During my researches for my story set at the outbreak of the Great War, I was astounded to come across the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League.
Yes – an organisation of women OPPOSED to votes for women.
First I was shocked. Then I was intrigued. What on earth would make women campaign against their own rights?
I can understand that many women did not condone the violence of the militant suffragettes. But they could – and did – campaign peacefully for the vote, via the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Fawcett.
The Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Mrs Pankhurst, however, grabbed the headlines with their strategy of ‘deeds not words’. Maybe it was their militant behaviour – deemed ‘unfeminine’ – that led to a group of women coming together to campaign against votes for women.
Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League
The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was founded in 1908. It was led by Mary Ward, a popular novelist. The Hon Sec was Gertrude Bell, famous today for her explorations of the Arabian desert.
Both women were comfortably off, well educated, and enjoyed far more freedom than the majority of women of the time. So why did they believe that women shouldn’t vote?
Bell was extraordinary for her times: a woman, who studied at Oxford University, gained fame for mountaineering in Switzerland and fell in love with Arabic literature. Thanks to a wealthy and indulgent father, she toured the desert ‘alone’ – except for an entourage of guides and servants. In the desert, she conversed with male tribal leaders – despite the fact that their women were kept in women’s quarters. In London, Gertrude observed the proprieties and was chaperoned. Having enjoyed an elite education herself, she believed that the majority of women were too ignorant to vote.
Arguments against votes for women
Mary Ward appeared to believe the most commonly made argument against votes for women, which was that Parliament was not their ‘natural sphere’. That sphere was home and family. Women’s ‘natural sphere’ extended to local communities – the anti-suffragists were encouraged to vote in local elections, and participate in welfare work.
But Parliament was the business of the army, the navy, of commerce and finance. To everyone at the time, these things were quite obviously nothing to do with women. Decades – centuries – of culture held that women were physically, temperamentally, and intellectually unsuited to work in these areas. It was ‘against nature’, and anti-suffragists feared that involving women would destabilise not only the whole country, but also the Empire.
It’s easy to dismiss women who believed this as stupid or brainwashed. But, as novelist, I tried to put myself in their shoes. They grew up under the weight of Victorian female repression: centuries of indoctrination and exclusion. It’s hard to challenge such a weight of acculturation. Nowadays, despite a hundred years of female voting rights, we still live with vastly different cultural expectations based on gender. Maybe in the future, some of these will be considered ridiculous – who knows?
Today, the arguments appear circular: women were excluded from the vote because they were excluded from the business of Parliament. And women’s concerns were not considered by Parliament, because they did not vote.
Another common argument was based around women’s physical capabilities. They were incapable of military service – an important part of a society in which boys were bred to serve the Empire, and the height of fashion was the sailor suit. Women, it was alleged, had insufficient energies to take on responsibilities outside the home. Because of course, they must attend to home and family – it was, literally, unthinkable that they would not.
Mrs Ward announced that ‘the emancipating process has now reached the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women.” For upper class ones, perhaps. Working class women slogged in mills and factories. And here lies, perhaps, the greatest fear of the anti-votes for women movement – feared by upper class women as well as by men. If women had the vote, it might open the door to universal enfranchisement..
Votes for men
This was because voting was limited to men who owned property. In 1910, less than a quarter of men had the vote. Furthermore, there was an ‘excess’ of females –1068 females to every 1000 males. If women gained the vote, their votes would outnumber the men’s.
Furthermore, if women gained the vote without a property qualification, then the excluded men would want the vote too.
That would mean that the lower classes would vote. And, of course, to a ruling elite used to ignoring the wishes of the vast majority of the population – whether female or male – that would never do.
Ultimately, the anti–votes for women groups appealed to that most fundamental fear: fear of change. And the fear was strong. The Women’s Anti-Suffrage League soon had a national network of offices, held meetings attended by hundreds of people, and raised a petition with a quarter of a million signatures. They claimed that the ‘silent majority’ supported them – and perhaps they did.
But, as we know, the Great War changed everything. When the war overwhelmed the country’s resources, women were compelled to enter the ‘sphere of men’.
They proved it could be done.
The world changed.
And the anti-suffragists were silenced.
Sources and further reading
Gertrude Bell, by HVF Winstone
The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell, edited by Mark Jackson and Andrew Parkinhttps://research.ncl.ac.uk/media/sites/researchwebsites/gertrudebell/Gertrude%20Bell%20Online%20Version%20(003)%20Content%20page%20edit.pdf