Custom Search


Women's Suffrage

Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst outside the Houses of Parliament

One of the most remarkable social changes of the last two hundred years involves the role of women in society. In nineteenth century Britain women not only lacked the right to vote; once married they had no rights of individual ownership. Their property was their husband's. George Eliot wrote of the situation of an intelligent, energetic nineteenth century woman in her great novel Middlemarch of 1872. Her heroine Dorothea Burke being ambitious, naturally works hard to be the best. But society at that time deemed that women had to work at being meek. "If Miss Burke ever attained perfect meekness it would not be for lack of inward fire" (P36). The frustration of Dorothea's journey is clear. Inward fire is not compatible with meekness. You cannot strive in an ambitious fiery way to be meek. In fact the harder you try the less meek you'll be. The woman in Middlemarch who works hardest at meekness, and is most successful at it is Rosamund Vincy. But inspite of her quiet beauty and grace, Rosamund is a bit of a monster, who controls her husband with understated tears, and in effect breaks him on the wheel of her materialistic desires. In reality the idea of achieving meekness is false. Rosamund, the epitome of feminine grace, beauty and meekness ends up running her husband's life. One way or another the effort to be meek fails.




A La Ronde

On a global scale the move towards women's suffrage is complicated, with countries such as Australia, New Zealand and parts of the United States progressing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries far in advance of Britain. As far as Britain is concerned the first major thinker to advance the rights of women in society was Mary Wallstonecraft, who published her Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. This revolutionary book suggested that: "it is time to effect a revolution in female manners - time to restore to them their lost dignity... It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners."

The 1790s were revolutionary times. There's a lovely house in Devon called A La Ronde, built around 1796 by two spinsters, Mary and Jane Parminter. In this house Mary and Jane lived independent, creative lives for fifty years. The house survives and is now owned by the National Trust. It is a memorial to the beginnings of a general social change.


The women's rights movement really began to gain momentum in the late nineteenth century. John Stuart Mill brought women's suffrage up as an issue in 1865, and from that point pressure began to grow. Socialist lawyer Richard Pankhurst drafted an amendment to the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 which allowed unmarried women to vote in local elections. As the nineteenth century continued women themselves became more actively involved. There were moderates such as Millicent Fawcett who favoured non-violent argument. Like many other supporters of women's suffrage, Fawcett was conservative in other respects. During the Boer War she headed out to South Africa to try and play down reports of brutality coming out of Kitchener's concentration camps. Then there were the more left leaning militants, such as Richard Pankhurst's wife Emmeline, who with her daughter Christabel, founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. This group launched its more forceful approach at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester in October 1905, where Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a Liberal Party meeting, harangued the speaker, fought with policemen who tried to eject them, and tried to set up their own protest outside the hall. When Pankhurst and Kenney emerged from Strangeways a few days later women's suffrage had become a much more important issue. The Free Trade Hall still exists, incidentally, as Radisson Edwardian Hotel, where there is a display of rescued artifacts. Inspite of some opposing the use of violence, it was leadership provided by the Pankhursts and Annie Kenney which led to the emergence of women's suffrage as a vital issue. Harsh treatment of women arrested for their involvement in the suffragette movement also encouraged public sympathy. By 1908 prime minister Herbert Asquith had said that he would abandon his opposition to women's suffrage if it could be demonstrated that enough women wanted the vote. On 21st June 1908 250,000 women marched to a meeting organised by Emmeline Pankhurst in Hyde Park. This was the biggest public demonstration that London had ever seen. But still the government did not respond. For most of 1910 the Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union suspended militant action while a "Conciliation Committee" gathered parliamentary support for a planned Conciliation Bill. This would have given the vote to women, but Asquith seems to have taken a personal role in suppressing the bill. As a result the WSPU sent 300 women to the House of Commons on 18th November where there was a violent clash with police. During a six hour struggle many women were injured, and a 1911 parliamentary investigation committee wrote: "We cannot resist the conclusion that the police as a whole were under the impression that their duty was not merely to frustrate the attempts of the women to reach the House of Commons, but also to terrorise them in the process. They used in numerous instances excessive violence, which was at once deliberate and aggressive, and was intended to inflict injury. They frequently handled the women with gross indecency" (see History Magazine June 2010 P86). By now peaceful protest was being judged, at least by part of the suffragette movement, as useless. By the summer of 1912 the WSPU had decided on a policy of violent confrontation and attacks on property. A hatchet was thrown into Asquith's carriage during a visit to Dublin. In September of that year Asquith's chancellor David Lloyd George was opening a village institute in his native Llanystumdwy. As he began his address, a cry of "votes for women" led to a vicious fight between different factions in the crowd. Lloyd George called for calm and appealed for suffragette sympathisers not to be harmed. The Daily Mirror published a picture of a woman being assaulted at Llanystumdwy on its front page the following day. On 4th June 1913 Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the king's horse at a race meeting at Epsom race course. She was very badly injured and died four days later. This all took place against a background of women on hunger strike in prison being force fed in an effort to deny the protest movement its martyrs. Perhaps the most symbolic of incidents occurred on 10th March 1914, when Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery, took out a concealed meat cleaver, and started attacking the Rokeby Venus, a famous painting by Velaquez. Richardson, who was sentenced to six months in prison, explained that she had "tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government destroying Mrs Pankhurst - who is the most beautiful character in modern history". The Rokeby Venus was restored and can still be seen at the National Gallery today, now both a symbol of female beauty and resistance.




Hever Castle

Then came the great upheaval of World War One when all the rules changed. During the war there was a split in the movement, with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst calling for a suspension of their efforts for the war's duration, while Christabel's sister Sylvia wished to press on. The war itself, however, helped the women's cause, since a shortage of men allowed women into traditionally male industries, and weakened stereotypes. It was following the war that real political progress was finally made. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over the age of thirty, who were householders, or wives of men who were householders. The following year Nancy Astor became the first woman MP to sit in the House of Commons. Many suffragettes, particularly the left wing radicals such as the Pankhursts who had struggled for years for this moment were no doubt a bit disappointed that Nancy Astor had the honour of being the first sitting woman MP. She was the spirited American society hostess at Clivedon and Hever Castle, American wife of billionaire William Waldorf Astor. As a mother, she is described by A.N. Wilson as being "something out of Eugene O'Neill" (After The Victorians P261). Nancy wasn't quite the red hot radical that many radical British suffragettes had dreamt would finally storm into Parliament, but the important thing was that she was there.


In 1928 women finally achieved full suffrage on the same terms as men. And yet at the culmination of this story, we should go back to the contradictions of power found in George Eliot's Middlemarch. Power, as George Eliot revealed, is complex. This is illustrated in the way powerful women have often been unsympathetic to the situation of other women. George Eliot, for all the frustrated fire of her heroine Dorothea, was not herself a supporter of women's rights. The best selling nineteenth century novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward, and Beatrice Potter, co-founder of the London School of Economics, could also be mentioned. In the twentieth century Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir were both well known for excluding women from positions of power. Real power cannot be legislated for. George Eliot's meek yet monstrous character Rosamund Vincy in Middlemarch is no Margaret Thatcher, and she seems so much less powerful than her clever husband Dr Lydgate. He of course has all the advantages of a robust male education, and the vote. But with her play on the expectations of what men should be, Rosamund still manages to control Lydgate: "He wished to excuse everything in her if he could - but it was inevitable that in that excusing mood he should think of her as if she were an animal of another and feebler species. Nevertheless she had mastered him" (P719). Rosamund's humility is a weapon. Today we might think that certain symbols mean that we have power. If we have the vote we have power. In the day to day reality of life, of course, this is not true. Power relationships continue as unpredictably as ever. Middlemarch was written when Charles Darwin was breaking down the strict hierarchies of the world. Species were no longer created separately to each other. Life was no longer arranged as a simple ladder, with more powerful forms of life sitting on higher rungs than those less powerful. Hierarchies could switch around in a bewildering fashion. The state of being "free" and privileged had itself become uncertain. You do not automatically move from one state to another by having the vote. Because of stipulations in the will of her jealous first husband, Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch gives up her fortune to marry the love of her life Will Ladislaw. She is in the position of any woman at that time, who all gave up their fortune when they married. And yet Dorothea chooses a form of subjection, against the wishes of her family. Ironically if Dorothea's family had prevented her marriage as they wished to, this would have impinged on Dorothea's freedom! Perhaps in the end George Elliot was interested in the realities of power and not its outward show. Like Dorothea, George Eliot was of too original a frame of mind to think that life can be reduced to such easy symbolism as the vote. "I never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did." This was not the case with many suffragette activists, some of whom thought that giving the vote to women would solve all other problems. In February 1905 Emmeline Pankhurst gave Labour politician Keir Hardie a stern lecture in the lobby of the House of Commons about bothering himself with unemployment legislation. He should concentrate on women's suffrage, since once women had the vote such problems as unemployment would be dealt with as "a matter of course" (Keir Hardie by Caroline Benn P201). Beguiling as such universal solutions seem to be, they do not exist. Seemingly, with Dorothea's marriage, the end of Middlemarch confirms society in its old pattern. Dorothea defies the expectations of her family, and escapes her lonely life with lots of money for her life with Will Ladislaw. Whether this is a triumph or a defeat is debatable in a book that shows that no triumph or defeat is ever final.

The social and working history collection at the Museum of London has one of the best collections of suffragette material in the world. The collection is based on the archive of the Women's Social and Political Union, set up by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. The Pankhurst Centre in Manchester is the former home of the Pankhurst family, and is now a memorial and learning centre dedicated to the Pankhursts and the history of women's rights.











©2007 InfoBritain