Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Celebrating the suffrage movement in International Women’s History Month

By Laura Dawkins

The campaigners for women’s suffrage rightfully occupy a place at the forefront of the coverage of International Women’s History Month. Women such as Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Josephine Butler, and Nancy Astor earned themselves recognition from their involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The women who campaigned against granting women the right to vote are less frequently commemorated, although many were also prominent figures at the time. Their positions provide an interesting insight into women’s varying roles in and expectations of political life; they assumed positions of leadership and often argued for the advancement of women’s rights in education and the workplace while attempting to preserve more conservative gender roles.

Suffragettes and petitions

Who Was Who entries provide insight into the diversity of attitudes to women’s suffrage in the early years of the twentieth century. The career section of the suffragette Constance Lytton’s entry details the injuries she sustained after being force fed during a prison hunger strike, while Ellen Odette, Countess of Desart’s work was summarized as “The usual duties of a well-educated, intelligent woman, conscientiously carried out; very strong anti-suffrage views.” To celebrate that variety, here are a few of the accomplished and occasionally surprising women who weighed in against suffrage:

Mary Augusta Ward, known as Mrs Humphry Ward, was the first head of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, which she helped found in 1908, and edited the Anti-Suffrage Review. She came to public prominence as a novelist; her books were much disliked by Virginia Woolf, who wrote that “[Ward] is as great a menace to health of mind as influenza to the body,” but were phenomenal bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic. Ward was a philanthropist, social reformer, advocate of women’s education, war correspondent, and eventually became one of England’s first female magistrates. She believed that national politics dealt with “constitutional, legal, financial, military, international problems — problems of men, only to be solved by the labour and special knowledge of men, and where the men who bear the burden ought to be left unhampered by the political inexperience of women.” (The Times, 27 February 1909).

Gertrude Bell was the founding secretary of the Anti-Suffrage League, and eventually headed their northern branch. Whilst she also believed most women did not have the experience to take part in politics, her own career, which included stints as a diplomat, archaeologist, traveller, writer, mountaineer, linguist, political officer and spy, meant that she was highly influential and made huge contributions to British imperial policy in the Middle and Near East. There was a strong vein of imperialist enthusiasm in the anti-suffrage movement; Clementina Fessenden, founder of Empire Day and propagandist, is one of the few people in Who Was Who to list her membership of the Anti-Suffrage League in her entry.

Bell’s friend Violet Markham was another supporter of the Anti-Suffrage League. Her main field of interest as a social reformer was in the alleviation of poverty and unemployment, particularly for women. She advanced a belief in the importance of women’s work, whilst maintaining the Victorian ideology of ‘separate spheres’ for the sexes, believing that women could contribute politically by participating in local government. She explained this in at an anti-suffrage rally on 28 February 1912, at the Albert Hall:

“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 changes in women’s lives bought about by the First World War moderated Markham’s beliefs, and by the 1918 general election, she was prepared to stand, albeit unsuccessfully, as an Independent Liberal parliamentary candidate.

Laura Dawkins is a Development Editor for Scholarly Reference at Oxford University Press.

Who’s Who is the essential directory of the noteworthy and influential in every area of public life, published worldwide, and written by the entrants themselves. Who’s Who 2013 includes autobiographical information on over 33,000 influential people from all walks of life. The 165th edition includes a foreword by Arianna Huffington on ways technology is rapidly transforming the media. Please note that the Who’s Who articles in this blog post will be freely accessibly for a month from 27 March 2013, after which you can access through subscription.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only British history articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Image credit: Library of Congress (LC-DIG-ggbain-13078)

Recent Comments

  1. […] itself. Here too, notions of true and false, norm and other, intervene. ‘True’ women, as anti-suffrage writers regularly stressed, would never engage in militant activities of this kind. “Woman—or […]

  2. […] hunger strikes. #1. Report from Australia. #1. #2. International Women’s History Month. #1. #2. Jewelry of the suffragettes. #1.  The theme of cats in the suffragette […]

Comments are closed.