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1908 British Suffragettes
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Thursday, March 27, 2008
Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2007

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Women's suffrage came last in the United States

1908 was indeed a very good year in many respects. As the scientific-industrial revolution progressed and disrupted traditions everywhere, many were those to whom progress was more of a curse than a boon. A growing number of poor people wanted more of the advantages of industrial progress for themselves. As it was, the surplus of progress was accruing to the few at great cost to the many. The power elite lording it over society believed in the profitability of scarcity. They had faith in unemployment because unemployment kept laborers desperate for a job, thus holding labor costs down. Notwithstanding increased productivity, wealthy people were convinced there would never be enough to go around for everybody, therefore they knew very well that they mu st have control of the mounting surplus lest it fall into the wrong hands and be dissipated too thinly, much to the detriment of all concerned. Still today, if the entire world's gold supply were evenly distributed, each person's small share would not be worth much. Instead of handing out the surplus to the needy at home, they sought markets for it abroad, and, from time to time, they made war with each other for those markets, in hopes of piling up treasure or other things they could exchange for same. Unfortunately, the imperialist business turned out to be largely unprofitable to the vested interests, but it did serve the advancement of those settlers who disowned their mother countries or fatherlands, and it eventually served the natives who used the alien methods to successfully resisted being exploited by foreigners and declared the independent political existence of their own nations.

The masses gathering around the factories in those days felt they were entitled to b etter working conditions and to a fairer share of the production they were producing, especially when they were marched off to die for expanding markets. In any case, they wanted the wheel of progress to turn for them instead of against them. To that end they wanted to put their own representatives in the driver's seat - they wanted universal suffrage. Of course white men came first in the matter, followed by black men. A legal right may not be observed in practice: in the United States, the right of black citizens to vote was not observed in several states of the United States for some time after the constitutional amendment was ratified.

Woman suffrage came last, and women, especially women who had to work, were worse off. The industrial revolution had drawn urban women into factories, mills, and mines; the majority of women had to work as unskilled labor outside of the household in order to augment family income. In early England, women had worked at retail and provisio n trades; they inherited and ran businesses and had a monopoly in textile spinning; they were able to go to law, and they participated in religious and guild life. However, the status of women fell with the development of capitalism, the acquisitive and exploitative nature of which still prevents women from being relieved of their subordinate status even in advanced nations. As capitalism gained ground in England, wealthy women were able to withdraw from farming and to live lives of relative leisure; but the wives of farm laborers had their gardens and pastures taken away from them and they were driven into the workplaces where they worked not only to support their own families but also their idle bourgeoise sisters at the top of the food chain. Working women gained more say so in their families by virtue of the income they were bringing in; they were also rubbing shoulders with people outside of the home, which lessened domestic controls (not so long ago, my own father advise d me to never let my wife work or I would lose her: I did, and I did).

It is hardly surprising, then, that given their public duties, women wanted the right to vote. They argued that such right was an individual, 'natural right' of self-government. If the state of nature be a war of all against all, then each has a natural right to exert herself or himself to the best of her or his ability; it would seem to follow that the natural right includes the ability of each and all to make a mutual compact for the benefit of all pursuant to the evolving natural law of humankind; the special nature of humans is their ability to reason, a social function dependent on communication. No reasonable man or woman would willingly enter into a contract for his or her own enslavement if some other course were available, and that other course is the purpose of the democratic compact. Now the democratic republic of the United States may seem to be a virtual prison for the confinement of wage sla ve to those with a vivid imagination, but at least the 'slaves' both male and female have the right to vote for or against the adjustment of their chains and fees therefore. Moreover, since reason is the natural instrument for survival and self-development, regardless of gender, liberal thinkers argued that, although women, because of their subordination, might not be as politically developed as men, woman suffrage would give them a motive and a tool for the self-development that could only be an advantage to society. Nonetheless, philosophers of the day argued that women's present dependence on men disqualified them from having the independence of mind needed to make competent judgments on political issues.

Of course individual women had been demanding suffrage for centuries, most notably beginning in the early 1600s. Broadly organized woman suffrage movements bloomed in the nineteenth century. The organized movements in the United States and Great Britain are characteris tic of the general historical movement. The modern women's movement has roots in the French Revolution; the National Assembly of 1789 dismissed with small consideration the Declaration of the Rights of Women proposed by a woman's group. The public boldness of French women alarmed Frenchmen. Women's rights were submerged by the counter-revolution, emerging once again in the upheavals of 1830 and 1848; however, proposed legislation including woman suffrage was defeated and French women did not get the vote until 1944.

The most progressive of all the movements for women's liberation was led by the Communists: woman suffrage was of course a given as far as they were concerned. Apparently The United States has the honor of fielding the first nationally organized woman suffrage movement, but we shall focus on Great Britain. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft encouraged women with her A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The liberal Utilitarians, with their "greatest happiness o f the greatest number", did nothing for the women's cause; the conservative position of James Mill on the question prompted the socialist Robert Owen to write his Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, published in 1825. in 1831, the National Union of the Working Classes demanded universal suffrage for all adults. The Chartists, in 1838, included woman suffrage in the People's Charter but later dropped it. James Mill's son, John Stuart Mill, tried unsuccessfully to amend the Reform Bill of 1867 to include woman suffrage, and his The Subjection of Women (1869) became a worldwide textbook for women's rights.

British women proceeded to interrupt speeches here and there and to march peacefully for their rights, but to little avail. For one thing, Queen Victoria was dead set against woman suffrage, and her prime ministers at the close of the nineteenth century, the liberal William Ewart Gladstone and the conservat ive Benjamin Disraeli, would not offend her by supporting woman suffrage bills in Parliament. Henceforth the movement then grew more violent in nature. For instance, jam was put into mailboxes and mailboxes were burned; churches and country homes were burned; an attempt was made to bomb David Lloyd George's house; women carried bricks under their skirts to Oxford Street, a ritzy shopping area, and, upon the blowing of a whistle, threw the bricks through the windows - this tactic was referred to as "the Argument of the Broken Pane." Many suffragettes wound up in prison where they went on hunger strikes and were force fed through the nose, leading to serious infections. A 'Cat and Mouse' bill was passed providing that women in poor health be released from prison until they recovered, at which time they would be rearrested.

Mrs. Emmeline, Miss Sylvia and Miss Christabel Pankhurst played major roles in the radical "suffragette" movement. Mrs. Pankhurst was born in 1858. Her father, Robert Goulden, a successful businessman and radical thinker, took part in the campaign against the Corn Laws and slavery. Her mother, Sophia Crane, was a feminist who took young Emmeline to suffrage meetings in the 1870s. Emmeline married a women's suffragist and socialist lawyer, Richard Pankhurst; he drafted successful legislation in 1869 that allowed women householders to vote in local elections and he was also chiefly responsible for a women's property bill passed by Parliament in 1870. Emmeline became a Poor Law Guardian in 1885: she visiting workhouses and was shocked by the way women were being treated. In 1903, a small number of women met at Emmeline's house in Manchester and established the Women's Social and Political Union. Her group along with other like-minded organizations began lobbying and demonstrating for woman suffrage. The more they were put down and insulted, the more militant they became. In 1907, Emmeline joined her daughter, Christabel, in London to forward the suffrage movement. Christabel's temperament was somewhat violent; her unladylike public conduct had shocked the nation in 1905: she was imprisoned for kicking and spitting on police officers who were evicting her from a meeting where she had interrupted Sir Edward Grey's speech, shouting, "Will the Liberal Government give women the vote?" Emmeline Pankhurst's other daughter, Sylvia, was active in rousing the working force and trade unions to the suffragette's cause.

British suffragette demonstrations are mentioned in Longmans' and Green's The Annual Register for the year 1908. The reader will also notice the names of several British political leaders mentioned in the Register, including Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928) and David Lloyd George (1863-1945). Asquith was a Gladstone Liberal who served as Prime Minister for the Liberal Government from 1908-1916; he selected the radical Welsh Liberal David Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1908; Lloyd George, in turn, served as Prime Minister from 1916-1922. Asquith was the prime mover of the 1911 Parliament Act which drastically reduced the power of the House of Lords. The expense of the naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain threatened Liberal social programs. Lloyd George had visited Germany in 1908. While there he was inspired by the Bismarkian social-insurance scheme to eventually push through the British National Insurance Act of 1911, fashioned after the German model, and to otherwise lay the groundwork for the modern welfare state. The conservatives in the House of Lords, ignoring the custom of their chamber not to interfere with budget bills, rejected Lloyd George's 1909 'People's Budget.' That in turn caused the constitutional crisis and provoked Asquith's successful emasculation of the House of Lords. Asquith is also well known for his Home Rule for Ireland legislation passed just after the outbreak of Great War - it was not put into effect until after the war. And he is sometimes remembered for his opposition to woman suffrage: he believed women should stay out of politics; however, Asquith eventually supported the 1918 suffrage legislation - providing that women not be allowed to sit in Parliament. With that in mind, let's examine excerpts from the 1908 Annual Register:

'In the first week of the year certain women suffragists had interrupted the proceedings in some of the London police courts by protests against the condemnation of women by "man-made law"'; and Mr. Haldane's warning to the feminine agitators - given before the Scottish Council at Glasgow on January 8 - that their vexatious methods had injured their cause in Parliament, was quite ineffectual.... Mr. Birrell, speaking at Reading on Tuesday, January 21... touched briefly on the sessional programme, and, though his speech had been interrupted by suffragists - who had come from outside Reading - he declared that he would continue to advocate women's suffrage nevertheless.... Mr. Churchill was similarly interrupted during an address on Free Trade at Manchester on the same evening, and replied by ridiculing the idea that great causes could be advanced simply by throwing large meetings into confusion....'

In the House of Commons on Friday, February 28, the Wo men's Enfranchisement Bill had its second reading.

'Mr. Stanger, a Liberal, explained that its object was to remove the disability attaching to women in Parliamentary elections, and the disqualification from voting attaching to marriage. Women could already sit on local government bodies as well as vote at local elections, and while home was in a sense the true sphere of women's activity, there were thousands of women who went out to work all day, and legislation was increasingly concerned with domestic affairs, the education and feeding of children and the marriage laws.... Mr. Cathcart Wilson attacked the bill as increasing the number of property and plural voters and introducing a far greater revolution that Home Rule or Tariff Reform. He feared the entry of women into the House of Commons; let them go to the Lords. Mr. Mallet also opposed the Bill... as doing little for working women, and held that colonial and American experience gave the proposal no support.... Mr. Gladstone, Home Secretary, said that the Government, as in 1907, would leave the question to the House. Personally he was in favour of the Bill.... It was impossible not to sympathize with the eagerness of many women and their disappointment; but men had had to struggle for more than two centuries and had not yet got their demand fully granted. Predominance in argument was not yet itself sufficient to secure political rights. These could only be secured by establishing the force majeure which arm governments for effective work....'

'At Pudsey, of course, the militant suffragists had been active; and they advertised their claim still better on Sunday, June 21, by one of the largest and best managed demonstrations ever held in Hyde Park. Seven processions from different parts of London marched to the Park with bands and banners; the colours of the movement - purple, white, and green - were in evidence in the favours and dresses of the processionists; thirty special trains brought up working women from the provinces - for whose benefit, indeed, a Sunday was selected; and the attendance was estimated a certainly 250,000 and probably more than 500,000. A contingent of French supporters of the movement was present, and though there was some disturbance, there was no serious opposition.'

'The militant women suffragists had exploited the unemployed situation by issuing a handbill inviting aid in a new effort to "rush" the House of Commons on Teusday, October 13, at 7:30 P.M. All that afternoon Parliament Square was full of expectant sightseers; and, at a meeting of the Women's Social and Political Union at Caxton Hall at the hour named, a resolution was passed demanding facilities for the passing of Mr. Stanger's bill (see above) in the current session; and a deputation of twelve volunteered to take it to the House of Commons. They were stopped by the police at the corner of Great Smith Street, and, attempting to force their way on inwards, were arrested, as were other ladies who subsequently left the meeting to assist. The crowd sympathized with the suffragists, and though there was no rioting at Westminster, some slight disturbance took place near Charing Cross among the unemployed - who were more carefully shepherded by the police. In all, twent y-four women and thirteen men were arrested in Parliament Square, and either bound over or sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, three of the men being convicted of assaulting the police. An attempt to get the women treated as first-class misdemeanors was unsuccessful. Mrs. Pankhurst, Miss Christabel Pankhurst and Mrs. Drummond, arrested on warrants for inciting to a breach of the peace by issuing the handbill, had surrendered at 6 P.M. on the 13th, but their case was adjourned. A more startling incident was the irruption of a lady (Mrs. Travers Symons, late secretary to Mr. Keir Hardie) during the debate on the Children's Bill, crying out "Leave off discussing the children's question and attend to the women first." She was at once carried out by an attendant, and it was stated that she had been moved by a sudden impulse to leave her introducer when viewing the House through the door, as was the custom of lady visitors on their way through the gallery.'

'The prosecution of the leaders of the militant (Suffragist) section was diversified by the summoning of Mr. Lloyd-George and Mr. Gladstone, who had been in the crowd on October 13, as witnesses for the defense. They were cleverly examined (Oct. 21) by Miss Christabel Pankhurst who aimed at showing no violence was intended or was probable; but subsequently the evidence as to the pacific character of the crowd was cut short by the magistrated and the accused were sentenced to be bound over to go to prison - Miss Pankhurst for ten weeks and the others for three months. They chose imprisonment. On October 28 Mr. Asquith was repeatedly interrupted by Suffragists in opening a bazaar at Highbury; and in the evening the debate on the Licensing Bill was suddenly interrupted from the Ladies' Gallery. A placard, headed "Women's Freedom League" and demanding "Votes for Women," was thrust through the "grille"; and the occupants shouted exhortations to the members to leave the Licensing Bill and give justice to women. The debate, however, went on; the police cleared the gallery, though, as two of the interrupters had chained and padlocked themselves to the grille, it was necessary to remove some of the panels. A man then threw a bundle of papers from the Strangers' Gallery, calling out "Justice for Women," and was promptly removed. A number of other members of the Women's Freedom League were charged on October 29 with willfully obstructing the police outside the House, and all but one preferred a month's imprisonment to a fine. A mass meeting of women at the Albert Hall on the same evening, at which Miss (Christabel) Pankhurst was to have presided, protested against the "disgraceful action of the Government," and exhibited an intention to persist. It was announced that the National Women's Social and Political Union had collected 25,000l.'

In a sense it was the gathering of the wagons of war that saved the British woman suffrage movement. The drastic social disruptions of modern wars and post-war periods requiring the support of all persons regardless of their class and status have often served as opportunities for raising of civil rights issues and removing obstacles to obtain them. When the Great War broke out, the British women's movement was already losing favor: people were growing tired of the disturbances to the peace. Women's organizations compromised with the government. For one thing, they agreed to support the war effort in exchange for the release of prisoners. Indeed, Emmeline and Christabel were zealous patriots. They changed the name of their paper from The Suffragist to Britannia in 1915, and proceeded to attack anti-war activists as well as politicians and military leaders - for not doing enough to win the war. "Traitors" and "Bolshevists" were shown no mercy in the Britannia. In 1917 they formed the Women's Party and called for, among other things, fighting to the finish with Germany, getting rid of Government officials who had enemy blood in their veins, and severe peace terms including the dismemberment of the Hapsburg Empire. They wanted equal rights for men and women, but forsook their socialist beliefs, even calling for the abolition of trade unions. That was precisely why some socialists had opposed woman suffrage in the first place; later studies, prior to the "second wave" of the women's movement proceeding in the 1960s, seemed to justify their fears that women tend to be conservative. Of course a radical female faction continued to fight for complete political and civil independence from God, Patriarch, and Nation.

The suffragettes during their most radical period set aside the supposedly feminine virtues of meekness and self-denial characteristic of organized discrimination and victimization. In a historical sense they struggled to regain the privileges many women enjoyed during the later Roman Empire before the path ological attitude of the Christian Church subverted their hard-won privileges and made of woman, as Tertulian said, "The devil's gateway." Fundamental Christianity viewed and sometimes still views woman as a meek slave under a benevolent master. But we must not scapegoat the religion: woman had and still has a low place in traditional non-Christian cultures, demonstrating that politics, the distribution of power, is never separate from the worship of Power.

Be that as it may, the right to vote extended to British women in 1918 was partial: it was limited to women over 30, university graduates, householders. In 1928 the age was lowered to 21 and the qualifications for women became the same as men.



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Reviewed by Helen Webberley Webberley (Reader) 2/7/2009
Thank you for the article, David
I have created a link from your post to mine:

Why do you think that by 1908 the women's suffrage cause had progressed so slowly in Britain?

Australia and New Zealand had achieved the same goal years earlier! The vote was gained with some struggle; to be sure there were ups and downs in New Zealand until success finally arrived in 1893. In Australia women gained the vote in some states (South Australia 1894) earlier than others, and in federal elections in 1902.

In both countries, laregly filled with British citizens, no one was gaoled, no shops were burnt, no martyrs ran under horses and died.

all the best
Helen Webberley
Reviewed by David Arthur Walters 2/16/2007
Goodness Gracious, how could I have been so negligent! I beg your pardon, Jessica. On June 1908, the NUWSS and the WSPU organised massive demonstrations in London in favour of women's suffrage. Elizabeth Robins described the event in her book Way Stations. On June 21st an impressive historical and symbolical pageant, organised by the National Union of Suffrage Societies, marched through crowded, cheering streets from the Embankment to the Albert Hall. Under the chairmanship of the President, Mrs. Fawcett, a mass meeting was held of such size and enthusiasm as men of long political experience declared had seldom being equalled… A week later came the monster demonstration in Hyde Park, under the auspices of the Women' Social and Political Union. The Times said of it: "Its organisers had counted on an audience of 250,000. The expectation was certainly fulfilled, and probably it was doubled, and it would be difficult to contradict anyone who asserted that it was trebled. The Daily Chronicle said: "Never, on the admission of the most experienced observers, has so vast a throng gathered in London to witness an outlay of political force."

Reviewed by jessica hynes 2/14/2007
I notice you have not included the NUWSS in your history of the suffragette movement - why is this?
Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor (Reader) 2/8/2007
A very good article, David. What is ironic is, there are still pockets of resentment in the U.S. of women doing anything other than cooking and cleaning. When I lived in Austin in the 80s several women were running for local political office and for the governorship (Anne Richards) and for Congress. I was up for a political appointment, myself, and my name was submitted to the Governor for a commission. You heard from Texas men often, that "they (women) should stay home in the kitchen where they belonged." Also in the 80s, I went to buy a car. I had to bring my husband along, because the dealer wouldn't talk to me without a man present. He said women shouldn't be driving or buying cars. (no joke) However, he took my check to buy the car. I asked if he preferred cash instead. He answered to my husband. As a businesswoman for many years, working internationally, I had to take a "pair of trousers" (male partner) with me to meetings in the far East to do the physical negotiating. We still laugh about that.


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