Less than Perfectly Submissive

Susan Pedersen

  • Women against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain by Julia Bush
    Oxford, 340 pp, £35.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 924877 3

Poor Lord Cromer. The great imperial proconsul returned to England in 1907 after more than two decades governing Egypt to find his homeland awash with suffragists and socialists, Irish nationalists and trade unionists. The swelling women’s suffrage movement especially appalled him. Few things were more likely to undermine the British Empire, he was convinced, than the entry of women into the Westminster Parliament. Someone had to stop them, and Cromer, accustomed to decisive action, thought he was the man. He raised the money and the troops, enlisted Lord Curzon (conveniently back from ruling India) as second-in-command, and planned the campaign – but in the end the women proved too much for him. ‘I am physically incapable of doing eternal battle with all these rampaging women,’ he wrote despairingly to Curzon in 1912.

What makes this story so perversely delightful is that Cromer’s female tormenters weren’t the stone-throwing, hunger-striking suffragettes – those ‘female howling dervishes’ (as Curzon put it) whose atrocities bred opponents to their cause. Nor were they the pragmatic constitutional suffragists, with their reasoned arguments and armies of canvassers. They were, rather, the ‘antis’: the regiment of women who, sharing Cromer’s adamantine opposition to the female vote, had dissolved their own single-sex anti-suffrage organisation and in 1910 enlisted in the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage under his command.

Just why Cromer imagined a mixed-sex political organisation to be the best weapon with which to defend the cause of exclusive masculine rule rather eludes me. Perhaps he thought he could best keep the women under control that way; perhaps he hoped (as some of his female allies did) that the new organisation would combat ‘sex-antagonism’ by offering a model of harmonious cross-sex collaboration. If so, he was wrong. For two years, Cromer was embroiled in arguments about the respective number of seats to be granted each sex on the league’s executive, or the hierarchy of the male and female office workers at its Caxton House headquarters. By 1912 he had had enough. ‘If anybody wants to be convinced of the disastrous consequences which would ensue from allowing us to be governed by women,’ he wrote bitterly to Curzon, ‘he need only go through the experience which I have had recently, not so much with our opponents as with our friends.’

His brother imperialist stepped manfully into his shoes. Curzon disciplined the troops at Caxton House and chased some of the female leadership into the shadows, but he, too, found anti-suffrage women less than perfectly submissive. Party divisions, bad parliamentary timing, prime ministerial opposition and the adverse effects of escalating militancy ruined suffrage’s prospects in the years immediately before the war, but when the issue re-emerged in 1916, its male and female opponents still could not get along. Curzon, convinced the cause was lost and accustomed to backroom deals, declined to lead a last-ditch battle in the Lords and pragmatically abstained on the vote itself – at which point his female allies publicly censured him. Anti-suffrage women went down to defeat denouncing their pusillanimous leader and unreconciled to their new role as voters.

How can we understand these women’s passionate attachment to their own political exclusion? True, some of the overstretched working women of today, rushing to make it to the polls before doing the shopping and picking up the kids, might feel a sneaking admiration for such implacable refusniks, and a temptation to declare that they too would let the men make (and listen to) the speeches while they did a little light gardening and put their feet up. But fantasies of this sort quickly pass and, in any case, the Victorian and Edwardian ‘antis’ were far from being advocates of what Marx’s indolent son-in-law Paul Lafargue called ‘the right to be lazy’. Anyone hoping to uncover a hidden history of female hedonism will have to look elsewhere. The antis thought women should work from dawn till dusk for the public weal – but without the tools men had to hand. Why?

Julia Bush’s earnest new book only partly answers this question. The anti-suffragists, she tells us, were much like their suffragist opponents: serious, high-minded, committed to a range of worthy causes, often possessed of advanced views about the need for greater representation of women in local government and civic affairs. In their own way, they were almost feminist. Their opposition to women’s enfranchisement rested on a ßjudgment that, on balance, women would exercise more real power by building up their own sphere of influence in civic organisations and local government than by playing an inevitably subsidiary role in a Parliament absorbed in imperial questions and dominated by men.

An argument like this makes a kind of sense, especially for the last decades of the Victorian era, when so much social policy was handled locally and through civic organisations. By 1893, half a million women were thought to be working ‘continuously and semi-professionally’ for invalid children’s societies, boys’ and girls’ clubs, settlement houses, religious charities, and the hundreds of other worthy causes active in every decent-sized provincial town. Local government had opened its doors, with female ratepayers voting in school and poor-law board elections. A growing number of women were also being elected to those bodies, usually as ‘independents’. There was a campaign for the parliamentary franchise in those years, but it was small and could well have seemed a distraction, especially if it threatened to drag women into that swamp of party bickering and competition that civic-minded women usually tried hard to avoid.

This at least was the view of Mrs Humphry Ward. Early in 1889, hearing that ‘that scoundrel Salisbury’ (as the positivist Frederic Harrison called him) was weighing the advantages of enfranchising a small slice of propertied (and presumably Conservative) women, Ward teamed up with her old friend Louise Creighton to respond. Their ‘Appeal against Women’s Suffrage’, which appeared over the signatures of 104 prominent women in the June issue of the Nineteenth Century, stopped Salisbury in his tracks. Such a reform, the ‘Appeal’ argued, was not only precipitate, since the last instalment of male electors hadn’t yet been ‘trained’ to use their votes, but was undesired, unnecessary and dangerous. Gender made a difference to politics, Ward and Creighton insisted, and since Britain’s world power rested in the first instance on the ‘male’ quality of physical force, the body dealing with imperial and military questions must remain the preserve of men. In the expanding spheres of social work and local government, women had already found a rich field for their talents. True, more imperial consorts and titled wives than civic reformers appeared to find this argument persuasive (as Millicent Garrett Fawcett tartly remarked in the next issue), but the signatures of Beatrice Webb and the coterie of Oxford women who had been instrumental in founding Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall must have given suffragists pause.

For a time, then, and as Bush implies, the suffrage battle was less a ‘sex war’ than an argument among women – and one that did not divide neatly along progressive v. reactionary lines. Busy running settlement houses and voluntary societies, plenty of reform-minded women could agree to disagree about the parliamentary vote. So even though most women active in, say, the National Union of Women Workers or the Women’s Local Government Society probably supported the suffrage cause, both organisations remained officially neutral, and the enormous women’s religious and imperial organisations (the 300,000-strong Mothers’ Union, the Girls’ Friendly Society, the YWCA, the Victoria League) also studiously avoided the question.

But once Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney had braved arrest to shout out their demand for the vote, the era of well-bred disagreement was over. After 1905, women’s suffrage became a mass movement, able to mobilise hundreds of branches, thousands of activists, and tens of thousands of pounds. The women’s colleges and settlements were now hotbeds of suffragism, and in 1909 Mrs Humphry Ward lost a suffrage debate to Mrs Fawcett at her own Passmore Edwards Settlement by a humiliating 235 votes to 74. Old agreements to remain uncommitted broke down, with the NUWW moving towards formal support for the cause and vibrant suffrage organisations in both the Liberal and Conservative parties. The ‘progressive’ case against the vote weakened too: after Lloyd George and other ‘new liberals’ began attacking poverty and ill-health through national programmes, the claim that women had enough scope in the voluntary sector rang hollow. Some of the more socially committed ‘antis’ defected, with Beatrice Webb and Ward’s old comrade-in-arms Louise Creighton advertising their change of heart in 1906 in well-publicised letters to the Times.

But the defections were off-set by new recruits: as militancy spread, anti-suffragism’s female battalions increased. In 1908, Ward and other ‘antis’ founded the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, turning female anti-suffragism, like suffragism, into a fully-fledged political movement – with a national leadership, local branches, paid staff, a house newspaper and parliamentary spokesmen. Indeed, perversely, anti-suffragism served as a tool of women’s political emancipation, with two of the most successful women politicians of the interwar years (the long-serving Conservative MP the Duchess of Atholl and the employment expert Violet Markham) serving their apprenticeship in its ranks. By 1914, Bush says, the League had more than forty thousand subscribing members, many of whom had played no previous role in political life.

Clearly, more than pragmatism and a dedication to voluntary effort spurred these women on. Their vehemence, rather, was a mark of just how much they had to lose. The geography of anti-suffragism, Bush shows, often mapped onto wealth and social conservatism, with branches of the Anti-Suffrage League more likely to be found in Kensington or Chelsea than in industrial towns or the progressive North. Its leaders tended to head up women’s imperial organisations as well, and to be linked by birth and marriage to the imperial governing class. Add to this that the anti-suffragists were on average older than their opponents and much more likely to be married, and you begin to appreciate the incomprehension and antagonism with which some women viewed suffrage activists. Anti-suffragist women had a stake – and a large one – in a conservative gender order, and they looked askance at the antics of a generation seemingly eager to trample conventional female privileges and values in the mud.

It wasn’t just the imperial and social order that the antis thought was imperilled by women’s suffrage; it also undermined women’s true authority. Women would lose from formal equality, the antis insisted, since it was through self-abnegation and moral guidance that they most effectively exercised power. ‘We hold that it is through the faithful fulfilment of duty, through service, not self-assertion, that woman will arrive at a true conception of her place in the body politic,’ Violet Markham argued in a key speech at a huge 1912 meeting in the Albert Hall. Womanly sacrifice aroused male chivalry and protection; direct female competition, by contrast, made men effeminate or even brutal. ‘This army of spoilt and damaged women’, Ethel Colquhoun warned, was contributing to ‘the degeneracy of men’: ‘Women must refrain from awakening the sleeping savage in man.’ A low opinion of men’s character and self-control often lurked behind anti-suffrage rhetoric. ‘I regard women as superior to men,’ Markham told her Albert Hall audience, ‘and therefore I don’t like to see them trying to become men’s equals.’

The problem was that their opponents could play this rhetorical game too, and when it came to competitive self-abnegation, no one could out-perform the militants. The true brilliance of the suffragette movement lay in the way it appropriated the most conservative and punitive gender ideals for feminist ends. Raised to see self-assertion as selfishness, Edwardian young women had great difficulty making self-interested claims: they could, however, court danger and arrest, go on hunger strike and suffer, for a greater good and a higher cause.

Suffragettes outdid one another (and far outdid the antis) in theatrical self-sacrifice – and, as the Pankhursts were quick to realise, their photogenic suffering had a huge impact. The militant movement lost support only when its adherents began attacking property and other people; so long as women turned their violence against themselves, the public was with them. When Lady Constance Lytton disguised herself as a seamstress in order to expose class discrimination in the way prisoners were treated (as ‘Jane Warton’ she was force-fed), or Sylvia Pankhurst printed the image of her own emaciated body under the banner headline ‘Is she to die?’, suffragettes were tapping a potent female tradition of using bodily suffering as a source of power. Anti-suffragists and constitutionalists might deplore their extremism, but martyrs don’t need to win arguments. The militant slogan was after all ‘Deeds Not Words’.

In the last years before the war, the militants moved from symbolic disruption to arson, shedding supporters as they went. The war put the final nail in their coffin. With munitions girls in overalls and Land Army girls in breeches, the iconography of militancy – all those columns of women in virginal white – looked quaint and dated. Worse, with daily casualty figures in the thousands, militant claims about male brutality and female suffering were not just unpersuasive but indecent. But the demise of the militants did nothing to rescue the antis. Mass mobilisation in a total war had brought a million extra young women into the workforce, persuading Markham – the smartest of the younger antis – that it was wrong to leave such women voteless. ‘The man as worker, the woman as homemaker remains my ideal of society. But in this difficult world one has to take facts as they are,’ she wrote apologetically to Lord Cromer. ‘Little though I like it, women are going to play an ever larger part in industry and public life.’

Without her best ally and soon betrayed by her male collaborators, Mrs Humphry Ward mounted a last-ditch campaign almost on her own. But ‘Ma Hump’ (as Max Beerbohm and his clever young friends called her) was in her sixties by then, and had long since become a byword for everything that was mawkish, old-fashioned and faintly embarrassing. Mary Ward had tried to live out her beliefs about separate spheres, using her massive literary earnings to subsidise her husband’s dubious art collecting and raising her children in the expectation that they would, as men and women, have distinct duties and roles. One daughter reacted by becoming a suffragist, the other remained her mother’s faithful shadow; neither, however, received the care, education or attention lavished on the beloved son. Ward gave Arnold the best possible schooling, bought him a commission and finagled him a House of Commons seat, only to see him squander his talents and become a figure of ridicule. There is something at once fitting and upsetting about the spectacle of Arnold Ward holding forth about the dangers of women’s suffrage to an inattentive House while, a few miles away, his mother made arrangements to sell off her houses and possessions to clear his monumental gambling debts.

Julia Bush has written this book to restore the anti-suffragists to the mainstream of women’s history. Suffragists and anti-suffragists, she argues, shared considerable ‘common ground’, agreeing on the need for women to involve themselves in social work and local government, as well as on the limitations of a Parliament dominated largely by men. Anti-suffrage women, she points out, ‘warned that parliamentary politics meant politics on men’s terms’, and she claims (wrongly, in my view) that the record of the interwar years shows their warnings to have been ‘very largely’ justified. Partisan and parliamentary politics proved to be ‘no substitute for the ongoing work of a long established and largely non-political women’s movement’ – a claim no suffragist would dispute, but one she would certainly amplify by pointing out that those two strategies were not incompatible.

More worryingly, in attending to the shared civic ideals of the suffragists and antis, Bush overlooks their other shared trait, the troubling attraction to the trope of female sacrifice. Watching Ward punish her daughters and the Pankhursts punish their bodies, it is hard not to be struck by the perverse forms self-assertion must take in a culture so devoted to ideals of womanly self-abnegation. After reading this book, and after revisiting John Sutherland’s biography of Mrs Humphry Ward, I felt the need to remind myself of John Stuart Mill’s incisive argument for women’s emancipation. Mill was as certain as the next suffragist that gender equality would make politics cleaner and manners more gentle, but he also insisted that this was not the heart of the matter. Whatever the social benefits, he wrote in The Subjection of Women, ‘it would be a grievous understatement of the case to omit the most direct benefit of all, the unspeakable gain in private happiness to the liberated half of the species; the difference to them between a life of subjection to the will of others, and a life of rational freedom.’ Perhaps the victory of the anti-suffrage movement lay not in delaying the female vote – which was granted at roughly the same moment in most Western Protestant countries – but rather in forcing feminists, again and again, to argue their case not on the basis of justice but in the treacly language of duty and sacrifice.