SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 216 March 2018

Women’s struggle for the vote

The centenary of a section of women gaining the vote in Britain has attracted huge media attention – against the background of #MeToo and mass protests against the reactionary Trump presidency. However, as HEATHER RAWLING explains, the role of working-class women has largely been ignored in the celebrations of this key step forward in women’s rights.

The history of the suffrage movement is a complicated and fascinating story with many organisations and people involved. There is much that is relevant today in the complex tactical and strategic issues in this drawn out, often bitter and divided campaign. It is the struggle for loyalties between gender and class, and for working-class representation in parliament.

February 2018 celebrated the centenary of some women winning the vote in Britain. However, 1918 was not the first time that had happened. In fact, the Great Reform Act (1832), won by workers’ mass action, eventually took away the right to vote from some rich property-owning women. It was this injustice and the discrimination they faced that sparked middle-class and wealthy women to argue for ‘votes for women’.

The media have highlighted the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, giving the radical working-class suffragists only a supporting role. They overlook the WSPU tactics – wilful attempts to break up meetings, smashing windows, assaulting policemen, arson and even planting bombs – rather than championing the role of working-class women, mobilising the masses and fighting for the vote through the trade union and labour movement.

Of course, the women who got themselves arrested were extremely brave, particularly those who went on hunger strike and endured painful, degrading force feeding. The callous and cruel nature of the British state was laid bare. The death of a hunger striker would have caused public outrage but the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ allowed authorities to release a woman who was close to death, re-arrest her when her health improved, then force feed her again.

Suffrage demands began with the Chartists and women played a prominent role forming Women’s Charter Associations. Hundreds of thousands were mobilised on demonstrations, an uprising in 1838, and a general strike in 1842. One hundred and fifty Female Reformers from Oldham and Royton attended the Radical Reform demonstration in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, in 1819, scene of the Peterloo massacre. They walked behind a white silk banner with ‘universal suffrage’ emblazoned on it, the original demand of the Chartists. However, the Chartists changed that to ‘universal manhood suffrage’ hoping for a better chance of success. This allowed divisions to open up in the working class between demands for adult suffrage and womanhood suffrage.

The ruling class consistently fought against extending votes to the working class regardless of gender. It was only mass working-class pressure – galvanised by the Reform League – that compelled prime minister Benjamin Disraeli to introduce the Reform Act (1867). This granted male household suffrage but excluded many workers and all women. Further mass pressure led to the Representation of the People Act (1884) which extended the male franchise although over a third of adult males remained disqualified.

The trade union leaders could have transformed the Reform League into a mass party of the working class campaigning for universal suffrage, reaching out to the radical suffragists. Instead, the story of the struggle for the vote is one of missed opportunities, misguided tactics and a plethora of different organisations with different aims and methods of struggle. It is also one of courage, huge personal sacrifice, innovation, determination and involvement in labour movement organisations.

Empowering working-class women

By the late 1860s a pattern of regional suffrage societies had been set up which lasted over 50 years. Some middle-class feminists like Esther Roper and Eva Gore Booth based their campaigns on winning over working-class women. Local leaders of working women’s organisations enthusiastically joined them and the movement expanded rapidly. Much of the support for women’s suffrage came from areas with industries that employed large numbers of women. The cotton workers of Lancashire were pioneers. Female factory workers would address open air meetings of hundreds. These radical suffragists knew first-hand the appalling conditions women endured at home and at work and wanted the vote to change their conditions.

Selina Cooper entered the mills at the age of ten. She had the confidence to stand up at labour movement conferences and propose motions on women’s suffrage. Helen Silcock, president of the Wigan Weavers, took the campaign into the male-dominated Trades Union Congress (TUC) at the turn of the last century. Other women like Sarah Dickenson concentrated their efforts on building up a local base. By the late 1890s the right of a handful of wealthy and privileged women to speak for women’s suffrage began to be challenged by a new generation of working-class women steeped in the early traditions of the labour movement.

Conscious of their class, the radical suffragists wrote in one of their earliest pamphlets, Women Workers and Parliamentary Representation: "A vote is in itself a small thing, but the aggregate vote of a great union is a very different matter. The cotton unions of Lancashire – some of the largest trade unions in the country – have a majority of women members – 96,000 women against 69,000 men. It will be seen then that this great industry is to a very large extent disenfranchised".

The radical suffragists rejected the claim of the traditional women’s suffrage societies for the vote "as it is or may be accorded to men" – a property-based vote which would exclude the majority of working-class women. They demanded ‘womanhood suffrage’. They also understood that they needed to forge their own methods and tactics. Meetings in middle-class drawing rooms and discreet lobbying of MPs would not bring victory.

Women’s trade union experience influenced their methods: factory gate meetings, submitting suffrage motions to union branches, organising through trades councils and, more innovatively, going on tour in caravans to towns and villages to address open air meetings. It was painstaking work, fighting their corner, at times dealing with hecklers and hostile crowds. Elsie Plant, a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) recalled: "I always thought, well, I can’t speak, but if you were called upon outdoor you’d find out you could. You’d carry on and, as soon as you got a bit tongue-tied, somebody’d throw something at you and you’d be off again".

Diverse campaigns

Women were often members of more than one suffrage organisation. Some also joined the ILP or the Socialist Democratic Federation (SDF, a sectarian Marxist group) or both. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1897 drawing many different groups into one organisation. Its president, Millicent Fawcett, was a shareholder in Bryant and May, made famous by the striking match women.

Most of its leaders were from wealthy middle-class backgrounds but many working-class suffragists became members. The NUWSS called for votes for women on equal terms with male voters. The Women’s Cooperative Guild also supported the demand for women’s suffrage. Independent of financial support from the trade unions, the majority of its members were the wives of working-class men enfranchised under the 1867 and 1884 acts.

On 1 May 1900, the suffragists launched a petition and through hard, determined work had collected 29,359 signatures by the spring of 1901. If only the TUC and Labour Representation Committee (LRC) had grasped this opportunity to work with them for universal suffrage – emphasising the importance of equal voting rights without any property qualification and arguing for the rights of women – the movement could have been strengthened and united. Instead, some socialists and trade unionists worked for adult suffrage while others championed women’s suffrage.

Helen Silcock was in a unique position to demand the vote on behalf of her extremely low-paid members. As a delegate to the TUC conference, she proposed a motion "that in the view of the unsatisfactory state of legislation for women, especially those employed in our mills and workshops, the parliamentary franchise should be extended to women on the same terms as men". The response of TUC members ranged from indifference to hostility.

Serving on the TUC Franchise Committee, Silcock found another resolution had been put demanding adult suffrage. The two causes of adult and women’s suffrage remained divided. The original Chartist demand of universal suffrage would have cut across many objections to the women’s campaign for the vote. It would have been a demand enfranchising the whole of the working class. Of course, the ruling class would have resisted with all its might but a determined campaign backed by industrial action could have been successful. The bitter wrangling between the adult and female suffragists dogged events for over a decade.

In 1903, some radical suffragists formed the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers Representation Committee. They issued a manifesto and oriented towards the growing, recently formed LRC, which in three years would become the Labour Party. This was no easy task. Many male trade unionists and socialists thought that votes for women would increase the power and privileges of propertied women. Undaunted, the suffragists continued to work through their trade unions, trades councils and the Labour Party. In the early days they worked with the WSPU. Operating within the North of England Society, the suffragists built up grassroots support from local trade unions like the Burnley Weavers, and widened their campaign beyond Lancashire.

Emmeline Pankhurst was a member of the ILP, her daughter Christabel also drawn to the struggle, setting up the WSPU in 1903. Christabel was becoming increasingly impatient with Labour and the ILP, launching a public offensive criticising a labour movement conference that did not mention women’s suffrage – happier firing broadsides into the labour movement than building a rank-and-file campaign to win support. Tightly controlled by a handful of leaders, the WSPU did not have democratic structures – an organisation that championed votes for women denied votes to its own rank-and-file members.

Christabel and Emmeline were brilliant publicists and put themselves centre stage. Disappointed with the response they were getting, however, they changed tactics and developed an ‘above politics’ (and therefore above class) approach.

Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, one of the few working-class women in the WSPU leadership, attended a meeting to be addressed by Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey in Manchester in 1905. Kenney asked: "Will a Liberal government give votes to women?" That question was to become very familiar. They unfurled a banner and were marched off by policemen, Christabel spitting at one of them to ensure imprisonment. So began the WSPU campaign of seeking publicity through disrupting meetings and other stunts. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst would leave the ILP in 1906. Emmeline later joined the Conservative Party, selected as one of its parliamentary candidates in 1927.

Labour movement divisions widen

Towards the end of 1904 proposed suffrage legislation brought the growing hostility between adult and woman suffragists further into the open. At the annual ILP conference the previous Easter, Emmeline Pankhurst had been elected onto the executive. Despite opposition from adult suffragists, the ILP was instructed to secure the introduction of a private members bill to enfranchise women. The debate partly hinged on the fact that neither the Liberals nor the Tories were likely to support complete adult suffrage. Also, neither party was likely to support complete male suffrage.

The suffragettes and suffragists feared that if male suffrage was passed women’s claims for the vote would be set back decades. They were up against some socialists who argued that, if complete male suffrage was easier to obtain than limited women’s suffrage, they should opt for the former because that would at least widen the franchise. Women trade unionists were outraged that they contributed to the salaries of Labour MPs but had no vote.

A key factor was what proportion of the women enfranchised by a limited suffrage bill would be working class. ILP branches carried out a survey to try and quantify this. At the same time, radical suffragists conducted their own. The terms were not clearly defined so the results should be treated with some caution yet they showed that at least 80% of those who would be enfranchised were ‘working class’. Therefore, a limited suffrage bill could no longer be dismissed as a ‘ladies bill’. Julie Dawson wrote in the Clarion, a labour movement newspaper: "In Leeds women sewed knickers for fourpence halfpenny a dozen and could not possibly afford the four shillings a week rent to enfranchise themselves".

The suffragists made several attempts to pass resolutions at the TUC and LRC conferences but were frequently faced with motions calling for adult suffrage. A carefully worded ILP resolution to the 1905 LRC conference declared: "This conference heartily approves of adult suffrage and the complete enfranchisement of both sexes and endorses the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill introduced into parliament last session believing it to be an important step towards adult suffrage".

Harry Quelch, from the London Trades Council and a member of the SDF, countered that complete adult suffrage was the only franchise reform that should be supported by Labour MPs. His amendment was carried. He wrote: "Then, further and most important, the great body of working women would be excluded. All working women, no matter what their earnings, who were married could not have the vote under this so-called ‘Women’s Enfranchisement Bill’. Nor would any unmarried women who were living alone with their parents, or who were living in lodgings of a less rental than £10 per annum unfurnished". (The Social Democrat, December 1906)

Class or gender?

An Adult Suffrage Society was formed to coordinate opposition to the limited suffrage bill. Quelch and the SDF reflected the view that the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill would not favour the election of Labour MPs. Quelch may have been genuine in his opposition although many saw his resolutions as wrecking motions. The suffragists adapted their demand and tried to find a more acceptable formulation: ‘votes for all women over 21’ as their aim, but support for any limited suffrage bills as necessary steps to all women winning the vote. If the two sides could have found common ground their causes would have been strengthened.

The problem was that there was unjustified inequality on gender lines for the right to vote. Understandably, women wanted to redress this imbalance. But they may have won more backing if they had petitioned for universal suffrage for men and women, while campaigning among women to gain support for their specific reasons for needing the vote. These disputes happened at a time when men and women were often divided on the factory floor. Some men, encouraged by the employers and right-wing trade union leaders, saw women workers as a threat to the ‘family wage’. There were even strikes to force employers to exclude women, such as the print workers in Edinburgh.

Ada Nield Chew became famous as the Crewe factory girl who dared to write letters to her local newspaper agitating against her intolerable working conditions and pitiful pay. She also warned in the Clarion: "The entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single would be voteless still and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into parliament".

Was extending the franchise a class or a gender issue? This was the crux of the matter. The suffragists and the Women’s Cooperative Guild shared Chew’s ultimate objective to enfranchise all working women. Unlike her, however, they did not feel it made practical sense to reject a measure merely because it only went half way to accomplish it. For Christabel Pankhurst, it was the principle of votes for women that counted rather than the class of women that would benefit. She put gender above class.

The tide turns

In 1911 the Second Conciliation Bill came before parliament and would have conferred suffrage on a limited number of women. Arthur Henderson MP led a deputation from the Adult Suffrage Society to meet prime minister Herbert Asquith. They drew attention to the need for adult suffrage for both men and women. Henderson pointed out that only 7.5 million in an adult population of 45 million had the vote. Asquith promised he was open to an amendment to that effect but manoeuvred to withdraw the bill, destroying hopes for advances for adult or women’s suffrage in that parliamentary session. In 1912, for the first time, the Labour Party conference took an unequivocal stand on votes for women.

By this time, the WSPU had turned to small-scale bombings, breaking windows, slashing pictures in art galleries and arson, including the house of Liberal leader David Lloyd George. Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled from the WSPU for publicly supporting the Dublin lockout of 1913-14. She set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS, later the Workers’ Suffrage Federation) to mobilise working-class women in support of the franchise, but also to campaign on working conditions and against poverty. The ELFS supported the vote for all men and women. It was democratically run and had its own newspaper, the Dreadnought (later the Workers’ Dreadnought), as part of a strategy to develop the ELFS into a mass organisation. Her mother and sister had changed the name of their paper from the Suffragette to the Britannia.

In February 1918 some women got the vote. The 1917 Russian revolution had inspired workers and terrified the capitalist ruling class. Britain’s government acted out of fear of revolt. All men over 21 got the vote and, to pacify radicalised returning troops, ex-serving soldiers over 19. Women over 30 who were tenants or homeowners, or the wives of tenants or homeowners, of properties with a rent over £5 a year could also vote. It is possible that the government hoped that women voters would tip the balance back in favour of the ruling class. The mainly young women who made up the bulk of the munitions workers and other trades needed for the war effort were not enfranchised.

Ten years later the demand for universal womanhood suffrage was finally met, granted by a Conservative government in a changed political era. The first Labour government in 1924, led by Ramsey MacDonald, had shown it was no real threat to capitalism. The 1926 general strike had ended in defeat, sabotaged by the leaderships of the Labour Party and TUC, while the economy looked stable, despite the impending crash of 1929. The Equal Franchise Act was passed with no real opposition, giving women over 21 the vote. It would have been far better for the collective confidence of working-class women and men if it had been won earlier through a united mass struggle.

Mass campaigns build confidence and unity, and add to the combined experience of the working class drawing lessons for future battles. Women still face injustice and oppression. Austerity hits working-class women hard. Domestic abuse, reproductive rights, misogyny, sexual harassment and rape concern all women. But a fight to end these abuses involves a fight against the system that causes this oppression. For that fight we need to unite with the working class, the only class that has the power to overthrow capitalism.

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