Researching the life of Millicent Fawcett , founder of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage, I was shocked to read that there was an Anti-Suffragist movement:
Women and men were opposed the suffrage movement for a variety of reasons and by various means. Numerous opinion polls throughout the suffrage campaign continued to find the majority of women not wanting a vote. Some women’s commitment to this belief led to their active involvement in anti-suffrage campaigning. Others were hampered by their belief in women’s separate sphere of influence from a direct involvement in a political campaign and were relatively passive in support of their cause.
The bedrock of the anti-suffrage movement was an appeal to women’s femininity and the ‘natural order’. Suffragettes supposedly fell foul of the ‘norm’ and engaged in ‘unladylike’ and public activities. They were presented as women who had failed to reach the ultimate female goal in life of marriage and motherhood. They were depicted as bitter spinsters and caricatured as masculine, plain and ‘unnatural’. Their presence also apparently ‘feminized’ men, too. To the Anti-Suffragist movement the suffragette represented a figure outside of the order of society; they supposedly lacked ‘womanliness’; were seen to be sexually repressed; and were even against ‘God’s order’.
They resisted any proposal to admit women to the parliamentary franchise and to Parliament but still wanted women to be represented on committees concerned with the domestic and social affairs of the community.
Many anti-suffragists spoke in public about their role in society, wrote articles in newspapers and campaigned for those causes which they thought suitable for women.
In 1912 Violet Markham wrote:
We believe that men and women are different – not similar – beings, with talents that are complementary, not identical, and that they therefore ought to have different shares in the management of the State, that they severally compose. We do not depreciate by one jot or tittle women’s work and mission. We are concerned to find proper channels of expression for that work. We seek a fruitful diversity of political function, not a stultifying uniformity.
Anti-suffragists saw women’s role as concentrating on womanly duty, a maternal role and the exercise influence and reform through other means – through the example of her behaviour, service and gentle influence on men for the good.
Yet some prominent anti-suffragist writers included women committed to the extension of women’s rights in other areas like Elizabeth Wordsworth, Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, the Oxford women’s college or Florence Bell, playwright and friend and collaborator with suffragist and social campaigner Elizabeth Robins. Often anti-suffrage campaigners combined an involvement in social action with their anti-suffrage views, their actions based on a belief in women’s distinctive role in doing good works and helping the disadvantaged.
The move for women to have the vote had really started in 1897 when Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage.
Millicent Fawcett believed in peaceful protest. She felt that any violence or trouble would persuade men that women could not be trusted to have the right to vote. Her game plan was patience and logical arguments. Fawcett argued that women could hold responsible posts in society such as sitting on school boards yet were not trusted to vote; she argued that if parliament made laws and if women had to obey those laws, then women should be part of the process of making those laws; she argued that as women had to pay taxes as men, they should have the same rights as men
And one of her most powerful arguments was that wealthy mistresses of large manors and estates employed gardeners, workmen and labourers who could vote……..but the women could not regardless of their wealth…..
Dame Millicett’s legacy continues today through the women’s rights charity, the Fawcett Society.
Welcoming the announcement, chief executive Sam Smethers called it a, “fitting tribute. Her contribution was great but she has been overlooked and unrecognised until now. By honouring her we also honour the wider suffrage movement.”
At the age of 19, she organised signatures for the first petition for women’s suffrage, though she was too young to sign it herself. She became President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (the NUWSS) from 1907-19. With 50,000 members it was the largest organisation agitating for female suffrage at the time. Her powerful and peaceful mass campaign was instrumental in securing the first extension of voting rights for women in 1918.
Millicent worked alongside the Suffragettes, who employed different, and more militant tactics in their campaign. From the beginning, Millicent took an interest in women’s empowerment in its broadest sense; the suffragette colours were green, white and violet which stood for Give Women Votes. The suffragist colours, by contrast, reflected their broader movement: green, white and red or Give Women Rights.
In 1913 she was awarded a brooch engraved with “For Steadfastness and Courage”, which The Fawcett Society till has today. Millicent Fawcett died in 1929, a year after women were finally given equal voting rights. Her work has continued ever since, with The London Society for Women’s Suffrage renamed as The Fawcett Society in her honour in 1953.
2018 marks 100 years since women first secured the right to vote, and Millicent Fawcett will be making history again. She’ll become the first woman commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square– a landmark moment for the wider suffrage movement, and for women everywhere.
She went on to lead the constitutional suffrage campaign and made this cause her lifetime’s work, securing equal voting rights 62 years later. Today The Fawcett Society continues her legacy of fighting sexism and gender inequality, the belief being that no one should be prevented from reaching their full potential because of their gender.
The Fawcett Society campaigns to:
Close the gender pay gap. Secure equal power. Challenge attitudes and change minds. Defend women’s rights post-Brexit. There must be no turning the clock back.
THEIR VISION: A society in which the choices you can make and the control you have over your life are no longer determined by your gender.
THEIR MISSION: We publish compelling research to educate, inform and lead the debate. We bring together politicians, academics, grassroots activists and wider civil society to develop innovative, practical solutions
They campaign with women and men to make change happen.