The Women’s suffrage movement in Britain is remembered by many as a noble crusade that stood up for women’s rights, and it was.
However, not every woman in Britain was behind the movement. Many disagreed with it passively, and some even actively showed their disapproval by joining the Anti-Suffrage League, a society aimed at bringing down the Suffragettes.
A number of men were against women having the vote, but the women who were against the enfranchisement of their own gender is the most surprising aspect, from a modern perspective at least.
Opinion polls taken during the suffrage era claimed that the majority of women didn’t want the vote. It is unclear how legitimate these polls were, but it is still a revealing statistic. In 1889, the ‘Appeal Against Female Suffrage’ was launched with 104 initial signatures and many more afterwards. In 1908, the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was created and within two years it had merged with its male equivalent.
One of the most significant women against suffrage was writer Mary Humphrey Ward. She held debates at the Newnham and Girton Colleges in Cambridge to persuade women not to join suffrage movements. One of her speeches included the line: “The emancipating process has now reached the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women.”
Ward received an overwhelmingly negative response from the crowd but she continued to stick by her stance through the years, describing the British Empire’s problems as only solvable by the special knowledge of men. Away from her speeches, it seemed that the anti-suffrage movement was gathering pace with a reported 250,000 signing a petition against enfranchisement as the society claimed more than 15,000 paying members.
That’s a statistic that isn’t heard very often. Another woman against suffrage was Gertrude Bell. An intelligent writer and archaeologist, she argued that the vast majority of females lacked the education necessary to engage in political debate and therefore gaining the vote was a pointless exercise.
Mary Humphrey Ward wasn’t the only orator against suffrage. Social reformer Violet Markham spoke to an audience at the Albert Hall, saying:
“We believe that men and women are different – not similar – beings, with talents that are complementary, not identical, and that they therefore ought to have different shares in the management of the State, that they severally compose. We do not depreciate by one jot or tittle women’s work and mission. We are concerned to find proper channels of expression for that work. We seek a fruitful diversity of political function, not a stultifying uniformity.”
The major players of the female wing of anti-suffrage all met on 21 July 1912 to discuss the direction in which the society would go in. This came after the inaugural issue of The Anti Suffrage Review that was first published in December 1908. This gave the movement more intellectual respectability and the leadership of the branches remained primarily in the hands of women.
The failure of anti-suffrage
By 1913, the tide had begun to turn in favour of the pro-suffrage movements the WSPU and the NUWSS. Anti-suffrage League meetings had begun to stagnate and could now only call on upper-class women for support. Middle and working-class females were now much more inclined to be pro-suffrage.
The press offices of the Suffragettes and the Suffragists were outmanoeuvring their rivals, and with the outbreak of war in 1914, the Anti-Suffrage League was all but finished, although the likes of Markham and Ward continued to soldier on against the vote.
- Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement, 1923-45 by Julie V. Gottlieb