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All we’re told about women getting the vote and the role of the suffragettes is false

Steve Moxon 2018

[The text here (modified to be standalone) was first published as a chapter from the book, The Woman Racket, Imprint Academic 2008]

What passes for social history regarding the vote is almost complete misrepresentation of the reality of what was or wasn’t fair to women vis-a-vis men. As regards having any say on decisions of interest to one sex or the other, it was not women but men who had been sold well short, because it was not voting at the national but at the local level that addressed women’s concerns. Whereas only a minority of men even at the start of 1918 could vote in parliamentary elections, women had always had the vote at parish level on exactly the same basis as men, and continued to do so (except in certain places between 1835 and 1869, as I will explain).

The modern history of the franchise in Britain could be said to have begun with the Great Reform Act of 1832, but even after this, only a tiny minority of men had the vote at the national level. Some very late-in-the-day parliamentary acts eventually culminated in a slim majority of adult men being enfranchised. In practice, because of the registration procedure, a majority of men were voteless nationally, right up until the very day universal suffrage arrived. All this against the background that the bulk of government spending was on defence and the prosecution of wars — for which, of course, only men had a direct ‘interest’, being not only the only ones called up, but those paying for it (given almost exclusively men only were engaged in lifetime full-time work outside the home) — and, in the absence of even a rudimentary welfare state, national government had little other impact on people’s lives.

We have lost all touch with the different rationales behind the municipal and parliamentary franchises, which informed the debate about each other throughout the nineteenth century. These are separate histories, subject to separate legislation, but which from very different starting points began under mutual influence to move towards each other; and to cross paths before becoming entwined. To make the arguments clearer, I won’t present a simple chronological account, but instead deal with the parliamentary franchise first, without referring to the municipal equivalent. When I go on to local democracy, and so to much further back in time, the true nature of attitudes to men-women with regard to having a say in matters which concern everyone, will become abundantly clear.

The events leading up to the 1928 Act, which finally brought about a universal eligibility to vote nationally, began in prehistory. But sticking with recorded history, events could be said to have begun about 2,500 years ago, in the Greek city state of Athens. Only 40,000 out of a population of two million could vote, and all 40,000 were men, but that number was a mere four per cent of the male population. Yet this was to remain an historical high until mid-nineteenth-century England. English people were still living in complete servitude, formally speaking, 2,000 years later, with no kind of central representation save for disparate elections to a so-called parliament by those serving on county courts. That the English Civil War was one of unprecedented bloodiness which ordinary locally-conscripted men died in, was not least because the conflict was tied up with the call for universal male suffrage. Nothing significant changed for well over 150 years, so that even by the end of the eighteenth century, only if you were a superior yeoman farmer, if not actually a gentleman, could you be among the paltry two per cent of the population who, through owning land above a certain valuation, had the vote. This included nobody at all in the great industrial cities. Only because of inflation lowering the effective level of the property-valuation threshold, was the four per cent of the male population that was the extent of Athenian democracy, finally overtaken. It stood at five per cent by the time of the first of the nineteenth-century reform acts: the aforementioned Great Reform Act of 1832. So much for almost two-and-a-half millennia of supposed male ‘power’. To get beyond a representation of one-in-twenty, the act took Herculean efforts to get through parliament. For all this, the act did little to lift the numbers of the population who could vote. Yes, at a stroke it increased the electorate by half as much again, but from such a low base this amounted only to about 200,000 additional voters. And because of the still low numbers, all of these came from the upper reaches of the new middle class. Even this small concession was given only because of the advent of income tax (to pay for the Napoleonic wars). Previously, the state imposed on just the landed gentry, who paid their dues by raising armed forces for the king from their subjects on their estates. Those newly well-off through industry and commerce were in no position to do this. The total electorate now stood at 650,000.

That the vast majority of men as ever still were not allowed to vote was not even seen as an affront. The attitude at the time was very much that the masses were full of ‘bovine stupidity’, to quote Walter Bagehot, the nineteenth-century constitutional theorist. This was the time of the Chartists, a radical mass movement that was strong in the industrial cities, with their People’s Charter — renewing the demand of two centuries before for universal manhood suffrage. This was supreme boldness; the Chartist movement being perceived as the greatest revolutionary threat facing Britain. Its leaders were imprisoned, gatherings were ruthlessly suppressed, and the mass petitions signed by many hundreds of thousands of ordinary working men were contemptuously rejected.

Few saw any anomaly in demanding a right to vote for men and not for both men and women. A puny 1,500 people signed a petition in 1866 calling for votes for women, but this proved influential, leading to an amendment to the Second Reform Act of 1867 that actually secured 73 votes — almost a third of the votes cast. The Chartist petition to extend male suffrage, that required several fully-laden cabs to get it to Downing Street, by contrast fell on deaf ears. Yes, in this second extension of the franchise the electorate was almost doubled — through a lowering of the property valuation threshold, and also taking in those paying a high rent — but at well under two million, out of a population of more than ten million adult men, this was still only one in six. Not that the vote at the time was much use to most of those who could cast it, because until the Ballot Act of 1872, every individual vote was published for all to see in the poll books (Seymour, 1915). This transparency, thought Harriet Taylor, one of the very earliest campaigners for women’s suffrage, discouraged selfish voting. [This was typical of the lack of empathy for ordinary people that upper-class Liberal campaigners for female suffrage shared, as will become more apparent.] The vote was actually a real nuisance to those who held it, because they risked the wrath of the locally powerful candidate they didn‘t vote for — or from both candidates if they abstained. Votes were bought, cajoled or beaten out of men by agents of candidates, and a tradesman voter could be threatened with an organised boycott of his business. The upshot was that the electorate was almost as completely under the control of the upper classes as it had been before 1832 (Pelling, 1967). Because of the continuing property criteria, together with residence restrictions, even after the passage of a third Act in 1884, it was still the case that the adult men who could vote were in the minority. A further increase in the electorate to a total of something under four-and-a-half million didn’t change that. Anyone who was a ‘lodger’ and paid less than the then lavish sum of five shillings a week in rent, was ineligible. This excluded from voting the large numbers of men who were still living with their parents or other relatives, as well as almost all those in multiple occupancy, of which there were vast numbers in both industrial cities and rural areas.

Both of the Reform Acts of the late-nineteenth century were brought in primarily for political expediency (Disraeli trying to outdo Gladstone). The party in power extended the franchise so as to get more votes in industrial constituencies especially, and thereby force certain legislation through parliament. In general, however, any expansion in the electorate was regarded as dangerous. By 1910 — the last year of a general election before the first election featuring female suffrage in 1918 — the proportion of men who could vote at long last had exceeded those who could not. But the figures are not all they seem. There were 7.7 million men registered, out of an estimated male population just short of 12 million. That’s 65%. However, well over half a million of these were plural votes (many well-off men had a vote in respect of a business as well as residence), so the total of the enfranchised was actually 60%. Even this was deceptive because constituency registration involved literally years of bureaucratic delay, and working men were at the time astonishingly mobile. In the intervening time between registration and the election, typically between a quarter and a third of the urban electorate had moved out of the constituency: usually too far away to come back and vote. This meant that substantially under 50% of the adult male population was in reality entitled to cast a vote in the sense of being both entitled and able to do so. The situation between 1910 and 1918 was unchanged on the electoral front, but of course the cataclysm on the Western front — the war — inevitably had an impact on the registration arithmetic. The essential truth is that as the year 1918 began, it was still the case that well under 50% of adult men were in possession of a usable national vote. After legislation passed in the same year, the 1918 election was the first that in theory all men aged twenty-one and over had the vote, but in practice many men effectively still had no say. This same Act gave women the vote, and although women under thirty were still excluded, most men — young men under thirty especially, but also vast numbers of their older colleagues too — were still stuck in France at the close of the war, and had been at war when electoral registration was taking place. Proxy voting forms in great numbers either would not reach the troops or would go astray after being completed. Ditto the registration documents before them. Not that in the thick of fighting and facing likely death would men be of a mind to bother with them. Those who had got back home would have been caught out either by the length of residence qualification or the delay in processing.(Pugh,1978). The result was that notwithstanding the sudden mass increase in the electorate of women, turnout in the ‘khaki election’ was actually a full third down on previous elections.

Overall, it was not men but women who were the most unencumbered in getting to the ballot box. And it looks like women were heavily inclined to vote, because they were in the great majority of those who had always been at home, and wanted to express their anti-German emotions by voting for a harsh peace settlement. It could well be that more women than men voted. Of course, there were no breakdowns by sex of the 1918 vote, and no opinion polls, so we will never know. What must be strongly suspected is that just as in 1910, the proportion of effectively enfranchised men still struggled to top 50%, whereas even allowing for the disenfranchisement of those women aged twenty-one to thirty, in 1918 it did top 50% for women — well over 50%. Certainly, more women than men had the vote in the sense of actually being able to use it.

The shift to citizenship

There is a common fallacy that what had brought about an extension of the franchise to include women was their war work. On the assumption that men had the vote in recognition of their work, it’s thought that when women similarly became economic contributors they were likewise rewarded. Actually, women‘s war work was just an excuse for a dignified climb-down for those anti-suffragists in the government whose position had already been untenable before the war (Sharp, 1933).The supposed contribution by women in general to World War One is mostly a myth. War work for women was voluntary, and even by the last year of the war only one in ten adult women had signed up. Less than half of these worked in engineering/munitions, where most chose (as they could do) to do nothing much different to the factory work they had done or might have done before wartime. Production was possible only because of the then new atomised working techniques that allowed complete de-skilling, which itself was possible only with the continuous production that war demanded. The sheer volume of production and the dispensability of the lives of soldiers hid the appallingly low quality of output (shells insufficiently filled fell short on our own troops, and shells with faulty fuses failed to explode or blew up on firing). There was no question of keeping on these women for the entirely different skilled and semi-skilled work that resumed after the war. Likewise in agriculture. Though much smaller numbers of women replaced farm workers, this accounted for the precipitous fall in agricultural production.

All-in-all, women’s war work was hardly an advertisement for women as workers. In any case, there was a more profound basis for exclusive male enfranchisement than economics. Buried by the passage of time, but obvious to everyone back then, was the grounding of worldly political power in the separate world of the male. The national vote was and was seen to be all about ‘imperial’ issues — law and order and the like — and therefore clearly the province of men (only men being required to take up arms and only men having an appetite to do so). Helen Kendrick Johnson, writing in 1913 (A Survey of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and a Discussion of the Claims and Arguments of Its Foremost Advocates) explains:

“Democratic government is at an end when those who issue decrees are not identical with those who can enforce those decrees. … Upon this depended stability, and without stability there is nothing. Stability required a majority of men. … Woman’s only relation to this defence is that of beneficiary, and therefore her relation to the laws with which that defence is associated must be one of advice and not of control.”

This argument could be broadened to an economic one in moving from the issue of providing physical security to taxation. Women voting nationally on tax issues was considered undemocratic, because very few women paid tax. Underpinning these arguments was the near universally-held attitude that the world was and should be divided into two spheres of influence: that of children, morality, and the future of the human race (where woman held sway), and that of politics, which was considered not only much less important, but also much less high-minded (where men held sway). Johnson thought that women were privileged in being able to successfully cross this divide and by influence in effect to exert more power than men could within their own domain:

“The right of petition is not only as open to women as to men, but because of the non-partisan character of their claims and suggestions, they find quicker hearing.”

Female suffrage, Johnson saw as a permanent crossing over to the male sphere of influence, whereby women risked degrading their position in society by a contamination of the relative sanctity of their natural domain with the worldliness of men. These were formidable arguments for a new concept of completely unisexual citizenship to overcome.

A second common fallacy was that it had taken a world war with millions of deaths to finally make the case for universal male suffrage without qualification; and that by the removal of property ownership or earned income as some minimum threshold of economic standing or contribution, this naturally led to the extension to women. Not so. ‘A land fit for heroes’ was not the reason. Soldiers after every war are surprised how suddenly their sacrifice is forgotten. This seemed more true of World War One than for most wars, not least because of the scale of the duplication of this experience given former soldiers numbered by the million.

The removal of qualification for male voting indeed was key, but this was not courtesy of the war; rather through a continuation of the political expediency which was at the root of the 1832, 1867 and 1884 Acts. It was simply that an ever-greater proportion of the population was necessarily becoming subject to income tax, and this trend had accelerated with the watershed decision of the 1909 Liberal Government to move the taxation agenda towards paying for social welfare. But the real crunch was the cost of the 1914-18 war, which multiplied five-fold the basic rate of tax (from 6% to a whopping 30%). With such a dramatic rise, it was imperative to widen the franchise to avert taxpayers voting out the Government. Widening the franchise would enable the income tax base correspondingly to be widened, and so reduce the tax rate. There had also been a big expansion of taxes on expenditure, and this disproportionately hit those who were as yet outside the income tax base, though were nevertheless the main household earners: the remainder of the male population. It was prudent to scale down these regressive expenditure taxes in favour of the progressive tax on income. The upshot is that the vote was not awarded to those who had fought the war, but was a recognition that those who had survived were now going to have to pay financially what their fallen comrades had paid in their blood.

The widening of taxation as the basis of universal male suffrage in turn dissolved any basis for enfranchisement other than simple citizenship, and by default this admitted women. This helps to explain why universal female suffrage was not seen by most people as a separate or even major part of the suffrage issue; but becoming important only inasmuch as it was bound up with the treatment of men. It was the property/income qualification that not only disqualified many if not most men from voting, but also in effect disqualified women. Given that very few woman headed a household that would have passed the property or income threshold to give the household head a vote, then almost no women would have been eligible to vote even if there had been no distinction in terms of sex in eligibility to vote. Given the focus on the household rather than the individual, the blanket exclusion of women was largely superfluous; discrimination against women being effectively only indirect. In not having the vote, women were not specially excluded, but had common ground with all men who failed to pass property/income qualifications. Outside the middle/upper classes, most of the few women who ruled their own roosts were widows and would likely fail the ownership or income tests. Any sizeable house would be handed over to offspring, perhaps with the elderly widow given quarters or a cottage nearby.

The indirect discrimination against men affected most men right into the twentieth century, and this was despite the fact that most of these men were in full-time employment and considered the head of a family. It could even be that a man was a fully productive farmer or industrial worker, with a wife and children, but with his household nested inside his father’s, he could not join his father in voting. These were far greater injustices than the system delivered to women.

The shift of focus to individual citizenship was the principle that allowed for universal suffrage. It had been resisted in favour of retaining some sort of qualification, understandably to ensure the voter’s involvement in and knowledge of wider economic and political affairs sufficient to express an informed opinion. [All men were assumed to be informed voters through their inescapable and permanent involvement with work, and through having to support a family or at least to establish themselves as solvent suitors to would-be brides.] Even when the new principle of citizenship was accepted, the qualification notion was not offloaded entirely. Still today, the word ‘citizenship’ conjures up the sense of an active involvement in community rather than a passive universal entitlement. From this perspective, given that women were much less involved in the economy and politics, keeping some sort of qualification for women was felt to be necessary. An age threshold of thirty ensured that most female voters would, through marriage, the management of the household and attaining maturity, at least to some degree be in touch with the issues of the day.

Excluding women younger than thirty was for another reason that was highly pertinent at the time — to ensure that women would not then have an unfair majority. It was not the natural majority women enjoy through living longer that was of concern, but that there were many fewer men because they had lived very short lives indeed, having been killed in the war. The carnage was uppermost in everyone’s minds, and the emotion this aroused is the real reason for the anomaly regarding the female franchise. Ironically, this was the first time that there had been effective direct discrimination against women, and it survived a mere decade: from when it was introduced in 1918 to its removal by the legislation for full equal universal suffrage in 1928. This explanation is supported by the fact that, right from 1918, women were allowed to stand as MPs without regard to the differential age qualification — on the same basis as men, from age twenty-one. This shows that the age anomaly was not ‘chauvinism’. The question was seen to be genuinely whether most women were sufficiently embedded in the wider affairs of society to form opinions as the basis for casting a vote. There was not a blanket assumption that all women under thirty were incapable of a constructive engagement with politics. The non-application of the age qualification to standing for election could not be a clearer acknowledgement that some young women were more than able to make a sound judgement about the issues of the day. By definition, a young woman who was able to be selected by her party to be put on a ballot, must be in this category. If ‘chauvinism’ had been the real obstacle to full equality in voting rights, then the first thing MPs would have made sure of, was that women could not join them in voting within the House of Commons itself. If women were deemed universally incapable of political understanding — and remember that very few men indeed were considered of sufficient calibre to stand for parliament — then most certainly no woman would have been allowed to become an MP. Again, if ‘chauvinism’ was the real obstacle, then why, shortly after the 1918 act, were the wives of business voters enfranchised? The decision was taken in parliamentary committee without a division and without so much as a single speech against. If there had been a proposal in any other context to double the business vote, it is inconceivable that Labour politicians would not have vehemently objected.

It had been clear for some years that ‘chauvinism’ was not a part of government legislation when female political power was the issue. Legislation passed in 1902 required every county council to have at least one woman on their education committees, and the 1905 Unemployed Workmen’s Act required the same for ‘distress committees’. Of course, the view from today is that the rationale of the time was a prize piece of ‘chauvinism‘, but what nowadays is commonly held to be ‘chauvinism’ covers chivalry or, as it was then more commonly known, gallantry. Gallantry was (and remains in a less obviously fawning guise) a universal attitude expressed by men which was both intended and received as genuinely respectful and deferential behaviour; a relationship between the sexes where they knew they were essentially different. This is a facet of the usual care for and consideration towards women, not the excessive or prejudicial loyalty (to the male sex) which is how the dictionary defines ‘chauvinism‘. In fact, it is excessive and prejudiced loyalty by women to their own sex that we know to be a problem, and a substantial one; we know now that men have no such bias (see the research on in-grouping). Granting of equal treatment to women to stand for parliament, whilst retaining the age-thirty voting qualification, actually reflected a wider interpretation of what was the basis of being able to vote ‘intelligently’, in keeping with a looser view of what citizenship was. Going the extra mile in this way can really only be seen as a privilege for women.

The very few idle rich aside, men were universally workers, and either the sole (usually) or at least the main provider for their household. Inasmuch as men were afforded the vote in recognition of their economic activity, this is directly related to issues of taxation and spending. Men were also liable to be compulsorily called up in time of war. At no time and in no sense had men ever been afforded consideration in terms of mere ‘citizenship’. On the contrary, the default was no consideration at all unless some well-defined criteria were met; criteria which had until recently deliberately excluded all but a small minority. In complete contrast, women were exempt from all this, so quite different criteria had to be thought up. The age qualification, depending on which way you look at it, was either itself a privilege afforded only to women, or a modest curb on what would otherwise have been a woman-only universal privilege by default. No man could keep the vote if he declined to support his family, or if he declared himself a conscientious objector, and simply cited his birth certificate as proof that he was world-weary enough to go to the ballot box. Any man behaving in these ways would have been imprisoned and thereby automatically deprived of his former right to vote. That the rationale of withholding the franchise from 21-to-30-year-old women stood for a mere ten years — before the principle of citizenship entirely regardless of ability to vote ‘intelligently’ came to hold sway — is further testament to the privilege bestowed on women. It shows that gallantry remained as strong in men’s dealings with women as ever. This ‘watering down’ of the citizenship concept came about precisely in order to allow for the inclusion of women in their twenties, and so to bring in truly universal suffrage. It must be kept in mind, however, that the universality is one-sided, given that any male — but only a male — could be disqualified from voting for failing to meet certain criteria, even though innocent of any criminality.

Kicking in an open door

There is a further set of reasons that lie behind the introduction of the higher age threshold for women, and also for the arrival of (near) universal suffrage, in 1918, as late in coming as it was. The cry of ‘votes for women’, in great contrast to the brutal suppression of various movements through history which could be characterised as ‘votes for ordinary men’ (notably the Chartists, little more than half a century before), was a push at an open door. Parliament had been long persuaded of the case, despite the lack of popular demand for female suffrage. The tactic of the suffragettes was counter-productively to try to kick the door in. What is not appreciated today is that it was directly as a result of suffragette militancy that legislation for universal suffrage was not hastened but delayed, and introduced not in full but in two stages.

The female suffragist cause was an extremely well-to-do affair generally: not middle- but upper-class (Pugh, 2002). The only places in the country where there was any significant involvement by working-class women were some of the Lancashire textile towns. Everywhere else it was characterised by the absence of a working-class or of even a middle-class element, in contrast to other political movements at the time. Very well politically-connected, wealthy, and titled women made up the Women’s Social & Political Union. Far from being the case that ordinary women were clamouring for the vote, there was general indifference, as Gladstone, prime minister at the time, remarked. Militancy confirmed the one fear the general population had about the female franchise — irresponsible behaviour by those who would be newly enfranchised. The twin concerns that the movement needed to address — being unrepresentative and irresponsible—were exactly the concerns that the suffragettes haplessly highlighted and confirmed. This was of little if any consequence to the suffragettes, because through their connections they well knew they were nonetheless secure in that parliamentary opinion was substantially in favour of women getting the vote, despite MPs knowing that there was little support in the country.

They were simply playing at politics, and managed to turn newspapers from offering almost uniform open support to being obliged to attack their methods. The onset of militancy in 1908 spawned ‘The Ladies League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage’, which by 1914 boasted 42,000 members. They appealed over the heads of the politicians by canvassing female local government electors, whom they found consistently opposed to female suffrage by a factor of four to one, but this had no impact on MPs. As women, and even more so as well-to-do women, the suffragettes knew full well that they were immune from physical harm, regardless of what they did. The sole fatality in the campaign, Emily Davison, was a well-to-do woman too out of touch with the real world to know that you would never be able to place a sash around the neck of a racehorse galloping at full tilt. She was not trying to obstruct the King’s horse with her own body as some self-sacrifice. Suicide it was not, it is now known.

Suffragettes, unlike Chartists and their ilk, never needed to be brave. They never needed even to fear loss of any reputation. A night or more in the cells was generally seen as a badge of honour, as suffragettes had carte blanche to be shameless. Unabashed by the fact that men were dying in huge numbers in a war over which half of all men had been denied the expression of any opinion whatsoever; throughout World War I, Sylvia Pankhurst campaigned undaunted, along with ‘The Women’s Freedom League’. Pankhurst set up a ‘League of Rights for Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Wives and Relatives’. This focus away from those who were the real sufferers, is exemplified in a famously absurd statement by Isabella Ford, writing in 1915:

“Women have more to lose in the horrible business than some men have; for they often lose more than life itself when their men are killed.”

Two leading suffragette organisations did agree to suspend their window-breaking, arson, policemen-hitting and the like, right from the start of WW1, when they realised that their campaign would be seen to be a disgrace. The leader of the whole movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, with her daughter Christabel, toured the country speaking at meetings to recruit young men into the army. Christabel wrote of her mother: “she called for wartime conscription for men, believing that this was democratic and equitable”. Did she also think it democratic that her supporters handed white feathers to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress? These would be those reserved for essential heavy industrial work, government employees, those too unfit for service, boys too young to enlist, and convalescents from physical or psychological wounding, as well as those very few men who had indeed taken the sure route to total social ostracism and punishment beatings by declaring themselves conscientious objectors. It was a wholly different world in which female ‘cons’ lived. Take Emmeline’s daughter, Sylvia. Being a woman she was free to actively campaign against the war effort with impunity. But her mother’s white feather brigade contributed to so many children lying about their age in order to enlist, making them even more likely to be killed than the average soldier, on account of the extra vulnerability of their impetuous youth. It cannot have been unknown to Emmeline, the foremost and most well-known suffragette of all, that even by 1914 and the start of World War One, half of adult men were still not entitled to vote; and that therefore they had no say in the political process that brought about Britain’s involvement in the war. For the first part of the war, soldiers were not called up but volunteered, albeit under massive social pressure. Conscription would mean that all men below a certain age could be forced into a situation where they could be ordered to take part in attacks in which they faced a very good chance of being killed or seriously wounded, in a war which overall they stood a high chance of not surviving, and an even better chance of being maimed and so unable to live a normal life afterwards. This would apply disproportionately to those men without the vote, because conscription had an upper age limit of forty-five. The subset of younger men aged twenty-one to forty-five was made up of those within the electorate less likely to have established themselves in terms of tenancy, property ownership or residence — the very criteria by which many would have failed to be enfranchised. How could Emmeline Pankhurst of all people have had the hypocrisy to actively campaign for conscription at a time when the majority of those who would be conscripted did not have the vote?

Militancy was not the women suffragists’ worst blunder. This was that they saw themselves as quite separate from, and unhelped or even hindered by, progressive male enfranchisement. They repeatedly demanded that the next step should be purely in regard to women. The root of their difficulties was a false belief that there was no clamour amongst the working classes for extending the male vote (Pugh, 2002). They could not have been more wrong. Presumably, they must have falsely extrapolated from the indifference of working-class women for votes for themselves to imagine that enfranchisement was generally not an issue for the whole working class. In fact, the male franchise was a big issue for working men, and their women supported them. This delusion was motivated by something worse than that the women suffragists simply did not care about the extent of adult male suffrage. A common theme in the movement, on both sides of the Atlantic, was that the vote initially should be extended to women through an education qualification. The converse of this was also argued, and quite openly: that uneducated men should be denied the vote.

The suffragettes wanted first and foremost an elitist enfranchisement of themselves to join the men of their own upper- and upper-middle classes, and only argued for universal female suffrage because it was more politically expedient. Their second preferred option was to give way and allow the vote for the entire ‘sisterhood’, but only if there was qualified voting for men! The sentiment was here perhaps a little less elitist but decidedly separatist, betraying the common attitude of women of being not anti-male per se, but against what necessarily is the majority of men: those men of lower status. This is why women prominent in the Labour movement at the time were not persuaded by the suffragettes and stuck to campaigning for adult suffrage and not for a separate bill for women.

The wider perception was that the suffragettes created a needless divide between the sexes, and in the years before politicians were fully persuaded, the tactic of an initial partial extension of franchise for women backfired. It alerted politicians that gallantry could be aroused to concede the vote to a section of the female population, and this would then act as a Trojan horse for a complete capitulation to democratic rule by the masses. The elitism of the suffragettes’ demands is even more apparent when you consider that these privileged women were married to men who already provided two votes for the household in having a business as well as a residence qualification. Upper-class or upper-middle-class women felt aggrieved not so much that their husbands or the husbands of friends (if they were in business or academia) could command two votes to their none, but that the vote had been accorded to other men beneath their social milieu.

This is the reason for their campaigning for a male educational qualification. Ladies of leisure received an education (falsely) regarded as far superior to the technical education of upper-working-class men, so this was a ticket with which to maintain social differentials. After 1918, the observation was made by one politician that full male suffrage had taken 600 years to achieve, so why should female suffrage take only ten? But the overriding male deference to women as ever ruled the day. Influential men joined in the women’s campaign, and the wider ‘chivalrous’ principle was allowed to overcome what in any other matter considered by government would have been continuing inertia. Yet this issue concerned the very survival of the elected members of political parties themselves. Any proposed changes to the electoral system make political parties extremely wary. Albeit that the Rubicon had been crossed in 1918; with politics in some turmoil the unpredictable effect of the entire mass of young women suddenly joining the electoral roll must have given politicians of all parties some worry. The underlying reason for the short delay was to see where the great change in the franchise of 1918 would lead. After being sure that the destabilisation was containable, only then could MPs responsibly proceed further. Ten years, and just a couple of elections, would have been a minimum period to assess this. What makes it still more remarkable is that the assessment could not have been helped, to say the least, by the fact that the very first woman MP, elected in 1918, was for Sinn Féin, and she didn’t take her seat (Constance Georgine, Countess Markiewicz).

Women have always had the vote locally

If so many accounts of the history of the national franchise completely miss the essential truths about women and the vote, is the truth about the local franchise easier to disentangle? And what could it tell us? This history has been largely ignored, so in comparison to the suffragette battles there is little distortion and mythologizing to deconstruct. The point of interest is that whereas any sort of mass national franchise is a recent development, representative local democracy is ancient; so the participation or otherwise of women will reveal an underlying reality. The history of the national vote, at least according to the Whig narrative, is a transition from autocracy through aristocracy to full democracy, whereas the local vote was always democratic; though it veered towards excluding some of those at the bottom before moving back to full participation. The two histories are separate, but they appear to have influenced each other.

It may come as a big surprise to most people that from time immemorial, women could and did vote at the local level — in both parish and manor. Every manor originally had its own civil-cum-criminal court and forum known as the Court Leet, at which everyone over the age of twelve was required to attend. This was a dutiful and in some ways onerous service, and in 1228 a concession to make attendance voluntary was given to nobles, churchmen and to women (Scriven, 1896; Webb & Webb, 1963). Women were here considered as worthily above the common fray — on a level with nobility and the church. This recognition of female voting rights was not a Norman invention. Women sat on Saxon councils, and there is every reason to suppose that women were included in decision-making in Brittonic and other ‘Celtic’ communities.

The other decision-making arena common to everyone in medieval times was the church: the open Parish Vestry meetings (’vestry‘ being the name for a gathering of all parishioners), at which every householder, male or female, could attend and vote (Webb & Webb, 1963). Even holding office had never been conditional on sex, and this was reaffirmed in early nineteenth-century legislation that explicitly made participation in all aspects of local democracy independent of sex. But then came the Municipal Corporations Act (1835), which is a long document regarding the then new town councils, where the word ‘male’ occurs just the once. This is in the section detailing the qualification to vote: “every Male Person of full age (and who) shall have been an Inhabitant Householder”. Afterwards, ‘male’ is dropped in favour of simply ‘person’. The Bill for this Act was debated in a select committee in July 1835. A Mr Borthwick MP moved that the word ‘male’ be deleted, so as to continue to qualify lady householders to vote for town councils; but his amendment was lost in committee. The whole of the House of Commons could subsequently vote only on the Bill in its entirety, and — whether unknowing of this ungallant detail, or that the Bill was otherwise too important not to be passed — passed it was. There is no record anywhere of why the Bill was drafted to include this entirely novel form of sex discrimination. So why was it?

It was hardly in keeping with the political climate of the time. Just three months before, the Leeds Intelligencer newspaper ran an article on the problem of Vestry meetings descending into unruly mobs, as the more prominent and level-headed members of local communities stayed away. A statement further away from ‘chauvinism’ it would be hard to imagine:

The only method now left to the friends of law and order is to appeal from such packed Vestries to the Parish at large. Nor will the appeal be in vain … Rated females are entitled to vote as well as males. We do not wish for a gynocracy; but we are sufficiently gallant to perceive that too many of the wayward Lords of creation are disposed to make a bad world of it; therefore the sooner the ladies interfere the better.”

Interfere, the women could, and in ways that were seen as clearly unreasonable. And this answers the mystery of why sex discrimination arrived in 1835. The problem had arisen four years earlier with the Adoptive Vestries Act, which includes the following:

In cases where two or more of the inhabitants present shall be jointly rated, each of them shall be entitled to vote according to the proportion and amount which shall be borne by him of the joint charge, and where one only of the persons jointly rated shall attend, he shall be entitled to vote according to and in respect of the whole of the joint charge.”

Given that ‘he’ also refers to ‘she’ (as the wording of the Act makes explicitly clear), then a wife could be jointly registered as a ratepayer even though she would usually not have any income of her own — indeed, at this time a married woman was deemed legally to have no income of her own. Now, here is the nub: not only could she then vote, but in the likely absence of her husband through work, she could vote twice: once for herself and once ‘on behalf of’ her husband. In this way, the opinions of the husband — the partaker of the world of moneyed affairs and the earner of the wherewithal to pay the rates in the first place — could not only be joined, but even usurped by those of his wife. What is more, here in the early nineteenth century, there was no distance between those who received and those who paid for welfare under the parish poor law, and the main recipients of poor law relief — which accounted for most parish expenditure — were women: widows and unmarried or abandoned women with children. So you can imagine how this possibility of proxy voting by women would have gone down. So the fact that the one word ‘male’ was put into the 1835 Bill was not at all to do with sexual chauvinism in any direct sense.

The restoring of the briefly-lost female franchise

For all that, the change brought about in 1835 was of limited consequence. Through the complexity of local government legislation, the 1835 Act did not apply in most places. Where it did, it was short-lived, because the issue of reinstating women voters came up for debate in an 1869 Bill. The Earl of Kimberley pointed out that:

This was not a proposition giving to women the municipal franchise for the first time. Previous to the passing of the Municipal Act in 1835, women did vote at municipal elections, but that Act took away their right to do so. Subsequent local government Acts gave them the franchise in the places in which those Acts were in force; and hence arose the anomaly that, whilst they could vote in the numerous towns in which the local government Acts were in operation, when a town obtained a charter of incorporation they were excluded. Therefore, the Bill merely restored to women a franchise which they formerly enjoyed.”

The Earl won the day and the spelling out of equal applicability regardless of sex comes in section nine of the resulting legislation:

[W]herever words occur which import the masculine gender, the same shall be held to include females for all purposes connected with and having reference to the right to vote in the election of councillors, auditors and assessors.”

Evidently women playing catch-up with men in suffrage was to do with other factors that vary together with sex, rather than sex discrimination against women per se. The big picture was not only that the great majority of men were disenfranchised along with women, but that much earlier than is supposed, women had the franchise on the same basis as men, and only temporarily lost this because of a link between tax (and therefore earnings) and the vote. The thinking about municipal enfranchisement crossed over into the parliamentary domain, and vice versa. Originally, the issues of parliament seemed to belong to the world only of exceptionally monied people — necessarily men — whereas parish business seemed largely divorced from considerations of money, let alone war, and was the lot of common folk — women included — even more than of the gentry (who tended to shun the proceedings). Money questions to do with ever-bigger government then meant that just as pressure for widening the franchise for parliamentary elections mounted, the reverse trend was apparent at the parish level. The basis of the parliamentary franchise became assimilated by its parish counterpart. This played out the other way, as the original principles of local representation added further drive to the trend towards universal suffrage for parliament.

So, by a proper examination of the parallel but entwined histories of the national and local franchise, the truth about suffrage that emerges could hardly be more different from the standard social history line. It’s the same kind of truth we can see across the board for affairs of men-women: that only the men at the top of the tree are/were privileged, and their privilege is/was at the expense of the majority of relatively unsuccessful men, and not at all at the expense of women. For the mass of men there is only contempt by the privileged of both sexes.

Developments in democracy which redressed unfairness to men were begrudged and protracted, but when they finally came they were swiftly followed by, or were even in tandem with, similar changes for women which were in effect still further privileges (that would not have been granted to men if the boot had been on the other foot). In the event of the arising of what was apparently a clear case of different treatment of women — when men and women could be viewed as being on the same playing field — redress for women happened effectively overnight, by comparison to a similar anomaly for disadvantaged men. Taking the history of the vote together with the analysis of marriage, custody, the historical ‘pay gap’, the marriage bar and the quota-ceiling restriction of entry to professions: it can be shown that there are no commonly-cited issues in history that in fact provide evidence for the notion that women were oppressed in any way.

To summarise …..

Everyone — men and women — historically had their say within their own communities, but at higher levels only a tiny proportion could vote: just two percent of men before the first of the reform acts in 1832. By 1918, less than half of all men effectively had the vote, and most men who fought in the Great War had had no say. This, and the fact that all men shouldered some form of taxation, was the real injustice; not the absence of votes for women. It was neither women’s war work nor a ‘land fit for heroes’ that secured women the vote, but a new conception of universal citizenship, independent of some sort of qualification. This arose through the necessity of spreading the burden of income tax much more widely amongst men, so as to pay for the war; taking away property and income qualifications to make a universal principle that gave the excuse politicians were looking for to extend voting to women. With parliament having long been fully persuaded, the political posturing of upper-class women and the militancy of the suffragette campaign was counter-productive. It served actually to delay the introduction of votes for all, and ensured that it was not complete until 1928. The campaigners were not interested in universal suffrage, but in the separate enfranchising of women, whom they saw as superior to the mass of uneducated men. This betrayed an undemocratic and elitist motivation — the usual attitudes in human social groups of prejudice against the majority of lower-status men. From ancient times, women have operated alongside men in decision-making in their communities, which is the decision-making level for what most concerned women. This persisted right through the modern period (apart from a thirty-five-year interlude), and only in certain areas; where as a result of a single word change in one parliamentary act, women were briefly denied the franchise, when municipal voting was aligned with that for parliament. Never the will of parliament, but an oversight after a decision in a select committee, the denial of women’s right to vote in their communities was soon decisively overturned. This showed the continuity of the principle of women having the right to have a say in matters that concerned them, which had never been the right of men except for a minority, and usually a very small minority at that.


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