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Three years later, the University of London introduced a particular women’s exam, and in 1870, Oxford allowed women to its Local Examinations.5 One of the most important driving forces behind these achievements was Emily Davies again, whose next aim was to enable women to access tertiary education. In 1869, Girton College for women, which adhered to the principle that the curriculum and testing methods should not differ from male colleges, was founded.6 Girton, which from the beginning of its establishment had good connections with Cambridge University was incorporated by the latter in 1872, but did not admit women to Honours examinations, granting certificates of proficiency rather than degrees.7
2.2. Women and Politics In the course of the second half of the 19th century, women became more and more involved in public and political matters. They acquired access to local government offices and direct participation in party politics.8 Moreover, women’s rights movements, with the primary goal to assert general female enfranchisement, began to flourish.
2.2.1. The Origins of the Women’s Suffrage Movement
It could be argued that women’s request for their share in politics had already started in the 18th century, as probably most prominently expressed by Mary Wollstonecraft in her treatise Vindication for the Rights of Women, first published in 1792. Even though she does not directly state that women should be allowed to vote, she claims that they should have some sort of political representation. In chapter IX, she argues that ‘women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government’ (Wollstonecraft, 147). From that point onwards, however, the female suffrage movement had still a long way to go and quite a few obstacles to overcome.
By the 1860s, an organised women’s suffrage movement began to emerge.9 Two events of this decade are said to have triggered off serious political debates about women’s right to vote.
On the one hand, the Reform Act that extended male rights to vote was enacted in 1867, which, by the way, was also the year the earliest play under discussion, Phillips’ Lost in London, was first performed. This act enfranchised all male householders and, consequently, enabled working-class men to vote for the first time in Britain.10 As David Rubinstein points out, ‘[t]he rise of the labour movement demonstrated the trend towards increasing self-confidence on the part of underprivileged groups’ (Rubinstein, 138). Therefore, according to Jane Cf. Gleadle, 154.
Cf. Rendall, 130.
Cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reform_Act_1867 [14 January 2007]
-8Rendall, the debates surrounding this event also significantly marked the beginning of women’s struggle to vote.11 Nevertheless, she argues that women’s efforts to gain a right to vote were differently motivated than those of working men. Women did not put self-interest in the foreground, but rather stressed the notion of a ‘woman’s mission’. This mission can be understood as a form of civic humanism directed towards improving the situation of the uneducated and poor.
Furthermore, this humanitarian and charitable vocation was by and large restricted to the middle-class. As Jane Lewis emphasises in her introduction to a portrayal of five Victorian/Edwardian women dedicated to social action, [p]hilanthropic work remained within the bounds of propriety and middleclass women’s sphere, whereas most other public activities involved crossing the boundary into unwomanly behaviour. (Lewis, Women and Social Action, 11) It is again important to note that these notions of philanthropy and public involvement were inextricably linked to issues of class and gender.
On the other hand, the question whether women should be granted the right to vote also started to be an issue in Parliament when John Stuart Mill was elected as an independent Member of Parliament.12 Mill supported equal rights for women and the suffragettes’ cause, which is also expressed in his essay On the Subjection of Women, which originally appeared in 1869. In the introduction, he states that ‘the object of debarring woman from political life and from lucrative occupations seems to be to perpetuate their subordination in domestic life’ (Mill, Subjection, 12). With respect to female suffrage in particular, he claims that [p]ersons who could not themselves conduct the government may have the right to choose governors. Voting is a means of self-protection; and whatever securities are needed in the case of men to prevent a misuse of the ballot, would prevent women from misusing it. And where the interests of women differ from those of men, women especially require the suffrage as a guarantee to just consideration. (Mill, Subjection, 12)
unmarried women and widows on the same conditions on which it is, or may be, granted to men’ (Rendall, 133). The committee failed to achieve much. In 1867, Mill aimed to introduce amendments to the above mentioned Reform Act by including women as well. In a speech in front of the House of Commons on May 20 he put forward to substitute ‘man’ for ‘person’ on the grounds that [i]t is not only the general principles of justice that are infringed, or at least set aside, by the exclusion of women, merely as women, from any share in the representation; that exclusion is also repugnant to the particular principles of the British Constitution. It violates one of the oldest and most cherished principles of the constitutional maxims […] that taxation and representation should be co-exertive. (Mill, Speeches, 252)13 His proposal, however, did not appeal to the majority of voters.
2.2.2. The Rise of the Suffragists Even though political changes did not take place on the broader national level, women became increasingly involved in communal politics and public representation. In 1869, all female ratepayers in England and Wales were permitted to vote municipally following the Municipal Franchise Act, a right that was later narrowed to unmarried female ratepayers. One year later, the creation of school boards followed, which allowed female candidates.14 Lewis argues that women’s involvement in school boards and local politics was rather influenced by their wish to do philanthropic work than by feminist motivations.15 She argues that female school board members took special interest in the girls’ curriculum and tended to support the study of domestic subjects. In a similar way, ‘local politics were considered to be an extension of philanthropic work, and were seen as an extension of women’s domestic sphere’ (Lewis, Women in England, 94).
Nevertheless, the ‘appeal of the women’s suffrage movement increased in the aftermath of the Reform Act, and a form of national organisation was soon For the complete speech, see: Mill, Public and Parliamentary Speeches: Vol I, 151-162.
Cf. Gleadle, 157.
Cf. Lewis, Women in England, 94f.
- 10 adopted’ (Rendall, 139). In the 1870s the first local women’s Liberal Associations were formed. By 1887, there were over 40 such associations all over the country, generally referred to as the ‘Women’s Liberal Federation’. The fight for women’s right to vote soon emerged as the unifying policy of these groups.16 Almost from its beginnings, however, the women’s suffrage movement was not always in unison as there existed conflicts between groups in various cities due to different political attitudes and varying strategies as to how the vote could be obtained. The founding of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) under the leadership of Millicent Garrett Fawcett in 1897, then, ‘finally provided a central umbrella for campaigns, though it did not heal fundamental political differences’ (Rendall, 157). This unity did not last for long either. In 1903, a group of some members split from the NUWSS, as they were increasingly disappointed by its lack of achieving much through their tactics of reasoned argument and persuasion. Under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst, they founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and adopting the slogan ‘Deeds, not words’, they soon began to be known for a more active kind of campaigning.
Even though from the 1890s onwards, support for female enfranchisement began to grow and was taken more seriously by press and Parliament than before,17 the suffragists were constantly faced by opposition on various levels and the arguments brought against any female involvement in politics were manifold. As Lewis points out, [u]nderlying the suffrage struggle was a set of attitudes which dictated that women’s natural sphere was the home, that their full development came only with motherhood and that a ‘womanly woman’ would not be interested in politics. (Lewis, Women in England, 97) The arguments of the anti-suffragists drew largely on the ideology of separate spheres, which did not only imply that women would not be interested in the vote, but also that it would confuse ‘the proper boundaries of masculine and feminine, public and private, domestic and political’ (Tickner, 154). Consequently, the harmonious social order would be subverted and the effects on family life would be disastrous as women would neglect their highest duty of maternity.18
Therefore, it does not seem surprising that ‘[a]mbitious politicians had no wish to struggle for a cause whose advocacy laid them open to charges of frivolity or crankiness’ (Rubinstein, 142).
2.2.3. The Rise of the Suffragettes As all the suffragists’ appeals remained without effect, especially the members of the WUSP began to employ more drastic and militant measures by 1905. It is, important to note that not all women who wanted the right to vote supported these strategies. The more militant fraction became to be known as ‘suffragettes’ whereas the more law-abiding section remained to be called ‘suffragists’.19 The unusual behaviour of the former naturally raised more public awareness, and as a result ‘they drew public attention to the whole question to a degree which had never been known before’ (Blease, 250). At first, some of these militant suffragettes only interrupted political meetings by loudly uttering their indignation from the gallery in the House of Commons.20 The campaigns for female enfranchisement increased in the years to follow. In 1907, the first big public demonstration in London was organised. About 3,000 women took part in this procession, and as Strachey points out, they marched with ‘hearts in which enthusiasm struggled successfully with propriety’ (Strachey, 307), as they also had a sense of public shame and a fear of losing their reputations.
Moreover, suffragettes began to chain themselves to the railings in Downing Street or the statue in the lobby of the House of Commons, they attempted to raid Parliament, were arrested for obstruction, and threw stones at shop fronts in Regent Street and at public buildings.21 Once in prison, some militants drew public attention to themselves by going on hunger strikes. Again, most of these active acts of militancy were condemned by a large number of those who were normally in favour of women’s suffrage. In 1910, a positive sign from the Government’s side was perceived. There was talk of women’s suffrage and serious parliamentary efforts were made by the Liberal Government. An all-party committee of members, known as the Conciliation Committee, was put together and drafted a Cf. Strachey, 302.
Cf. Strachey, 298f.
Cf. Strachey, 311ff.
- 12 bill that was by and large supported by all sections.22 Six months of intense propaganda on the side of all supporters of female suffrage followed with huge processions and meetings, and the rejection of any form of militancy to ensure that the bill received every chance. Their endeavours remained without success once more. As a result, the suffragettes turned to militant tactics again. Mrs Pankhurst’s society received numerous and generous donations, but, as Roy Strachey argues,
the militant movement began to lose its importance:
The Press and the public had grown tired of the news of “outrages,” and even when these became more serious in character they attracted comparatively little attention. […] What people wanted to know now was how the matter actually stood, what the Government would do, and what the real prospects were; and the question of methods, which had once been so interesting, faded into insignificance. (Strachey, 327) As another Reform Bill proposal was rejected in 1912, righteous anger began to grow among the constitutional societies and especially within the militant circles.
The general attention of the feminists’ course was especially attracted through a tragic incident at the Epsom Derby: Emily Wilding Davison, one of the militant suffragettes, threw herself in front of a racing horse and got killed.23 More demonstrations followed, but the Government’s attitude towards female suffrage remained unaltered, which inspired hope within the feminists for the next election.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought all campaigns to a sudden end: any political activities by the suffragists were suspended and any militant actions by the suffragettes were instantaneously stopped.24 During the war, however, the role of women in society gradually began to change. In their ambition to help, women from every layer of society not only worked in the nursing service, but, after receiving some training, also successfully took on ‘men’s jobs.’25 Consequently, [t]he Women’s Movement, indeed, was gaining support by the results of the new experiences, and women themselves were learning to look upon their value in the world in a new light, but no one had time or thought to spare to translate these things into legislation. (Strachey, 350)