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?

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