Before the vote was won: women and politics, 1868-1918

Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 Section explains the relationship between women, Parliament and politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly focusing on their expanded role within local government in the prelude to the Representation of the People Act 1918. This post is based in part on Kathryn’s contribution to the book accompanying the ‘Voice and Vote’ exhibition currently running in Westminster Hall. For further details on the exhibition, see here.

This year marks the centenary of (some) women receiving the parliamentary franchise and the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act. However, as several of our previous posts – here and on our Victorian Commons site – have explored, women were involved with Parliament and politics in a variety of different ways long before their formal inclusion within the electoral system: as petitioners and campaigners; spectators at the hustings and in Parliament; political wives; electoral patrons; and even, occasionally, as voters in parliamentary elections.

G. Cruikshank, The rights of women, or the effects of female enfranchisement (1853)

Following on from a blog earlier this year about women’s political involvement between 1832 and 1868, this post looks at the period between 1868 and 1918. Women were becoming increasingly politically active, not least through the campaign for women’s suffrage. During the 1870s, petitions for women’s suffrage with over 2,200,000 signatures were presented to the Commons. Yet, at the same time, there were some areas where the opportunities for women to participate in politics had been curtailed. It is often forgotten that the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 was accompanied by the abolition of the hustings, where candidates had been nominated and explained their political views to crowds composed of electors and non-electors alike. Press reports routinely noted the presence of women as spectators. One account in 1857 observed:

Go down to any borough election, take your place upon the hustings, and look around. The space beneath is crammed [with] working men – electors and non-electors – not unmixed with wives and children. Look up, and every window … is fitted with fair faces, eager eyes, and delicate hands waving cambric handkerchiefs in token of their exultation. The wives, the daughters, and the infant children of the candidates are there.

In contrast, after 1872, candidates handed in their nomination papers privately and unceremoniously, removing this opportunity for non-electors – male and female alike – to take part in election proceedings.

Women did, however, have new opportunities to get involved in politics. One way of doing so was through the growing number of local organisations set up by the Liberal and Conservative parties as they tried to harness the support of the expanded (male) electorate enfranchised by the Third Reform Act of 1884-5. This reform, combined with the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act, which placed strict limits on the amounts which candidates could spend at parliamentary elections and what they could spend it on, meant that politicians increasingly relied on the support of volunteer activists to assist them in their election campaigning.

Primrose League badges

These election workers were recruited from local Liberal and Conservative associations and clubs, and from auxiliary organisations such as the Primrose League, set up in 1883 to support the Conservative cause. It became the largest mass political organisation of its day, encompassing men, women and children. By 1891 it had 500,000 female members. These ‘Primrose Dames’ were not only involved with the League’s social events – its garden fêtes and tea parties – but were also praised for their electioneering efforts. William Arnold Statham, who contested one of the Bethnal Green parliamentary seats in London in 1895, recorded that female volunteers had spoken at ‘open-air and turbulent meetings’, displaying their ‘unaffected, unassuming and convincing eloquence’. They had also ‘trudged up and down the steep stairs’ of working-class houses for ‘hours and hours’, delivering election leaflets, converting doubtful voters, tracing voters who had moved and ‘pursuing inquiries to check the register’.

Liberal women made similar efforts on behalf of their party’s candidates, although the issue of women’s suffrage proved a divisive one for the women’s Liberal organisations, with the anti-suffrage Women’s National Liberal Association splitting off from the pro-suffrage Women’s Liberal Federation in 1892. Despite this, their contribution was such that in autumn 1910 the Liberal Chief Whip warned the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, who opposed women’s suffrage, that

You cannot afford, on the eve of a General Election, to drive the whole Women’s Movement into the most bitter opposition nor to weaken and in many cases alienate the support of the most active Liberal women workers.

Two notable female Liberal activists were the first women to qualify as professional constituency agents, Bertha Fischer (in 1902) and Ellen Pocock (in 1908), a remarkable achievement in a period when women were excluded from the parliamentary vote.

Although they were denied the parliamentary franchise until 1918, women were able to participate as voters – and, in some cases, as candidates – in local government. In 1869 the Manchester MP Jacob Bright successfully altered the Municipal Franchise Act to allow women in England and Wales to vote at municipal elections on the same basis as men (a ratepayer franchise). Women in Scotland and Ireland had to wait longer for the municipal vote – until 1882 and 1898 respectively. A court ruling in 1872 decided that this franchise applied to single and widowed women only.

Dacre, Susan Isabel, 1844-1933; Lydia Becker
Lydia Becker, by Susan Isabel Dacre; image credit: Manchester Art Gallery via

From 1870 women who held the requisite property qualification could vote for and be elected to School Boards, which oversaw the local administration of education. The small number of women elected to School Boards in 1870 included the suffragists Lydia Becker in Manchester and Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies in London. Wales’s first female School Board member was Rose Crawshay at Merthyr in 1871, while Jane Arthur at Paisley in 1873 was the first woman elected to a Scottish school board. The first woman elected to a Board of Guardians, which supervised administration of the poor law, was Martha Merrington at Kensington in 1875. By 1885 there were 50 female poor law guardians, mostly in urban areas.

Women could also vote for the new county councils created in 1888. Two women, Jane Cobden (daughter of the noted Radical Richard Cobden) and Margaret Sandhurst, were elected to the first London County Council in 1889, but following legal objections women were deemed ineligible to stand for county councils until the law changed in 1907. Despite this setback, women received fresh opportunities under the 1894 Local Government Act. They could now vote and stand for rural and urban district councils and parish councils, and it became easier to stand as poor law guardians, as the high property qualification was abolished. Most significantly, this reform allowed married women to become local government electors, provided they did not register for the same property as their husbands.

By the late 1890s there were 729,000 female voters in England and Wales, comprising 13.7% of the municipal electorate. In 1895 there were 128 female School Board members and 893 female poor law guardians. While it could be argued that the responsibilities of local bodies – for education, the poor and health – were an extension of women’s traditional domestic role, the local government arena was significant in giving women experience as voters and office-holders, long before the reforms of 1918 and 1928 included them within the parliamentary electorate.


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