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The Changing Position of Women and the Suffrage Question Essay Sample

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The Changing Position of Women and the Suffrage Question Essay Sample

Women’s role in society was domestic, they were seen as intrinsically weak, passive and ‘delicate’ creatures who must be protected from the outside world. Women were altruistic ‘guardians’ of the home.

Separate spheres

The ‘angel in the house’ reflected and perpetuated the notion of separate spheres. Public man, and private woman. Although initially the preserve of the middle class, it began to permeate the working class.

Unmarried women did not fit into the ‘angel of the house’ concept.

1851 – 29% of women over 20 were unmarried.

Changes in women’s personal lives


The male dominated, public sphere of education. With education, women could go on to challenge in the masculine world of professional work.

Previously, women who worked in the factory attended factory school (whatever that is?), whilst pauper children went to the workhouse. Apart from a small minority of women who attended small fee-paying schools run by older women or charity schools set up by religious groups. However, these tended to reinforce the ‘angel in the house concept’.

What was the situation?

Working class

1870- State schools started to be created. But girls were still taught ‘angel in the house’.

HOWEVER – Narrow curriculum and rigid teaching style, educated children based on a institutionalised sexist system. State schools, emphasised domestication, not education.

Middle Class

Educated to be wives and mothers of men from the same social class rather than to go out and work for a living.

1918 – Education made compulsory for ALL children up to age 13

By end of 19th century, 97% of kids could read and write.


Two labour markets – the working class and the middle class.

Working class – Despite, ongoing technological changes and apart from a brief interlude in WW1, domestic service was the most common for working-class women. Textile factory work second.


Growth of banking and commerce, combined with the subsequent inventions of the typewriter and telephone, new opportunities were created for the ‘white blouse’ worker.

Yet, despite trade union/government attempts to improve wages and working conditions, working class women remained at the bottom of the economic scale.

Middle class – single or married, women should remain at home, look after children and engage in charitable work. IF they were forced to work, then they worked as a governess.

Opening up the world of work to women: 1901-1930

Domestic service was looked upon favourably for working class women as it prepared them to lead lives as wives/mothers. It provided the security of food and shelter, but women were viewed as sex objects by the males and expected to remain single and childless.

1881 one in three girls aged 15-20 were employed in domestic service.

Technological innovation had a profound impact on job opportunities for women. Whilst the telephone and telegraph brought women into office work. – by 1914 the Post Office.

Whilst the rapid increase in shops provided new work opportunities for lower middle class women. The work was clean and required well presented, respectable women.

Government legislation

1867 Agricultural Gangs Act

Improved working conditions for women – all woman gangs under a female gang master.

1867 Workshops’ Regulation Act

Restricted working hours for children and child employees were to attend school for ten hours a week.

1874 Factory Act

Working age raised, and working day reduced for women and young people in textiles.

1866 Shop Hours Regulation Act

Hours of girls and boys working regulated.

1896 Factory Act

Banned employment of girls/boys under 11. Employers couldn’t hire women within 4 weeks of childbirth

1901 Factory Act

Raised working age to 12

1906-14 Shops Hours regulation Act

Max of 64 hours a week for shop work.

This legislation, indirectly improved the working conditions for women, whilst ensuring they achieved some education increased the possibilities to gain work in the top tiers of society. It challenged the perception of ‘angel in the house’ to some extent.

Working women and the Trade Unions

Women being paid less were seen as a threat to male employment as they could ‘undercut’ them. Trade Unions fought to achieve wage parity.

Women’s War Work and the Vote

The war brought women from all social classes into work – it was not still the preserve of those who were forced into it. Dispelling the ‘angel in the house’ ideology, men saw women at work – and they performed their roles as well, or better than the men before them. Women from all social backgrounds joined the Land Army, (WAACS), WRENS or WRAFS. These women were considered as part of the British Army and many others worked as nurses.

Women worked hard, long hours, many were killed in accidents and their experience in war work went a long way to dispel pre-conceived notions of the female sex. Additionally, middle/upper class women had their first taste of work. The public/private divide had been breached and the population was grateful of women’s war work role. Sympathy for their cries to have the vote increased.

Educating women and girls focuses on two key questions – how far did the education of women and girls improve between 1860 and 1930? And to what extent did education overturn the ideology of domesticity and ‘separate spheres’ philosophy.

Key Legislation…

1870 Elementary Education Act

More school places were provided – state schools were built. The Mundella’s Act 1890 made school attendance compulsory between 5-10 and in 1891 education in elemantry school was made free.

1902 Education Act

1,000 new grammar schools built by 1913

By 1914 ½ the places in grammar schools were filled with working class kids, half girls.

The Liberal Government of 1906-14

Introduced a range of reforms which indirectly impacted on girl’s education. Legislation that included free school meals for the poor, medical provision in schools and protected person’s status for children. – All offered girls a better chance at gaining an education.

Being educated was vital for girls to break into the male dominated ‘public’ world

Education for Middle Class Girls

A select few schools were established which educated girls past ‘how to run the house’, e.g. the Camden school – which was able to offer scholarships and reduced fees for able girls from poorer families.

In 1867 all examinations were opened to girls.

At this point education for girls was sparse, and if one was lucky enough to be educated, it focused on ‘how to be a lady’ and firmly reinforced the ‘angel in the house’ concept, whilst ensuring the separate spheres, remained separate. Opportunities, apart from scholarships were primarily available to the upper class. – Yet these schools educated the future suffragettes. E.g. Cheltenham’s Ladies College which in its curriculum included more academic pursuits.

Higher Education

1848 – Queens College London. Educating middle class girls to be governesses and teachers

1849 – Offering women a liberal arts education. (mainly teaching)

1878 – University of London opened degrees to women

1920 – Women gain full membership of Oxford

1947 – Women gain full membership of Cambridge

The belief that well-educated women made better wives and mothers became more prevalent by the end of the 19th Century – it also became increasingly accepted that women working in higher education did not have to be married.

1900 – 15% of uni students women

1930 – 23%


Beginning of time period – women were the unequal partner in marriage. Feminist campaigning and a significant minority of politicians pushed through legislation that attempted to address this issue.

Custody of Children Act 1839

With the support of MP Talfourd who introduced the bill, Caroline Norton pushed for the right of women to have custody of their children.

The bill was passed as women had the right to custody of their children under 7, but only if the woman was of good character and the Lord Chancellor agreed to it.

Guardianship of Infants Act 1886

The act stated that the welfare of the children should be taken into account when determining which parent should gain custody.

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857

Before the act, divorces had to happen through the slow and expensive process of a private Act of Parliament. The act allowed divorce to happen through the law courts.

Yet, the cases for divorce were unequal. Men only had to prove their wives adultery, whilst women had to prove adultery and another severe ground for divorce e.g. bestiality, long term desertion.

Caroline Norton’s influence saw the inclusion of other clauses that affected women’s property rights.

The Jackson Case 1891

Provided case law for the issue of a husband’s right to lock up his wife, which was made illegal in Mat Causes Act.

You can’t make this stuff up…

These pieces of legislation had an impact beyond their concessions to women’s rights. But they proved that women could organise themselves into a fairly effective pressure group in the public sphere.

Sexual Morality

This period ‘witnessed a massive campaign by women to transform male sexual behaviour’

The repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts

1864, 1866, 1869

The spread of venereal diseases was a public health crisis in the 19th century, those in the public sphere of medicine and government placed the blame on the prostitution trade: whose members, often driven by economic necessity, operated outside of the ‘angel of the house’ concept.

Middle class/ upper-class women mobilised for its prevention, which allowed suspected prostitutes to be locked up for 5 days before being intimately examined (1869).

The Ladies’ National Association (LNA) was formed in 1869, with Josephine Butler at its head. The nucleus of a nationwide campaign to repeal the Act. They wrote letters and formulated petitions, held mass-meetings, organised protest marches and targeted specific parliamentary candidates. These tactics proved to be particularly effective, especially the ‘poster and placard’ campaigns.

The highly successful campaign saw the act repealed in 1886.

Politics – Women’s Suffrage Campaign

After the 1867 Reform Act failed in include women in the extended franchise, women pushed for further concessions in women’s property rights.

* 1870 Married Women’s property Act – married women could keep £200 in earnings and personal property.

* Second Act, 1882 – Gave women control of the property they brought into the marriage, and allowed them to carry on with their occupation after marriage, using their own property and money.

Challenging, to a limited extent the ‘angel in the house’ and ‘separate spheres’ theories – women developed a degree of financial and occupational independence.

Many Liberal MPs supported these acts, as they believed that women only wanted the vote to secure control over their own money and property, hoping these acts would dissipate this pressure.

The suffrage campaign

Early suffragists – restoration of old rights, rather than new privileges. After an attempt to exploit the legal loophole that women freeholders were allowed to vote, a judge ruled that ‘every woman is personally incapable of voting’.

Women saw their continued exclusion from the political sphere – excluded from the reform acts of 1832. 1867 and 1864. Male non-property owners now enjoyed the vote, women property owners argued they should have representation in order to determine where their taxes were spent. – no taxation without representation.

Social reformers such as Florence Nightingale and Louisa Twining challenged the ‘angel of the house’ concept. They were examples of how women could contribute to politics.

Women saw the vote as a vehicle for pushing for female social and economic reform. Women were challenging their traditional roles in society. And it scared the shit out of the blokes.


Many anti’s were opposed to any expansion of the franchise. Asquith – rule by ‘an uneducated, politically inexperienced and irrational class’.

Women were not capable of full citizenship because they were not available for the purposes of defence of the Empire. Furthermore, colonies would lose respect for Britain if women were in control.

They are guided by their wombs and prone to hysteria, they were intellectually inferior. Women were weak and passive and ol’blighty would be invaded.

Women were seen to exert a more subtle form of control over national affairs through their roles as mothers and wives.

Women were incapable of forming their own opinions, and because of their inferior qualities would vote in their own interests, not the public good.

They might bring in temperance reform!!

The case against the vote for women was based around the concept of female ‘domesticity’. The perceived nature of women was deemed inadequate to enter the public world of politics. Women were expected to satisfy their roles within such a limited arena, whilst opportunities to engage in public affairs was limited to religious, educational and charity work.

Try, try and try again for that vote

J.S.Mill and Henry Fawcett presented a petition for female suffrage and J.S.Mill made speeches in favour of female suffrage.

May 1867 – J.S. Mill proposed an amendment that the word ‘person’ should be substituted for the word ‘man’ in the 1867 reform act. The amendment was defeated.

Suffrage through the back door

Divisions in the Women’s suffrage movement (although half of this is just women’s suffrage movement continued)

The women’s Suffrage Committee (est.1866)

Formed in London

The Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage (est.1866)

Lydia Becker as secretary.

Other groups with similar ideas were formed around the country shortly afterwards, however, disputes over strategies and tactics caused the various groups to split and reform. Possibly weakening the women’s movement….

Parliament Street Society and Great College Society worked together in the run up to the 1894 Local Government Act. Removing the main source of division between the two main suffrage societies.

Inspired by the 1894 Local Government Act (gave married women same rights as single women to vote in local elections, sit on school boards and work as guardians of the poor) the NUWSS held a delegation for female suffrage groups in 1896. Succeeding in attracting 250.000 signatures for female suffrage which was presented to Government in 1897 in support of the Women’s Suffrage Bill proposed by the peculiarly named Conservative MP Faithful Begg. Bill passed its readings, but was defeated by Government opposition (Asquith)

Women had challenged the previously held concept of domesticity. They had organised effective pressure groups that had achieved numerous successes in the rights of women. Their victories in the public sphere of Politics had attracted a number of male political supporters (for varying reasons). Yet there was still a loooong way to goooo.

The NUWSS now coordinated the constitutional campaign for women’s suffrage and continued to do so until 1918.

Founded by Millicent Fawcett as its President.

Held a non-party approach – would support anyone in favour of women’s suffrage.

Petitioning, lobbying MPs and producing pamphlets arguing their case. Lack of success caused friction

Adding Militancy to the Campaign 1903-1914

Linked to the ideas of Emmeline Pankhurst. She formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Intensifying political pressure and promoted new and confrontational methods to force MPs to give women the vote. Inspired by the direct and violent, successful actions of previous direct action (CDA) and miners pay/working conditions improvement.

For some antis, militancy was a reflection of the widespread instability of women. Served as proof that women shouldn’t vote. Early historians agreed.

Later historians saw militancy as a rational reaction to male intransigence – a temporary tactical necessity born of the failure of legal and peaceful methods.

Feminist historians see violent behaviour as challenging male supremacy

Suffragettes blamed failure of peaceful methods, as a reaction to the 1906 Liberal Government, which took away the suffragettes ‘democratic’ right to attend meetings and meet with official’s.

Reaction against a Liberal Government force feeding those who participated in direct action.

Divisions within WSPU – perceived to abandon its working class roots and its authoritarian leadership.

The WSPU and NUWSS worked together, and many women were members of both.

Black Friday

The death of Emily Davidson

Raised profile of suffrage campaign, women were rebelling against their predestined socially imposed position in society. These were not ‘angels in the house’, men didn’t know how to react and responded with violence (black Friday) garnering support for the ladies. The women’s suffrage movement was a unstoppable force which the Government was inadequate to deal with.

Emily Pankhurst – radical wspu militancy

Christabel Pankhurst

Annie Kenney

The nature of the liberal government 1906-1914

Political motives

Parties feared that supporting women’s suffrage would cost them existing political support.

By-elections had dwindled Libs majority, they now relied on the Irish Nationals and the Labour Party to remain in power. Supporting suffrage could see the party to lose its support and lose power.

Volatile political context (insurrection in Ireland, Industrial disputes). The former being a major concern for the Irish Nationals and the latter for Labour. Issue of suffrage was marginalised.

HoL was increasingly assertive (until 1911 reform)

Personal motives

Asquith ( 1908-1916) did not support the cause, he refused to designate parliamentary time dedicated to women’s suffrage.

Henry Campbell had supported women’s suffrage in private, as had David Lloyd George

The Conciliation Bills

* 1910: First Conciliation Bill carried but failed because the government refused to give it parliamentary time

* 1911: Second Conciliation Bill carried but Asquith announced that he preferred to support manhood suffrage but which could include an amendment to the enfranchisement of women and the bill was dropped.

Female enfranchisement received little support from prominent liberals, who condemned the bill as fundamentally detrimental to the party’s interests. There was a fear that women would vote conservative. – The second conciliation bill was dropped.

Disillusioned by what they saw as deception and duplicity on the part off the liberal party and Asquith in particular, after an amendment to the reform bill for female suffrage was refused by the speaker. The NUWSS switched its support to Labour and the WSPU returned to violence.

Dealing with militancy

Originally responding to violence by arresting the suffragettes causing the disturbances. The suffragettes refused to pay the fines, and so by going to prison embarrassed the Government by the spectacle of respectable middle class women going to prison.

Post 1908 arrested suffragettes were treated as ordinary criminals, suggesting the Government did not consider them legitimate political prisoners.

Hunger strikers were originally released from prison, but later were force fed often in a violent and sexually deprived manner. Lady Lytton drew attention to the class discrimination practiced in this cruel act.

Despite this, force feeding made great publicity for the suffragette movement, and the government’s attempts to release and then re-arrest hunger strikers was dubbed the ‘cat and mouse act’.

The was double standards – the Government turned a blind eye to the violent Ulster rebels, yet the suffragettes were at ‘first ignored, then harassed, arrested, imprisoned and force-fed’. Women were effectively excluded from the Democratic process – banned from Liberal meetings and from meeting in parks in London.

The nature of the Labour Party

Labour preferred to support universal suffrage, rather than female suffrage in particular. Many Labour MPs saw the movement as a middle class problem and believed it would perpetrate the unequal class system.

However, the first leader of Labour in the HoC, Keir Hardie, supported the militant campaign and was close to the Pankhursts, they also enjoyed isolated MP support. Additionally, many labour branches supported the WSPU.

In 1912 the NUWSS formed an election pact with Labour.

The nature of the Conservative Party

The Conservative Party was as divided as the Liberal Party and individuals often changed their stances.

Disraeli reversed on his earlier assertion that ‘I do not see on what reasons she has not a right to vote.’ Yet in 1867 when J.S.Mill proposed a suffrage amendment to the 1867 reform act, Disraeli gave him no support.

After the 1867 reform bill, Disraeli’s ‘leap in the dark’, Conservatives were generally opposed to ANY extension of the franchise. – They weren’t just bastards towards women, they were bastards towards everyone.

Yet at their annual conferences they voted 7 times 1887-1910 and the work of the Primrose league indicated some support for the cause.

1918-1928, a changed political landscape

War! And the suffragette’s response to it…

6 Days after war was declared, the Home Secretary released all suffragettes asking for their support in the war effort.

The WSPU supported the Government in its war effort, engaging on the ‘naming and shaming’ white feather campaign.

The ELFS (Sylvia Pankhursts WSPU splinter group) were critical of the war and supported conscientious objectors

The NUWSS opposed the war on principle – male aggression. Organising women’s peace rallies. Their activities were denounced as unpatriotic by the press and used as evidence of women’s inability to comprehend politics. With the threat of isolating themselves from political parties and the public at large – the NUWSS changed tack and called for support for the war effort from its members – Fawcett argued that a German victory would stall the progress of women’s suffrage – dividing the organisation.

The Speakers Conference 1916

The majority of MPs were in favour of giving the right to vote to all adult men – it was suggested that ‘some measure of women suffrage should be conferred’ on ‘women who have attained a certain age’ (35 was put forward)

So why this change?

In 1915 coalition replaced Liberal Government, there was greater likelihood of cross-party agreement with regard to the enfranchisement of women.

December 1916 – David Lloyd George replaced Asquith.

Important contribution of women to war effort and cessation of WSPU militancy politically allowed MPs to support female enfranchisement.

The international scene was changing – Norway, Canada, New-Zealand among others had already granted votes to women.

The political fear that the enfranchisement of women would benefit one party over another had largely gone.

The Labour Party Reaction

Labour’s new constitution printed in 1918 made ‘women’ one of several affiliated groups. Yet the Labour Party was primarily set up to remove the inequalities of the ‘working man’. Women were first to be made redundant in the squeeze on jobs. Yet the party did appoint a chief women organiser whose role was to increase the number of female voters.

The Conservative Party Reaction

The Conservative ‘pragmatic’ strain accepted the inevitability of women getting the vote and appreciated that the enfranchised female demographic was more likely to vote for the Conservatives.

The Primrose league was affiliated with the party and formed an effective work force.

Further Reforms –attempts to level the playing field.

1919 Sex Disqualification Act gave women the right to enter the extensively male dominated public world of law and higher education.

1922 Married Women’s Maintenance Act financially supported single women – addressed the patriarchal idea that women were property of men.

1922 Infanticide Act removed charge of murder for women who killed their infant child.


1923 Bastardy Act increased maintenance payments to single mothers.

1925 Guardianship of Infants Act women had same custody rights as fathers.

1925 Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act – provided a pension for widows of insured men


Although these acts went a long way in removing the legal obstacles to women entering the public sphere and addressed to some extent the ‘angel in the house’ concept. The opposition to an equal society remained socially, and institutionally strong. Women were by no means ‘equal’.

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