those that did come in 1832 and 1867 were seen as not changing a great deal especially as neither gave women the right to vote.
This fatuous remark dismisses all three Reform Acts as unimportant on the grounds that they did not give the vote to women. But these Acts increased the male franchise from 6% of the adult male population to 50%, hardly an insignificant matter. And hardly insignificant even if your whole focus is on women, because, without men pioneering a broader franchise, the ground would not have been prepared for women to do so later. It is a fine illustration of how the feminist mind-set fails to appreciate that the fates of men and women are linked. The same phenomenon of man-blindness blinkered the suffragettes and suffragists to the true obstacle in the way of their own enfranchisement: that of working class men.
Now we come to the main event: women’s suffrage. To quote Ref.7,
The standard version of the story of the fight for female suffrage sees it as a straight contest between the suffragettes and a chauvinistic male establishment, headed – not to say embodied – by the prime minister, Asquith, and encompassing blinkered politicians, burly policemen and brutal prison warders. This [traditional] version has the merit of simplicity, with obvious heroes and villains, which makes it well suited to general public consumption; unfortunately it ignores some of the important paradoxes of the story.
That is an understatement. The standard version of the story is completely incorrect.
With the centenary of the Representation of the People Act looming in 2018, I am confident that it will be celebrated as the event which gave the vote to women. Whilst true, this is also seriously misleading. The Act should primarily be celebrated as having over-turned the class/wealth-based franchise and granted universal suffrage to both sexes as a right. That the Act is now presented to us purely as “votes for women” says more about present day political bias than it does about historical truth.
The historical truth is that the prime purpose of the 1918 Act was to give the vote to working class men – in recognition that anything less would be insupportable after the horrors of the trenches. This proposal, to extend the franchise to all adult men, enjoyed overwhelming majority support across all Parties and in both Houses. This is absolutely clear from reading the many debates on the Act in 1917 as recorded in Hansard.
So what about women?
Even as far back as the 1832 Great Reform Act, Henry Hunt had tried to include women’s suffrage in the Act. As for the Second Reform Act in 1867, for this John Stuart Mill penned his famous motion in favour of female suffrage. It had a lasting effect on those on the left, resulting in widespread support for women’s suffrage in the Liberal, and later the Labour, Parties. And Mrs Pankhurst was not solely responsible for initiating her family’s involvement with female suffrage. Her husband, Richard Pankhurst, 24 years her senior, was a supporter of women’s suffrage long before Emmeline herself. In the years before the outbreak of WW1, Ref.7 tells us,
On the whole male politicians were by no means opposed to some form of female suffrage. The Labour Party supported it, and leading figures like Keir Hardie and George Lansbury were deeply involved in the issue, Lansbury to such an extent that he voluntarily, though unsuccessfully, put himself up for re-election in his Bow and Bromley constituency on a female suffrage platform. A substantial section of the Liberal Party, quite possibly the majority, supported it, as did many leading Liberals, including Churchill, Lloyd George and Sir Edward Grey.
The conservatives were less supportive, as might be expected, though their leader at the time, Balfour, was in favour.
In view of such widespread support for their cause, how did the Suffragists and Suffragettes succeed for so long in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory? The answer is, with delicious irony, their sexism. They campaigned for “Votes for Women” but they should have campaigned for “Votes for All”. They failed to understand the nature of the obstacle to their enfranchisement. It was not lack of male political support. The obstacle was that working class men did not have the vote, and it was politically essential for working class men to get the vote before it became possible for women. Let me explain the background to the 1918 Act.
Firstly, the 1918 Act was not primarily for the benefit of women. It is simply not credible that a government entirely preoccupied with war would wish to break off from that pressing business to implement the most radical constitutional change the Nation had ever seen, with the sound of gunfire audible from the channel ports, if the only reason was to introduce votes for women. But there was a different imperative to be addressed.
The normal electoral process was suspended during WW1 (as it would be again during WW2). It was recognised that electioneering and a change of government would be highly undesirable whilst prosecuting a war. In any case the electoral register had become a nonsense, with the most important voters being in foreign parts and many people at home having moved around the country to do essential war work. By early 1916 the government passed the statutory 5 year period in power. It was clear that it would be incumbent upon the government to hold an election as soon as the war ended. But on what basis?
To address that issue, in 1916 the government set up a Speaker’s Conference. Its purpose was to recommend how best to re-establish a credible franchise in view of the disruptions caused by the war. Membership was confined to MPs and Peers but activists launched vigorous lobbying campaigns on Conference members. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst had ruled themselves out of the campaign by then, but others correctly smelt victory around the corner. Perhaps chief amongst these lobbyists was Millicent Fawcett, leader of the non-violent National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Fawcett was revealed to be an astute back-room negotiator. She realised some compromise would be necessary to achieve victory, and it was probably she who suggested the initial 30 year age limit for women voters in the 918 Act.
The Speaker’s Conference was given a remarkably free hand. The extraordinarily egalitarian recommendations of this Conference are summarised by the near contemporaneous Ref.8 as follows
The effort to adapt electoral machinery to the conditions entailed by the war early convinced the Speaker’s Conference that the old practice of defining franchises in terms of relationship to property would have to be discontinued, and that in lieu thereof it would be necessary to adopt the principle that suffrage is a personal right inherent in the individual. In pursuance of this revolutionary decision, the act swept away the entire mass of existing intricate parliamentary franchises and extended the suffrage to all male subjects of the British crown twenty-one years of age or over, and resident for six months in premises in a constituency, without regard to value or kind.
During the debates in Parliament in 1917 there was virtual cross party unanimity on the need to extend the franchise to all men over 21. The Home Secretary, George Cave (Conservative) introduced the Act as follows:
War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.
So there we have it. The principle purpose for the 1918 Act was the need to dissolve the previous class-based franchise – and the specific motivation was the recognition that “If they are fit to fight they are fit to vote” – an actual quote from Hansard. The primary motivation was men.
As regards women’s suffrage, if the electoral system was indeed to undergo wholesale revision by basing the franchise upon equality of personal rights then inevitably this must extend to women. If working class men were to get the vote, then it could not be withheld from “respectable” women. This was recognised in the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference which formed the basis of the 1918 Act.
Votes for women were a collateral effect of extending the franchise to working class men.
If the new mood to recognise the rights of working class men was the result of the slaughter going on in the trenches – and it was – then this perspective suggests that the vote for women was bought with men’s lives. This reality will not be popular in some quarters. It stands in stark and hideous contrast with feminist orthodoxy.
But why did women not get the vote earlier? Why was it necessary for working class men to get the vote first?
There had been almost annual parliamentary debates on female suffrage from the 1870s onwards. There had been several private members bills which attempted to progress the matter, not least the Conciliation Bills in 1910, 1911 and 1912. But such Bills could only propose the enfranchisement of upper-crust women. The vote could not be offered to working class women when working class men did not have the vote. But proposals to give the vote only to women from the upper levels of society were inevitably doomed to failure.
The natural support for female suffrage was from the Labour and Liberal Parties. But how could they vote for any Bill which proposed to introduce a few million new Tory voters – as it must be supposed these upper class women would be. It would be electoral suicide to do so. So those men who supported female suffrage in theory nevertheless were obliged to vote it down. (And the Tories mostly voted it down on principle). This was the Big Snag which the Suffragettes and Suffragists failed to understand – and people to this day appear to have failed to appreciate.
No amount of campaigning by the Suffragists and Suffragettes, whether violent or non-violent, would have given women the vote unless and until working class men were given the vote. Extending the franchise to all men was essential to remove the purely Party-political barrier to female suffrage. Women got the vote as a result of WW1 because the war motivated the change to universal male suffrage.
If you fail to appreciate that the 1918 Act was really about giving working class men the vote, you will inevitably misunderstand the reason that women got the vote – and perhaps even commit the folly of thinking it was something to do with the Pankhursts. But surely the prize for misreading history goes to Madeleine Moon, MP for Bridgend, who, on International Women’s Day on 8th March 2016, made this ridiculous remark,
Everyone knows that women were given the vote at the end of the 1914-18 war, but that cloaked the fact that working-class men were also given the vote. Does the hon. Lady, like me, celebrate the fact that women, through their campaigning, also led to those men accessing the vote? That should never be forgotten.
Or is this not, in fact, ignorance, but a deliberate re-writing of the history that has already been so traduced in the public mind?
It is popularly asserted that it was women’s war work which won them the vote, turning around those MPs who were previously against female enfranchisement and persuading them otherwise. Reading the 1916-1917 Hansard records it is clear that women’s war work did indeed figure very large in their motivation. It is mentioned time after time by many speakers. But it strikes me as an argument of convenience. Having previously spoken against women’s enfranchisement because of its electoral threat, it was necessary now to find a reason for supporting it without revealing the true reason for their previous lack of support. This is politics, people.
And you will forgive my cynicism – governments are not noted for their generosity in rewarding past favours – especially those provided by manual workers. If rewarding women for their war work were truly the motivation, it rather missed its target. Most female munitions workers were under 30 years old, the very women who were still excluded from the vote by the 1918 bill.
The Suffragists, the Suffragettes and the Pankhursts
The suffragettes, typified by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, are the ones whom history has mostly remembered. They were the ones who indulged in what we would now call direct action, including violence, arson and bombings. The suffragists, on the other hand, eschewed such actions. Their main group was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett.
One of the amusing conceits of modern leftist feminists is the adoption of the Pankhursts as their heroes. Emmeline Pankurst was a staunch Tory. The attempt is made in leftist accounts of Mrs Pankhurst’s life to bury this fact, stressing her early friendship with Keir Hardie, but the fact that she stood as the Conservative Party candidate for Stepney in 1927 is not deniable. And she even threw her own daughter, Sylvia, out of her movement for being a socialist. The truth is that the suffragettes, under the dictatorial leadership of Mrs Pankhurst, did not care two hoots for the working class, of either sex. Ref.7 says,
The key role of Mrs Fawcett’s Suffragists in mobilising working-class support has been stressed by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris; by contrast the suffragette leadership, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and Emmeline and Frederick Pethick Lawrence, were at best indifferent to working-class support and by 1912 increasingly opposed to it, to the point of expelling the socialist-sympathising Sylvia Pankhurst altogether… In 1907 the WSPU had changed its stated aim from `Votes for Women on the same terms as it may be granted to men’ to ‘Tax-paying women are entitled to the parliamentary vote’, which convinced Labour and the Liberals, not to mention the NUWSS, that the WSPU was, to all intents and purposes, a stooge for the Conservative Party.
That “Tory stooges” should be chosen as heroes by modern Marxist feminists affords me some amusement. It begins to make more sense when other predilections of the Pankhursts are taken into account. As Ref.7 has it,
The Pankhursts became stridently anti-male, ruthlessly dropping even the most loyal of their male supporters from the WSPU, and claiming, as Christabel did in 1913 in her book “The Great Scourge”, that men were “little more than carriers of venereal disease”.
Ah, that’s more like a proper feminist.
The true relationship between the Pankhurst suffragettes and working class women is betrayed by this anecdote, from Ref.7,
The middle-class activists of the much larger NUWSS were dismayed to see the effects of their hard work jeopardised by the suffragette tactics; even stronger was the disgust of working class suffragists. One suffragette activist emerged from seven days in Holloway to find she had to run a gauntlet of her suffragist workmates, who spat at her as she walked between them. It was all very well for middle class suffragettes to get themselves arrested, knowing they had servants at home to see to their children and keep the household running; working class women, for whom the suffragettes had little enough time anyway, could hardly afford to engage in that sort of behaviour.
An early example of feminism not doing women any favours, perhaps.
During WW1 most suffragettes and suffragists suspended their campaigning activities. Many, including Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, took to speaking at recruiting drives for the war. The potential recruits would be largely from the working classes and hence would not have the vote. What staggering hypocrisy. The Pankhursts were insistent on their own right to have the vote whilst remaining safely at home, but at the same time they were happy to send to their deaths men whose right to vote they did not recognise as significant. This must surely rank as one of the most flagrant pieces of amoral, political hypocrisy of all time.
But there was worse: the white feather campaign. The suffragettes would patrol the streets looking for any male in civilian dress who might be of fighting age – and shame them by pinning a white feather to their chest. The suffragettes would turn up in force at public meetings, such as at Hyde Park Corner, carrying banners reading “Intern Them All”. They were very keen to remind men of what, in their opinion, was a man’s duty. They were not so keen on recognising that these same men might also deserve the same rights they claimed for themselves: the vote.
That the boy in receipt of their white feather might be genuinely under-age did not concern the suffragettes. In fact, many were under-age – because they were the ones that had not yet joined up. It is largely due to the suffragettes that so many under-age boys died in the trenches.
It is perhaps difficult in our modern times to appreciate just how vehemently determined the women of Britain were to send men – all men – to fight in WW1. These are the words of Emmeline Pankhurst,
The least that men can do is that every man of fighting age should prepare himself to redeem his word to women, and to make ready to do his best, to save the mothers, the wives and daughters of Great Britain from outrage too horrible even to think of.
As if such exhortation was required in that age, when men would gladly self-immolate rather than be called a coward. And as for the requirement upon a man to “redeem his word to women” this speaks volumes for the pervading sense of obligation to which men were subject – obligation, not privilege.
What did Emmeline Pankhurst mean by saying that a man must “redeem his word to women“? What she was referring to, of course, was the unspoken social contract which formed the basis of a society in which each gender had a distinct role – equal but different. The social contract was: you do your job and I’ll do mine. In the context of the time, expecting a man to go to war to defend women was part of the social contract. But here was a woman who was busy ripping up her side of the contract whilst expecting men to go right on honouring their side. And this is exactly what we have seen ever since.
As for Christabel Pankhurst, the favourite daughter, she also stood for election in 1918 as a Women’s Party candidate, in alliance with the Lloyd George/Conservative Coalition in the Smethwick constituency. She lost to the Labour candidate. In addition to writing tracts denouncing men as mere carriers of disease, after the war she became a religious fundamentalist and lived most of her life in the USA after 1921. She returned to Britain long enough to be made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1936, but that did not stop her fleeing back to the USA at the outbreak of WW2.
The youngest daughter, Adela Pankhurst, so embarrassed Emmeline that she was given a one-way ticket to Australia. There she first founded the Communist Party of Australia, was expelled from it, and then became an anti-communist. She was a co-founder of the Australia First Movement, a proto-fascist movement. Clearly a woman of firm principle. She visited Japan in 1939 and was arrested and interned in 1942 for her advocacy of peace with Japan.
Nice family, the Pankhursts. Perhaps we should blame the parents.
It is remarkable that the main characteristic traits of modern feminism – hypocrisy, double standards, inflated entitlement, disregard of male suffering, and the expectation that men should sacrifice themselves for their sake – were all displayed by the suffragettes.
Throughout most of the 19th century only a small fraction of men had the parliamentary vote. At the start of 1918 working class men still did not generally have the vote. On an historical timeframe, the enfranchisement of men and women was almost contemporaneous (see graph).
The true history of women’s suffrage is the working class struggle. The correct perspective is gender neutral. The historical Big Picture is that the enfranchisement of men and women was a single process. The suffragette movement did not bring about the enfranchisement of women, just as the Chartists had failed to bring about the enfranchisement of working men before them. The suffragettes and suffragists failed to realise that their enfranchisement was a political impossibility unless working class men were also enfranchised. This Big Snag was unsnagged by WW1, not by political protest.
Universal suffrage came about due to the breakdown of the old electoral system due to WW1. There was unanimous agreement that the men at war must have the vote on their return. The only credible option was to adopt enfranchisement as a right for all men over a certain age. The motivation was genuinely egalitarian, a spirit engendered by the war. Once votes for all men was an agreed principle, votes for women followed virtually as an automatic consequence – because the disenfranchisement of working class men had been the political barrier to the enfranchisement of women.
Hence, that women got the vote owes more to the Kaiser than to the Pankhursts.
Whilst the suffragettes’ perspective was the gender-specific “votes for women” this was only because they did not recognise the equal rights of working class men who were also largely disenfranchised. The irony is that universal suffrage was ultimately achieved thanks to the slaughter of these same working class men in the trenches. For this motivated the enfranchisement of working class men, which had been the barrier to women’s enfranchisement.
Monstrously, the one action of the suffragettes which really did assist with gaining votes for women was their involvement in sending men away to war. This is one of those horrible twists of fate by which we are taunted. Present day feminists are culpable because – even with the leisure to put the history into proper focus – they still insist on regarding the suffragettes as triumphing over the hegemony of men. The orthodox feminist narrative is not only inaccurate but disguises a horrible, if unintentional, truth: that the vote for women resulted from the wholesale slaughter of men. The “woman good, man bad” world view is not only false, but, in this context, flagrantly heartless.
- Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 by Patricia Hollis (Oxford University Press, 1989).
- The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain (2013) by Sarah Richardson, Associate Professor in History at the University of Warwick.
- The History of the Parliamentary Franchise, House of Commons Research Paper 13/14 by Neil Johnston (March 2013).
- F.W.S. Craig in British Electoral Facts 1832-1987 (Parliamentary Research Services, 1989).
- Focus on People and Migration: 2005 – Chapter 1: The UK population: past, present and future by Julie Jefferies.
- Sean Lang, “Parliamentary Reform, 1785-1928”, Routledge 1999.
- The American Political Science Review (Vol. 12, No. 3 (Aug., 1918), pp. 498-503).