The international story of the women’s suffrage movement
By Dr. Leeann Lane
In 1867 the all-male British House of Commons rejected John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Franchise Reform Bill to allow women the vote on the same property terms as men. The dismissal of this amendment led to the establishment of formal suffrage societies across England and Ireland. Yet, despite over four decades of campaigning, female suffrage had still not been achieved by 1913.
In those decades other nations had extended the right, notably New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1906. However, if the parliamentary vote remained the elusive holy-grail for suffragists in the United Kingdom in 1913, they had still achieved many rights for women since 1867. Crucially, the suffrage campaign, from its inception, was much more than just the demand for the vote. The demand for equality for women was broad based and early suffrage activists participated in a series of intersecting campaigns in the areas of education, property rights, and custody issues. The vote was a symbol of full citizenship but by itself it was not viewed by suffragists as a universal remedy for gender inequality.
The suffrage campaign in both Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom can be divided into two phases, constitutional and militant. In 1867 Lydia Becker established the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, one of the early English suffrage associations, succeeded in 1897 by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The first suffrage society in Ireland was the North of Ireland Society for Women’s Suffrage established in 1872 by Isabella Tod. In 1876 Anna and Thomas Haslam established the Dublin Suffrage Association.
Early suffrage activists worked by legal means, holding meetings, petitioning MPs and conducting letter writing campaigns. Their tactics were genteel as befitted the image of women in society. Under the dominant discourse of separate spheres, women and men occupied unique spheres; males and females were born with innate characteristics to equip them for their role in society. Women were inherently meek, passive, nurturing and caring, all traits which accorded with their role as wife and mother in the domestic sphere. Notably, rather than using the language of gender equality, early suffrage campaigners used the language and constructs of the ideology of separate spheres to argue for a greater role for women in the public sphere. Instead of denying women’s role as wife and mother they argued that an enhanced, more academic education, for example, would allow them to better fulfil that role. Women were accorded the task of ensuring that children emerged as fully functioning adults, imbued with the correct moral and spiritual values; the future stability of society rested with women as mothers within the domestic sphere. Yet women, entrusted with inculcating correct morals and values in children, were limited in the education they received. As Thomas Haslam wrote in The Woman’s Advocate on 1 April 1874, women ‘do not despise their home duties; on the contrary, they wish to become more capable wives and mothers than their stunted education has ever yet permitted them to be’.
By the end of the nineteenth century female activists in the suffrage campaign across the United Kingdom had facilitated the advancement of gender equality in a number of crucial areas. Educational rights for women had progressed at both secondary and third level; Trinity College, Dublin, was the last Irish university to open its doors to women in 1904. Female activists in the suffrage campaign could also point to advances in property rights for married women. With the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act, 1882, women could own property brought to the marriage or gained during its time period; previous to the passing of the Married Women’s Property Acts from 1870 a married woman’s legal existence was subsumed into that of her husband; a ‘feme covert’, she was not permitted to hold property in her own right, she had no need of the vote because by voting himself the husband voted on behalf of the wife. By the early twentieth century campaigning by suffragists had also secured the local government franchise for women. The 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act granted rural and urban district council voting rights to women. In 1911 Irish women received the right to sit on and vote for county councils; this was four years after the right had been granted to English women. Suffrage activists, however, did not hold with the argument that if women were to have a political role it should be restricted to the area of local government. Rather the area of local government was to be a political training ground for women; by showing what they could achieve at this level their claim to the parliamentary vote would be enhanced.
Suffragists in the constitutional campaign are not associated with the glamour and daring accorded to the militant suffragettes. The iconic image of Derby Day, 31 May 1913, when Emily Wilding Davison ran to her death in front of the King’s horse speaks of passion and unrelenting principle. The English suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, was poised, elegant and well dressed; she was a woman with core of steel who forced the British government to take notice of the demand for female suffrage with a number of high visibility tactics. She marshalled a women’s army, conducting large scale marches to show the numerical strength of the demand for female suffrage. However, it would be wrong to dismiss the earlier constitutional suffragists as priggish or conservative and historically inaccurate not to recognise the gains they had achieved in the area of equality for women in society in a range of areas by the early twentieth century.
Indeed, the participation of many suffrage activists in the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts established in England by Josephine Butler, a branch of which was established in Ireland, underscores the often overlooked radical nature of the consitutional campaign. The Contagious Diseases Acts, 1864, 1866 and 1869, were designed to make paid sex safe for the British sailor and soldier, allowing for the compulsory examination of prostitutes for venereal diseases. That no corresponding examination of men was demanded by the Acts underscored the double standard of sexual morality in Victorian Britain. Female activists who demanded the repeal of the Acts were subjected to opprobrium and their bravery in this context should be highlighted. According to the ideology of separate spheres women were expected to be ignorant of sexual matters; the image of the woman on a public platform speaking about venereal disease and sexual matters was an anathema in Victorian society.
By the early twentieth century a new generation of suffrage activists emerged in Ireland and England. Many of these women had benefitted from advances in female education. This new generation believed that new tactics had to be injected into the cause if the still elusive parliamentary vote was to be obtained. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, established the Women’s Social and Political Union; with this foundation the suffragette was born. Amongst other new tactics, suffragettes believed in using militancy in pursuit of the vote. Interestingly, society viewed militancy through the lens of appropriate gender roles. While heckling was a staple of election meetings throughout the nineteenth century, when women employed the tactic in pursuit of the vote this was deemed violence and these females were denounced as the shrieking sisterhood; the suffragette was used as a term of abuse and ridicule by the hostile press. In 1905 Christabel spat on the face of a policeman and was arrested. Refusing to pay the fine for propaganda reasons, she was arrested. In Ireland, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins, both third level graduates, established the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. In 1912, in opposition the refusal of the Irish Parliamentary Party to include votes for women in the third Home Rule Bill, IWFL members threw stones at government buildings in Dublin and were arrested.
One of the tactics used to gain maximum publicity for the cause by suffragettes was the use of hunger strike. This policy was implemented in English prisons from July 1909; as the historian, William Murphy states, the ‘English prison system became a political battleground’. Indeed, the very presence of suffrage activists in prison even before this date saw the government uncertain as to how to respond in terms of prisoner classification and the treatment of these women. The hunger strikes accentuated issues of power and gender within British society. Under the ideology of separate spheres men provided for and cared for women. Despite the brutality of patriarchy expressed in the reality of economic inequality and sexual and behavioural double standards, the public mask of Victorian and Edwardian society was assembled and constructed through the language of chivalry and male care of the ‘fairer’ and ‘weaker’ sex. Many of the visuals of the militant activity by the WSPU are images of well dressed women being physically moved against their will or restrained by policemen; the impressions underscore the difference in male and female physique and convey a sense of official brutality and violence against female activists. Emmeline Pankhurst, indeed, was aware of the potency of such images and exhorted WSPU women to always dress in a refined, respectable manner. The respectable woman in flowing dress was to serve as a foil to the brutish policeman clad in his official uniform, the symbol of government and officialdom.
In this context, female death by hunger strike in English prisons could not be contemplated by the government. The decision by government from mid-1909 to forcibly feed those on hunger strike did nothing to assuage the situation as stories of women being held down by prison and medical officials as a metal feeding tube was brutally forced down their throat entered the public domain through suffrage publications, letters and reports to newspapers; the procedure was depicted as having all the connotations of oral rape. In Ireland, notably, although hunger strike was used as a weapon, there was no forcible feeding. Irish suffragists arrested in January 1913, for example, went on hunger strike demanding political prisoner status but compromise was reached between the hunger strikers and the prison authorities.
The government by their actions allowed the campaign much publicity and they placed themselves on the defensive in terms of public opinion. This was the situation they faced in May 1913 and clearly they were going to have to come up with a new means of dealing with the tactic of the hunger strike.
Dr. Leeann Lane is Head of Irish Studies in the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City University