A hundred years ago, a scheduled General Election was postponed due to the outbreak of the First World War. Had it gone ahead however, the hum of political discussion amongst university students would have sounded distinctly different to how it does today as we approach the final stages in the lead up to this year’s General Election. This was not simply owed to the fact that Britain was in the grips of war, but because Britain was a country within which only half of the population were by law allowed to make a contribution to national-level politics. If this were still the case, nearly 12,000 students at the University of Southampton would be turned away at the polling station on the 7th May, not because they were not registered, but because they are female.
Today women possess equal voting rights. As the centenary of 1918 Representation of the Peoples Act approaches, that people will recount those well-known, heroic tales of the suffragists and suffragettes; footage of Emily Davidson throwing herself under the Kings Horse in 1913, images of Emmeline Pankhurst’s multiple arrests, women and men who put their livelihood and lives on the line for political future of British women, and rightly so.
However, there is one tale that won’t be popping up on our newsfeeds in 2018, that being the story of the women who campaigned against the female parliamentary vote at the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s a narrative which has been consciously forgotten in British history, perhaps because women actively campaigning against their own enfranchisement doesn’t have quite the empowering or heartening effect as the popular images of suffragettes locked behind bars. To the majority today, the concept may appear incredibly contradictory, perhaps a little ludicrous.
The existence of the Men’s National League for Opposing Women’s Enfranchisement, led by diplomat and colonial administrator Lord Cromer is unsurprising a large proportional of Edwardian men were against Women’s suffrage. In 1910, struggling to gain mass-support, the organization merged with its female equivalent to form the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, with a female figurehead. The movement drew to a natural close after a number of British women were granted the parliamentary vote in 1918, however cracks had started to show in the supposedly amalgamated league from the start. There was clear gender division within the league, whereby many of the men based their opposition on the belief that women were simply incapable of being trusted in political affairs. A proportion of the women however, including the figurehead, Mrs Humphry Ward, believed that women’s contribution to society extended beyond the domestic sphere, into local level politics and community matters, yet as Ward herself said “the men who bear the burden [of Britain’s imperial responsibility] ought to be unhampered by the political inexperience of women”.
The point at which the movement begins to appear particularly contradictory is when we take a closer look at the life of Mrs Humphry Ward. This woman was Britain’s best-selling female novelist, selling over 250,000 copies of one novel within the first few months of publication. Interestingly, she was one of the key advocates for women’s rights to higher education and lastly a philanthropist who was applauded for her work in helping 2,400 disabled children to attend London schools. For these reasons you would think she would be celebrated today as one of the most inspirational women of the past century.
If Ward’s ideals were implemented today – millions of university-educated women be made to keep quiet on May 7th. It is not an ideal that many would be proud to promote in 2015.
This piece was written by Annie Copp, Annekka Patel, Natalie Rowell, Jessica Leach, Connie Burbidge, Poppy Bowers and Kate Roddy.
Feature image by Kathryn Smith.