The study of women who opposed female enfranchisement in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Britain has been neglected by historians. Anti-democratic and hostile to the labour movement of their day, they were ridiculed as absurd by supporters of the parliamentary vote for women. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Julia Bush in this scholarly but readable book sets out not to mock but to explore why women participated in organised anti-suffragism.
It is suggested that the anti-suffrage women leaders may be divided into three loose and overlapping groupings - the maternal reformers, the women writers and the imperialist ladies. Although there was a diversity of view, most of the leading women drew their enthusiasm from deeply rooted convictions about womanhood, the nation and empire. It was almost universally assumed that differences between the sexes were natural, and that any major departure from women's role as wives and mothers would bring social chaos to Britain and the Empire.
Nonetheless, women's growing involvement in local government philanthropic work was welcomed because it was seen as an extension of motherly concern. Similarly, working alongside men was embraced since the idea of a sex war was anathema. Inevitably, the business of the British Houses of Parliament was believed to belong to the male sphere of politics, just as the defence of the realm depended on masculine physical force.
It was from the maternal reformers in particular that the most important female anti-suffragist leaders were drawn - Mary Ward, Louise Creighton, Ethel Harrison, Elizabeth Wordsworth and Lucy Soulsby, all with strong Oxford connections. While Harrison, a positivist, was the most hostile to suffragism, others were moderate, some progressive and a few willing to change sides. The upper-middle-class Creighton, drawn to social service through her Anglicanism and status as a clerical wife (her husband would become Bishop of London) is a case in point. As her family grew up, she broadened her activities from the Mothers' Union into organisations concerned with rescue work, settlements, missionary work and education. Her friendships broadened too and included moderate suffragists, such as Kathleen Lyttelton. For many years, both shared similar interests while taking opposing views on votes for women until, in 1906, Creighton became a suffragist. Such friendships illustrate how the ideological differences between the two camps were not as rigid as many historians have assumed.
The Women's National Anti-Suffrage League, formed in 1908, had about 42,000 members before it joined, two years later, the predominantly male National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. The merger created tensions, especially for leading female figures who jostled for position with men such as Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon. When the First World War broke out and a large number of women took up war work, the anti-suffrage cause was fatally weakened. After certain categories of women over the age of 30 were granted the parliamentary vote in 1918, the National League approved its own demise.
Women against the Vote is an illuminating, well-crafted study that restores to history the conservative dimensions of female political activism in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. It also reveals fascinating threads between opponents and supporters of female suffrage in all their complexity.
Women against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain
By Julia Bush
Oxford University Press
Published 4 October 2007