Women and the suffrage

This month in our Women's section we are publishing an article on the history of the struggle of women to win the right to vote. Barbara Humphries looks at this history and how it relates to the development of the class struggle.

The earlier years of the 20th century in Britain saw a concerted campaign for the right to vote for women. The Women's Social and Political Union, otherwise known as the suffragettes, was founded in 1903 by the Pankhurst family. At this time women had gained the vote in other countries such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand.

The campaign for the right to vote for women between 1905 and 1914 became increasingly militant as women were prepared to take direct action, such as disruption of meetings, chaining themselves to railings outside 10 Downing Street, smashing windows and rioting. At one stage the prime minister's country house was firebombed.

As a result of this many suffragettes found themselves inside Holloway Prison where they resorted to hunger strikes. The prison authorities responded with forcible feeding. When there was an outcry about this, the Liberal government introduced the Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed women on hunger strike to be released, only to be arrested again at a later stage. (Like a cat which torments a mouse by letting it go and then catching it again). Officially known as the Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act, this was passed in 1913.

The women who founded the suffragette movement were largely middle class. Their concern was about having equality with men. There had been gains for this class of women during the course of the 19th century. Women were admitted to London University in 1848 and to medical schools in 1870. In 1882 the Married Women's Property Act allowed women to own and administer their own property. In 1894 the Local Government Act allowed propertied women to vote for local parish councils. In 1897 the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was formed from existing suffrage groups, led by Mrs Fawcett.

Women and the bourgeois revolution

The suffragette movement however was to gain the support of working class women. This movement was not the beginning of women's involvement in politics. Revolutionary movements going back to the 17th century had attracted the support of women. Both the English and the French Revolutions attracted female support.

In the French Revolution the Third Estate, which was against the old feudal order, was itself divided into two classes which spoke for the whole of society, property owners and capitalists and those who did not own property such as artisans. The interests of these two classes coincided in that they supported the demands of the revolution. Whilst the property owners wanted political power, liberalisation of the economy by abolishing the powers of the clergy and the nobility, a united system of customs and a free market by the abolition of trades guilds, the dispossessed struggled for their basic rights and were even more radical.

Women of both classes were uncompromising fighters for the revolution as they had the least to lose. Whilst bourgeois women struggled for equal educational opportunities, equal political rights and access to the professions in order to gain their independence and improve their social position, for the hungry and impoverished peasants, artisans and unemployed beggars it was a struggle to feed their families without resorting to prostitution under the conditions which the aristocracy had imposed upon them. They shared the same class interests as those of the "fourth estate", those with no or little property.

A women's movement in the modern sense arose during the French Revolution as women joined clubs and discussion circles and stood at the forefront of the revolution. Women led by artisan Rose Lacombe marched, demanding bread, to the King at Versailles and in Paris. Rose joined the Jacobin Club in 1793, the most radical wing of the revolutionary movement in France. She co-founded the Club of Revolutionary Women, which was to represent the interests of working class women. She demanded no special rights for women, separate from the working class as a whole. Women like her were held up as national heroines, but to the royalist press and the bourgeois, however these women were laughable, "wild furies".

One of the more bourgeois women's leaders, Olympe de Gouges, petitioned the queen of France on the unequal distribution of property between men and women. She drew up a Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizens calling for full political, legal and economic equality for men and women. The French Revolution declared for the rights of man, so why not for the rights of women as well? Although Olympe de Gouges did not pose a threat to property rights, she was going too far for the men of her class and she was executed in 1793. After the defeat of the radical wing of the revolution in 1794 the hopes of women in revolutionary France were temporarily dashed as the government passed a law enforcing women's main role in the home and the rearing of children.

The women's movement has mirrored the ebbs and flows of the movement for change in society. There have been times when women's rights have been pushed on to the agenda, followed by times of stark reaction. Revolutions have always brought opportunity and achievement. Even the active participation of women in politics is itself a revolutionary achievement. Women were to play an important role in the revolutions in 1848 in continental Europe.

In Germany one of the founders of the women's movement, Luise Otto-Peters said in 1847, "When the time comes the voice of women will be heard. It will be a struggle of our time, like nothing we have seen before." She organised the Allgemeine Deutschen Frauenverein (Organisation of German Women). Their demands were mainly for political freedom, the right to education and to work and economic independence, and also the right to vote. After the defeat of the revolution and during the time of reaction in Germany women retreated from politics, their newspapers censored and their societies banned. The women's movement in Germany was largely organised by bourgeois women, but it attracted support from working class women.

In the Paris Commune, an uprising of the Parisian people in 1871, which Marx and Engels described as the first example of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", councils of action were set up in which women played an important part. Political equality for women was achieved. After the defeat of the Commune however, the French army launched a brutal assault and more than 36,000 men and women were killed.

Women and the 19th century radical movement in Britain

Revolutionary movements on the continent inspired radical and revolutionary movements across the Channel in Britain at the beginning of the 19th century. The aims of organisations like the London Corresponding Society were those of political reform. Like the movements in France they represented the interests of the people against "Old Corruption", the landed and rotten establishment. One of the prime demands was for the extension of the franchise. At the time of the 1832 Reform Act, in spite of having a Parliament, only a very small proportion of the population in Britain had the right to vote. That is why the radical and later women's movement in Britain regarded the extension of the franchise as a high priority. This was less the case on the continent where periods of revolution were interspersed with periods of reaction when no-one had the right to vote!

Women were involved in Britain from an early stage in the political reform societies and other organisations of the working class. In the early years of the 19th century political reform societies campaigned for universal suffrage, supported by Female Reform Societies. Even when the right to vote for women was not raised, as a separate issue, women were drawn into the movement in protest against the living conditions which they faced. They attended demonstrations as at St Petersfield, Manchester in 1819, where many demonstrators were killed and injured by the army. Female political activism raised fears amongst the establishment. "Petticoat reformers" as they were called, were attacked by the wealthy as being "degraded females" guilty of the worst prostitution of the sex, the prostitution of the heart, deserting their station and putting off the sacred characters of wife and mother for turbulent vices of sedition and impiety." One woman, a Mrs Wright, a Nottingham lacemaker was prosecuted for selling radical literature. She was thrown into Newgate prison with a 6 month old baby. She was accused "by her horrid example" of "destroying other mothers" and "being a monster in female form".

Women defended their political activity. A woman from Newcastle on Tyne Political Union denied that the province of women was in the home. She said "Is it not true that the interests of our fathers, husbands and brothers ought to be ours. If they are oppressed and impoverished do we not share these evils with them. If so ought we not to prevent the infliction of these wrongs on them?"

Women radicals recognised that they had common class interests with the rest of the working class.

Women were active in large numbers in the Chartist Movement although the demand for female suffrage did not form one of the six points of the Charter. Originally considered, it was dropped by the moderate leader of the Chartist movement William Lovett. Working class women participated in the Chartist movement because its political demands for universal suffrage for working class men, annual parliaments, payment of MPs, and its social aspirations were seen as representing the interests of the working class as a whole.

Women's suffrage and the labour movement

The late 19th and early 20th century saw the rebirth of the women's movement and also of the labour movement throughout Europe. How did these two movements view each other?

The Suffragette Movement in Britain began as a middle class movement but gained working class support. Middle class women wanted formal equality with their men and some were prepared to accept limited franchise, for instance the enfranchisement of property owners only. This alienated the labour movement at a time when many working class men did not have the vote. In 1911 only 7.5 million out of 45 million adults had the vote in Britain. A bill to extend the vote to some women was dubbed the "ladies' bill".

Working class women convinced the labour movement to support the campaign for the right to vote for women by stressing that it was a key to women's social emancipation. Selina Cooper of the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers Representation Committee said "[women] do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with the men. They want to use it for the same purpose as men, to get better conditions. Every woman in England is longing for her political freedom to make the lot of the worker pleasanter and to bring about reforms which are wanted. We do not want it as a mere plaything."

At the Trades Union Congress in 1894 Helen Silcock appealed for support for women's suffrage to achieve better conditions for women workers. She said "it is said that women are sufficiently protected by their husbands. I would point out that all women are not wives. There are in fact five million working women in this country who also have to earn their livelihood and some protection should be extended to them, so that by means of the vote they may assist in bringing about legislation which will enable them to live as well as exist."

There were differing points of view in the labour movement on this issue of women's suffrage. The old guard of the TUC like Applegarth opposed it. Support came from the ranks of the Independent Labour Party in 1891, and individuals such as Keir Hardie were particularly committed. Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst was herself an ILP member in Manchester..

The ILP made attempts to recruit women, involving itself in organising women workers. Blatchford, editor of the Clarion, took up the cause of working women, as did socialist organisations such as the Labour Church and Socialist Sunday Schools.

In 1900 when the Labour Party was formed it immediately adopted the principle of women's suffrage at 21 years of age. The record of the other main parties was abysmal. Between 1906-1914 no less than six private members' bills were introduced on the subject of women's suffrage and they were all defeated by the Liberals and Tories..

The suffragette movement, Women's Social and Political Union under the leadership of Christabel, Emmeline's daughter, alienated the labour movement with its classless approach and resort to violent tactics. Whatever the heroism of individuals who were prepared to go to gaol or throw themselves under horses at prestige events, as in the case of Emily Davidson who threw herself under the King's horse at the Derby, this was not seen as the way forward. The working women's suffrage campaign rejected these tactics and went its own way. Led by women such as Selina Cooper and Eva Gore-Booth it put a high emphasis on the right of women to work as well as to vote. The ILP called a demonstrations for women's suffrage.

The suffragette campaign was abandoned on "patriotic grounds" with the outbreak of war in 1914. But in London it was maintained by Sylvia Pankhurst, who launched the East London Federation. It linked the suffrage issue to the needs of working class women in the East End of London, campaigning on low wages, and shortage of housing.

The war was a watershed, as women were pulled out of the home and into the factories. These social changes affected women's lives dramatically. Finally, in 1919, the wartime coalition introduced the right to vote for women over 30, and this was probably motivated by the fear of socialist gains after 1918 and it was hoped that older women would vote for the Conservatives. The right to vote for women over 30 was seen as a cynical way of increasing the Conservative vote in the face of European wide revolution and massive social discontent at home. Labour had emerged after the war as the second strongest political party in Britain, to the concern of the ruling class.

Between 1919 and 1927 Labour introduced no less than four bills to give voting rights to women over 21, the same rights as men and they were all defeated or blocked by the Tories. When the Tory government finally brought in its own legislation in 1927, 12 Tories voted against and 135 were missing from the lobby. The right to vote for all women was not achieved until 1928. The campaign for universal suffrage in Britain had taken over 100 years.

Women and the Labour Party

In 1929 women were urged to vote for the party that had stood by their rights consistently. It has long been argued that women due to their exclusion from the workforce were more inclined to be politically conservative than men. This is a situation that is now changing as the majority of women work. However historically the Party attracted women members. In the 1930s women formed 50% of the membership of the Labour Party (a different situation to the socialist and social-democratic parties on the continent).

It seems that the Women's Co-operative Guild was instrumental in drawing these women into the party. The women's sections, which in those days met in the afternoons, also played a role. Women for instance collected money, clothes and food for miners' families in the 1926 general strike and organised soup kitchens for the Jarrow marchers. They were also involved in collecting aid for the Spanish socialists during the Spanish Civil War.

Women and Socialist Parties in Europe

In Germany and Austria the socialist movement adopted the cause of women's equality. The German Social Democratic Party in 1875 discussed the organisation of women. Women delegates attended the conference. This was in the face of the Prussian Law of Societies (Preussische Vereinsgesetz) introduced in 1850 and which remained in force politically until 1908. This law forbade women and school students from belonging to organisations which preached political opposition.

In 1891 Clara Zetkin founded the Social Democratic journal 'Equality' which became an important organ in the German women's movement. The Social Democratic Party incorporated the right to vote for everyone over the age of 20 regardless of sex in its Erfuhrt Programme. Many of the reformists saw this as enough; the right to vote would mean equality. The party also gave up actively campaigning for this and other demands. The Austrian Social Democratic Party until 1906 was restricting its programme to support the right to vote for men.

Different tactics on this issue were discussed within the Socialist International. The English comrades were prepared to support limited extension of the vote to women, as a step in the right direction. The Austrian comrades, Adelheid Popp and some of the Germans, such as Lilly Braun, did not want the issue of women's suffrage raised as a separate issue. They completely opposed separate women's movements. Both these positions accepted the reformist practice that one foot in the door would lead to your full goals being achieved. The English comrades in particular were criticised at the Stuttgart Congress in 1907 for their class treachery. Votes for middle class women alone would not help the cause of the working class.

Women continued to be active in the Socialist International. World War One split the women's movement as it had the International as a whole. The revolutionaries continued to believe in the overthrow of capitalism and socialist revolution as the only way to achieve equality between the sexes. Also they saw that conditions in war torn Europe would inevitably lead to revolution. The mood of jingoism would not last for ever. Women whose lives had been changed out of recognition during World War One would form an important part of the movement for change at the end of it. Their demands would be heard in the revolutionary movements which swept Europe at the end of the first world war.

In Germany and Austria workers' and soldiers' councils were set up as in Russia. The membership of these councils in 1919 in Germany comprised one fifth women. The number of women in trades unions grew from 1913 to 1919 by 349%. Social Democrats in government in Germany and Austria introduced far reaching reforms to try to control this movement. These included the eight hour day, health insurance and votes for women. Revolution achieved in months what years of campaigning had failed to achieve in Britain. Similarly in revolutionary Russia in 1917 formal equality between the sexes was being introduced - equal pay, rights to education, legalisation of divorce and separation, abolition of the dowry system and the abolition of illegitimacy.


In conclusion the right to vote for women was a drawn out struggle in all countries. Class interests in all cases cut across the demands of women, with bourgeois women wanting formal equality with their men, whilst working class women saw the right to vote as the key to better living conditions for the working class as a whole, including working class women. This was true of universal suffrage as a whole.

The vision of the Chartists, one of the first working class movements in Europe, was that the Charter would "bring us bread, beef and beer". The vote was not an end in itself, but the means to an end, that of social justice and political power. That is why it was resisted by the ruling class and why in many countries it was only achieved by revolutionary means.

Barbara Humphries,


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