Anti-suffrage: the women who didn’t want the vote

There were plenty of men and women who opposed women's suffrage in the early 20th century – in fact, the anti-suffrage campaign was headed by a woman. Writing for BBC History Revealed, Jonny Wilkes explores the reasons why some Edwardians thought that votes for women would lead to "meddlesome laws”…

A group of men stand at a booth whose banner reads 'Headquarters National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage,' early 1910s. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

The writer of a piece in The Times on 27 February 1909 made their position abundantly clear: “Women’s suffrage is a more dangerous leap in the dark because of the vast growth of the Empire, the immense increase of England’s imperial responsibilities, and therewith the increased complexity and risk of the problems which lie before our statesmen.”

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These problems, the writer continued, could only 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”.

It was yet another argument voiced by this writer in their years of protesting against women getting the vote. Committed to the idea that the physical and emotional differences between the sexes made women wholly unsuitable for politics, they wrote prolifically, led an anti-suffrage organisation and gave speeches on how the woman’s role should be in the “domestic sphere”, while trying to ignore jeers from suffragettes in the audience.

Those fighting for suffrage expected such rhetoric, such anachronistic attitudes, such socially entrenched opposition to their cause, from stuffy, misogynistic men. But the writer in The Times was a woman: Mary Augusta Ward, who somehow campaigned both for social reform and as one of the large number of female anti-suffragists, dedicated to keeping themselves out of the polling booths.

Photo of Mary Augusta Ward
Mary Augusta Ward founded the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Why did some women oppose the suffrage movement?

Why? To a 21st-century perspective, especially more than 100 years since the process of granting women the vote began, it seems incompatible that women like Ward could oppose the suffrage movement. Regardless, hundreds of thousands signed petitions during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and not all for reasons as backward as we may imagine.

The fact remains that, at the time, the certainty of men’s intellectual superiority permeated society so utterly that there were women who believed it themselves or preferred to keep the status quo. Confounding this established view would mean a seismic hierarchical shift, making it easier for the majority to stick to the argument that women had neither the inclination nor ability to handle the responsibility of voting. Too sensitive and impulsive, they would form an ill-equipped electorate, which, as one anti-suffrage pamphlet put it, would “lower the quality of our legislation” and increase “capricious, emotional, meddlesome laws”.

Concerns for society ran so deep that anti-suffragists were able to propagate other fears, including the threat posed to family life. Extending suffrage would inevitably lead to husbands and wives quarrelling over political allegiance and, if women became less focused on the health and happiness of their homes, it would be detrimental to their children. Such negative, fear-mongering arguments proved successful at convincing some women to oppose the vote, but it only tells half the story.

At the time, the certainty of men’s intellectual superiority permeated society so utterly that there were women who believed it themselves or preferred to keep the status quo

Many anti-suffragists – or simply, ‘antis’ – vociferously believed that women’s place in society should change. Upper or middle class and educated, they had been part of debates in the Victorian era about changing notions of citizenship and gender expectations, and concluded that women had essential roles in social reform and community-orientated projects, which did not need the vote. “We believe that men and women are different, not similar, beings with talents that are complementary, not identical,” said Violet Markham, a campaigner to alleviate poverty and unemployment for women, and an anti.

The ‘Forward Policy’ promoted a woman’s place in the ‘domestic sphere’, where they could best utilise their natural qualities of caregiving and nurturing, and not in politics. That said, local government should be open to women so as to improve their work in the localities. While they were to be key players in the running of the country, parliamentary elections did not play to feminine strengths and, if anything, would be a distraction. As early as 1889, the antis asserted that, “Women will be more valuable citizens, will contribute more precious elements to the national life without the vote than with it.” Besides, a silent majority of British women were “notoriously indifferent” to having the vote anyway.

This more positive approach had good intentions – although it is hard to see it as anything but misguided by today’s standards – and drew public support or at least private agreement from several high-profile women. Among them was Gertrude Bell and Elizabeth Wandsworth, founding principal of Lady Margaret Hall, the first women’s college at Oxford University.

A woman on her own

Gertrude Bell spent her life defying the expectations of her sex. A brilliant scholar, she became the first woman to graduate from the University of Oxford with a first in modern history, before travelling the world. She conquered as a mountaineer (a peak in the Swiss Alps is named after her), learned eight languages, taught herself archaeology, mapped uncharted lands and wrote about her time in the Middle East.

After World War I, when she worked for British Intelligence, Bell was chosen as the only female delegate for the Cairo Conference, where she drew the borders for the modern nation of Iraq and helped put Faisal I on the throne. Bell held her own with ministers, military officers and kings and stood against prejudice with steely-eyed determination.

Yet throughout her accomplishments, she remained opposed to women having the vote. She served as a secretary when the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was formed in 1908, and headed a northern branch. She once wrote about the “regrettable programme” of the suffragettes and believed that the vast majority of women lacked the intellectual capacity to engage in political debate. Bell was not pioneering for womankind, she was a woman on her own.

Mary Augusta Ward, who insisted on being called Mrs Humphrey Ward, coined the term ‘Forward Policy’ in 1908. By then, she had been a leading opponent of women’s suffrage for two decades, had found international renown as an author and carried out a plethora of social reforms. Ward founded a school for disabled children, supported settlement movements (attempts to close the gap between rich and poor by moving volunteer middle-class families into working-class areas), and advocated education of the poor, with emphasis on teaching women. In 1888, her book Robert Elsmere, a controversial tome espousing a form of Christianity based on social work rather than doctrine, had become a sensational bestseller.

A year later, Ward helped pen ‘An Appeal Against Women’s Suffrage’. Published in the June 1889 edition of the journal Nineteenth Century and signed by 104 influential women, it read: “We believe that the emancipating process has now reached the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women.”

In matters of legislation, foreign affairs, commerce, finances and the military, “women’s direct participation is made impossible either by the disabilities of sex, or by strong formations of custom and habit… against which it is useless to contend”. Accompanying the Appeal was a petition with over 1,500 signatures. While this can be regarded as the formal beginning of the anti-suffrage movement, the success of the Appeal did not build momentum or lead to the formation of a national organisation. Even after New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the vote in 1893, the issue did not seem immediately pressing in Britain.

League of gentlewomen

It would be the pro-suffrage groups getting organised that awoke the antis into doing the same. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) formed in 1897 under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, who wanted to achieve the vote peacefully by gaining support in Parliament. With progress going too slowly, a faction led by Emmeline Pankhurst established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, firm in the belief that only militant actions could bring about change.

To counter both the suffragists and Pankhurst’s suffragettes, Ward was persuaded to spearhead the new Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. She had been approached by two men, Lord Curzon and Randal Cremer, who once refuted being a woman-hater in the House of Commons by saying he had married twice and was “too fond” of women to see them dragged into the political arena. The League first met on 21 July 1908 at the Westminster Palace Hotel.

Anti-suffragists wereconcerned about the impact of the vote on family life. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images Plus)
Anti-suffragists were concerned about the impact of the vote on family life. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images Plus)

Suffrage was, as Ward declared, “now in a process of defeat and extinction – and that not at the hands of men, but at the hands of women themselves”. There may have been justification for her optimistic outlook, as the League picked up members quickly among women disgusted at the direct action of the suffragettes. Ward saw them as no better than terrorists, and the antis printed a selection of postcards attacking them.

Like the suffragettes, though, the League took their own colours – black, pink and white – and published its Manifesto. In one point, it confirmed the position that women should not be responsible for certain functions of governance: “The complex modern State depends for its very existence on naval and military power, diplomacy, finance, and the great mining, constructive, shipping and transport industries, in none of which can women take any practical part.” The Spectator called the Manifesto an “admirable piece of work, worthy in every way of the cause”.

The League published articles to spread their message, whether it be in their own periodical, Anti-Suffrage Review, or any paper they could – including Ward’s piece in The Times. In the newspaper The Queen, long-time anti Ethel Bertha Harrison wrote: “We think that the vote is but a prelude to social revolution, which must set back progress, for we believe in the division of functions as the the keystone of civilisation. It is as if the animals on a farm should insist on changing places – the cows insist upon drawing the coach, while the horses strive in vain to chew the cud and ruminate.”

By 1909, Ward claimed that 250,000 people (men and women) had signed a petition against the vote, and that the League had 15,000 paying members and more than 100 branches nationwide. A lively opposition, and a women-led one at that, helped successive governments ignore the demands of the NUWSS and WSPU, but the League still lacked significant influence in Parliament and funding. A men’s group, meanwhile, had the money without the proactive campaigning, so the decision was made to merge the two, forming the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.

Blood, sweat and tears

The new-look League continued to boast strong numbers, as seen by their mass meeting at the Albert Hall in 1912, where some 9,000 attended and 20,000 applied for tickets. But for its popularity, the movement had peaked. The message grew increasingly divided, with the more progressive Forward Policy thinkers clashing with the conservative antis, and antis struggled to appeal effectively to working-class women. The suffragettes pounced, heckling their speeches and lampooning them in satirical plays. In Lady Geraldine’s Speech by Beatrice Harraden, a stubborn anti asks friends for help composing a speech, only to be converted by their intelligent arguments.

Anti-suffrage in America

The anti-suffrage movement in the US shared many similarities with its British counterpart. Much of the rhetoric about women’s roles in the domestic sphere and how the vote could threaten society was the same on both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps with a greater emphasis given to how American women having the vote would go against the will of God.

Like in Britain, the antis – or remonstrants – signed petitions and joined small groups in the second half of the 19th century, before they formed a national organisation in the years before World War I. The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, established in 1911, was led by social reformer Josephine Dodge and, at its peak, boasted around 350,000 members.

The American pro-suffrage movement, however, had been divided by the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the vote in 1870. One group, led by Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, refused to give their support without extending it to women, while another faction formed by abolitionists applauded the move.

The fight for suffrage went state by state – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho were granted the vote before 1900 – before the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. The states still had to ratify it though, the last being Mississippi. In 1984.

The articles in Anti-Suffrage Review seemed tired and limp, antis swapped sides (including a signatory of the 1889 Appeal, Louise Creighton) and the League had no hope of matching the suffragettes for headline-grabbing actions. Even the fact that Ward’s son Arnold was elected MP failed to stoke the fires within Parliament.

The league had no hope of matching the suffragettes

Then came the declaration of World War I, which saw all suffrage groups, both pro and anti, cease activity. With women now performing vital work, in munitions factories and filling the spaces left by men gone to fight, the war actually aided a decisive shift in momentum towards support for granting women the vote. Yet while the antis could do nothing, Ward remained as obstinate as ever. She visited the trenches on the Western Front to drum up support for the war effort from America, but not before writing the 1915 novel Delia Blanchflower, which made another attack on the suffragettes.

The government passed the Representation of the People Act in February 1918, awarding the vote to women over 30 (with property qualifications). It would take another decade until equal voting rights had been achieved, but some 8.4 million women had the chance to cast their ballot for the first time, and even vote for female candidates. But as the law that made that possible was passed, Ward sat in the House of Commons and burst into tears.

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This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed