It is commonly asserted that women retired into their homes after the vote was won. This is nonsense.
Around the world, whenever the vote was won by women, women continued to agitate, demonstrate, demand and declare that women’s rights were central to the operation of government and all socio-economic instittuions, and that women’s voice should be heard and listened to within all of them. This was the approach of Australian women, having gained the vote in federal elections in 1902, then travelling to London, the United States and elsewhere to support the struggle.
Australian Banner Presented to Support the British Women’s Struggle
Held in UK Archives, the Banner was returned to Australia in the 1990s
Orlando – the resource on women’s rights and women’s activism, reveals this in its chronology for the word ‘suffrage’ after 2 July 1928, the date upon which women of 21 years and above won the right to vote in the United Kingdom. In 1919, women of 28 years and above who fell into particular categories achived the right to vote, but this left a huge swathe of women outside the formal political arena. After 1928, women continued to agitate. Orlando reveals some of this activity in the years immediately after 1928, and then onward for the following years - some celebratory of suffrage, some going beyond celebration to further consolidation of women’s rights in the polity and to an active existence within the polity.
6 July 1928
Four days after the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act received the royal assent, a celebratory breakfast was held at the Hotel Cecil in London. Breakfast was chosen for the event in memory of ‘the famous breakfasts we used to have in the old fighting days when the prison gates were opened’ for the release of suffragists. Two hundred and fifty people attended. The two most distinguished guests were Charlotte Despard and Millicent Fawcett, respectively founder of the Women’s Freedom League and leader of the National Union of Suffrage Societies; others included Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and Labour leader James Ramsay MacDonald. Others were prevented by the need to be at work, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (as the Manchester Guardian reported) ‘in touching words named specially four of those who had not lived to see the victory: Mrs Pankhurst, Miss Emily Davidson [sic] (more probably Davison than Davies), Lady Constance Lytton, and Mrs Cobden Sanderson’.
Following the granting to women on 2 July 1928 of voting rights equal to those of men, Amabel Williams-Ellis published a handbook for electors on exercising their suffrage rights: Why Should I Vote?
30 May 1929
Labour came in twenty-six votes ahead of the Conservatives in the first general election with full women’s suffrage: the prospect of voting by women under thirty brought the demeaning nickname of the ‘Flapper Election’. Eleanor Rathbone was elected as the first Independent woman Member of Parliament. Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘I feel, rather oddly, that this is an important election.’ Labour had no overall majority, but Ramsay MacDonald formed a government six days later. Fourteen women in all were elected (and two were assigned ministerial posts). They included Lady Astor, Margaret Bondfield (the first woman Privy Councillor), Susan Lawrence, Ellen Wilkinson, Marion Phillips, Jennie Lee, and Cynthia Mosley. Mary Agnes Hamilton, herself one of two successful Labour candidates at Blackburn in Lancashire, later described the scenes of delirious enthusiasm there as the results came in. She also related how Lady Astor suggested that the female MPs might function as a ‘woman’s party’—without seeming inclined, Hamilton noted, not to function herself as a Tory. In fact the women were determined to resist ‘feminist grouping’ and to function without sex distinction, disregarding their immediate newsworthiness.
Mary Agnes Hamilton
By 20 February 1931
Sylvia Pankhurst published probably her best-known work, her recollections entitled ‘The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals’ .
Kathleen E. Innes gave an invited lecture on disarmament at the International Suffrage Alliance Congress in Belgrade.
By 18 June 1931
Ray Strachey published ‘Millicent Garrett Fawcett’ , a biography of a suffrage leader she admired and with whom she had worked closely.
Despite some difficulty getting her work accepted, Alison Uttley’s published stories and articles this year, for adults and children, include ‘Susan does Homework’, ‘Votes for Women—a sketch’ and ‘The Baby Clinic’.
10 November 1933
The Vote, a weekly magazine covering a range of feminist issues including suffrage, ended publication. Begun in 1909, it was first edited by Charlotte Despard.
Winifred Holtby published ‘Women and a Changing Civilisation’, her account of the ups and downs of the British feminist movement since women were granted the vote, and of the current state of women and politics.
Helena Swanwick (suffragist, pacifist, sister of artist Walter Sickert) published her memoir ‘I Have Been Young’. According to David Doughan this account of cultural and artistic London in the late nineteenth century, of student life at Girton College in the 1880s, of ‘the suffrage movement (from a principled non-violent perspective)’, and of pacifist campaigning during the First World War, provides ‘a very careful and analytical’ viewpoint and is a delight to read. Of the suffrage movement Helena Swanwick writes: ‘… let there be no mistake about it—this movement was not primarily political; it was social, moral, psychological and profoundly religious.’
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence attended the International Suffrage Congress in Constantinople.
Una Marson became the first black woman to take part in the Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, which took place at Istanbul in Turkey this year.
By 12 July 1935
Sylvia Pankhurst published a biography of her mother which, despite the rift between them, is more even-handed than her earlier writings: The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst, The Suffragette Struggle for Women’s Citizenship .
4 April 1940
Diana Morgan’s play ‘A House in the Square’ (later called ‘conservative anti-feminist’ and ‘violently anti-suffragette’) opened its successful run at the St Martin’s Theatre in London. The play’s action runs from 1910 to just before the Second World War. Its star is Lady Mountstephan, a grande dame, old-style, who wields great political influence by string-pulling. Its villain, who appears on stage only near the end, is Miss Brown, who persuades Lady Mountstephan’s daughter Verna into militant suffragism, and a generation later persuades Verna’s daughter Verity into militant pacifism. Verna, having seen the error of her political dreams, has married a man who dies in the First World War. The play ends with Verity in her turn recanting her political idealism and falling in love with a man who seems highly likely to die in the Second World War. The work was included in Five Plays of 1940, published that year.
‘The House in the Square‘
Orlando also tracks the vote in other countries: S. Africa, Turkey, Canada (just Quebec: women in other provinces had long had the vote), Trinidad, France, etc. Further material on sequels to ‘the vote’ is contained in Orland under entries canvassing post-1928 dates: Charlotte Despard, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence, Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst, Mary Agnes Hamilton, Kathleen Innes, Ray Strachey, Mary Gawthorpe, et al.
Isobel Grundy (c) July 2013
This entry is compiled from information provided by Isobel Grundy through the Women’s History Network discussion list. ‘Introduction’ written by Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt