The History of Parliament Annual Lecture 2013 – Baroness Patricia Hollis ‘The Hopes of the Suffragettes: were they realised?’

Today marks the start of Parliament week, the annual programme of events to inspire, engage and connect people with parliamentary democracy. Events and activities will take place all across the country on this year’s theme: ‘women in democracy’. (To find out more see Our annual lecture, given last week by Baroness Patricia Hollis, was a perfect warm up for this week’s events!

If you want to watch the lecture in full, it was broadcast on BBC Parliament. It is available on iplayer here:

Baroness Hollis gave a lively lecture on the campaign for women’s right to vote and the movement’s wider successes. She addressed three major questions: firstly, why did it take so long for women to get the vote, secondly, what did they hope to achieve with it and, finally, how successful were they at reaching their wider aims.

Baroness Hollis argued that the answers to the first two questions were interrelated. It was surprising when, having an established position in social movement and local politics by the mid-nineteenth century, women did not gain the right to vote until 1918. This could be partly explained by the women’s movement’s main goals, which were:

  1. Employment rights for ‘surplus’ (mostly single) middle-class women;
  2. Rights for married women, including divorce, child custody and property (for example, when Mrs Fawcett’s purse was stolen in 1876, the thief was charged with stealing the property of her husband);
  3. For campaigns on male ‘social purity’, particularly the temperance movement and to raise the marriage age.

Of course, many men did not want their ‘vices regulated or marital rights reduced’. As women had some power over issues such as education in local political bodies, it was further argued there was no need for them to become involved in ‘imperial’ national politics. However, political deadlock was the key reason behind the failure to achieve the vote. Namely, the Tory leaders sympathised but back-benchers opposed, and the direct reverse for the Liberal party. The vote would have had to have been forced through the Commons and Lords, and there simply was not the political will from either party to do so.

This led to a split within the women’s movement, between the ‘suffragists’ and the more militant ‘suffragettes’. Baroness Hollis surveyed the many acts of brutality suffered by the suffragettes during a violent reaction to their militant campaign. Furthermore, the movement was left with a dilemma: take peaceful action and be ignored or militant action and lose public support. The war came to the rescue, allowing the suffragettes to honourably give up their militant campaign. By the end of the war some women could vote, and in 1928 could do so on equal terms with men.

Baroness Hollis noted that women’s votes did achieve some immediate successes in the 1920s – for example, legislation was passed giving women rights after divorce or separation, widows’ pensions were ensured, and the age of marriage was raised to 16. Women’s employment remained a divisive issue, particularly between middle-class women and trades unions trying to protect their male members’ salaries and jobs. However, one area of progress was women’s role in political life in general. Women began to be made MPs, and although divided by all the same reasons as men (class, ethnicity, age, party) they were able to bring many ‘women’s issues’ into mainstream debate over the 20th Century.

Finally, Baroness Hollis attempted to weigh up the success of the suffragette movement by considering what they would have thought about today’s politics and society. She argued that they would have been ‘delighted’ that women not only could vote but also take full part in national political life as MPs, cabinet ministers, and even as a Prime Minister; but perhaps disappointed about the lack of equal representation in many spheres. She suggested that our current social issues, such as internet pornography or drug abuse, would have ‘startled’ them, and they would have ‘recognised’ the continuing campaign against a persistent gender pay gap. Finally: ‘they would have teasingly reminded us that women’s work is never done, and toasted us – in lemonade.’

Questions afterwards focused largely on women’s rights today, and the difficulties surrounding equal political and economic representation.


For more on the women’s suffrage movement and links to other resources, see Dr Kathryn Rix’s earlier blog on Emily Wilding Davison and women in Parliament. 

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