Why Did British Women Fail to Get the Vote by 1914?

Today’s history post is entitled why did British women fail to get the vote by 1914, and it was set to me as a presentation as part of my work for my Women in history module. I know that women’s history is a relatively new area in the context of history and I find it really fascinating, perhaps it is because it looks at women which traditional history seems to miss out unless they are incredibly important or they fail to conform to the stereotyped Gender Roles of their contemporary society, or its perhaps a result of what my friends jokingly call me feminist leanings. Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy my latest post on why it took so long for women to get the vote.

It is necessary to briefly look at the background and events of the campaign before going through the main reasons for the failure to achieve the vote by 1914. We begin with the 19th century ideas for a reform the voting system for men this also presented the opportunity for women to also try to change the system in order for them to vote. Perhaps the trigger for women’s suffrage was James Mill’s claim that women did not need the vote as their husbands and fathers would protect their interests.

With the first reform act in 1832 Henry Hunt attempted to extend the vote to unmarried women with property but this was rejected and for the first time women were explicitly excluded from voting. In 1865 John Stuart Mill included women’s suffrage in his successful election campaign; however when the next reform came in 1867 Mill proposed the change the words of the text from ‘men to person’ he was out voted by a majority of 194 to 73, demonstrating that many politicians were not ready to introduce women’s suffrage yet. The municipal corporations act in 1869 was a success for the suffrage movement as it allowed women to vote in local elections; although it can be argued as a success it still has limitations as the act only enfranchised single women rate payers, but it is significant as it set the precedent and women were subsequently given the right to vote on local school boards.

During this time women were often seen as the angel in the house and living in a separate sphere from men. These views didn’t include for women to have an interest in politics or an idea to change their own social situation. The women’s suffrage movement did a lot to change these ideas and perceptions of women, in trying to win the vote for them.

The women’s suffrage movement was made up of many diverse groups such as the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage societies);WSPU (women’s social and political union); the WLF (women’s liberal federation) and the WFL (women’s freedom league). This is just a small sample of the variety of women and men who were supportive of women’s suffrage throughout this period.


A political force is perhaps stronger when it is united and although divisions can be useful putting pressure on the government from all angles, however it does not help when the divisions lead to confusion over the long-term goals of the movement and who is and is not a member of the movement, for example probably the most famous division between the NUWSS and the WSPU this along with the many other divisions has prompted the question would the vote come earlier if the movement was not so divided.
From the beginning political division was a main factor in the failure for women to achieve the vote; the Conservatives within the group would not work with the radicals and later the Liberals , within the WSPU they later divided from the Independent labour Party thus alienating a potential political force. This division on political leanings caused split amongst members as to which section of the group they belonged to. Also this cost them too much time which could have been more affectively used if they were all stood together regardless of political alliance on this issue.

The political division lead o to division on the goal of women’s suffrage, although this might appear obvious in actual fact t was far from straight forward; where they about getting the vote for women; improving social conditions for women; was the vote to be for universal suffrage if not who was the vote for. For example the movement was split over the repeal of the contagious diseases act with some embers like Millicent Fawcett not wishing to associate the movement, for fear it would discredit the suffrage movement this caused a split within the movement. Furthermore the issue as to whether to include married women in the suffrage also caused a split with the conservatives arguing for only single women voters and liberals for universal suffrage. Along with the refusal of the separate groups within the suffrage movement refusing to work with other groups, this leads to confusion over whom, what and who with are we fighting for. Which can be argued as causing the delay in British women achieving the vote by 1914, and can lead to the suggestion that the vote might have come earlier had the movement not been so divided.


Another important factor in the failure for women to achieve the vote by 1914 is the tactics used by all groups within the suffrage movement to get the vote for women. It would always be a difficult issue whether to use peaceful or more aggressive tactics and a successful balance of these might have helped women to gain the vote earlier then 1914. However this is not what happened as the WSPU’s gradual increase into militancy and the use of such militant tactics was a controversial issue even to contemporaries. For example Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS originally approved of the WSPU’ civil disobedience tactics, such as disrupting politicians meetings but what they did not approve of was the militancy that it later became, as the WSPU took to breaking windows of , rushing the house of commons, committing arson on both public and private property, they even attacked the prime minister Herbert Asquith the liberal prime minister and his car. These violent militant tactics do have the use of being able o stir up propaganda for the cause which was a good thing at the same time the acts of violence plays into the hand of the opposition who said that women were hormonal unstable creatures who would not be able to vote properly.

A more peaceful tactic used in the early 20th century was for the women of the suffrage movement to refuse to work for politicians. After the corrupt and illegal practices act women were paid and some volunteered to work for politicians by canvassing their areas to encourage voters and inform about their party’s manifesto, this obviously was often a great help to the politicians hoping to get elected. However during the early 20th century the women of the suffrage movement refused to do the work for perspective members of parliament who had not pledged to include women’s suffrage included their campaign. The impact of this tactic is debatable but at least it is successful as it manages to get women’s rights on the majority of the mp’s election campaigns.


The final area which has an impact on the failure for women to get the vote by 1914 is the opposition that they faced both from the politicians and the general public, two very important groups of people who the suffrage movement would have to persuade in order to be successful. Women’s suffrage came at a time when public opinion towards women was that they were still weak and inconsistent and supposed to be the Victorian ideal of an angel in the house living in a separate sphere from men. This suggests that the women’s suffrage movement had a harder task as they had to change the politicians and the public’s opinions of women in order to get them the vote, on equal terms to men. Politicians are probably the most important group of people who the suffrage movement have to persuade in order to succeed. However as we know with politicians today they cannot be trusted or relied upon too easily. For example in the late 19th century Prime Minister William Gladstone was a great hope for women’s suffrage as both a liberal and a reformer it was hoped that he would be the one to bring in women’s votes. This proved to not be the case as Gladstone used party loyalty to destroy one bill in 1870 and a further amendment in 1884 which could have provided women’s suffrage even on a limited scale. Both times Gladstone uses party loyalty to destroy the bills, by simply declaring his opposition to the movements Gladstone opens up conflict within his politician’s party loyalty or what they believe in. With the 1884 amendment Gladstone was successful in persuading 104 liberal politicians to oppose the movement they previously supported.

Also the politicians were heavily relied upon, although they were perhaps the main way in which women’s votes could be achieved they can always be trusted as shown by the action of liberal prime ministers for example Herbert Asquith kept postponing the reading of the latest bills and Henry Campbell- Bannerman said it was unrealistic for the NUWSS to expect the liberal government to enforce women’s suffrage legislation.

Lastly the anti suffrage movement can be considered as another reason why the campaign for the vote took so long. As I already said the idea of women at this time was so fixed in people’s expectations and ideas that it would be a hard task to change this and it wouldn’t happen overnight. Attacked as unfeminine and suggested as attacking mans masculinity are very big obstacles for women’s suffrage to overcome.

To conclude the main causes for the failure for women’s suffrage movement are division, tactics and opposition. However the idea of failure can be questioned, considering that women did not get the vote on an equal scale till 1928, and then yes they did fail by 1914. However the hurdles they faced in publics opinion of women is a big factor which would never have been easily overcome. Also they were close in 1914 to getting the vote and had many politicians on their side, therefore who knows what would have happened if world war one did not break out when it did, and the fact that in 1918 women over 30 get the vote is an example of how far they had come by 1914, alright this is a limited group of women and is not equal to a man’s voting age but it is a beginning.

By Sophie .


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