Why did the Suffragettes Fail?





extracts from:

  Sean Lang, Parliamentary Reform, 1785-1928 (1999)



The traditional version       The paradox     Political Factors     

Divisions in the Movement     Counter-productive tactics     Use of Violence

Relatively Unimportant     Summary of Argument



The standard version of the story of the fight for female suffrage sees it as a straight contest between the suffragettes and a chauvinistic male establishment, headed - not to say embodied - by the prime minister, Asquith, and encompassing blinkered politicians, burly policemen and brutal prison warders.   This [traditional] version has the merit of simplicity, with obvious heroes and villains, which makes it well suited to general public consumption; unfortunately it ignores some of the important paradoxes of the story.  

The traditional version


The most obvious was that, on the whole, male politicians were by no means opposed to some form of female suffrage.   The Labour Party supported it, and leading Labour figures like Keir Hardie and George Lansbury were deeply involved in the issue...   A substantial section of the Liberal Party, quite possibly the majority, supported it, as did many leading Liberals, including Churchill, Lloyd George, and Sir Edward Grey.   Although there was more opposition to it among the Conservatives, as was perhaps to be expected, a number of leading Conservatives supported it, including the party leader, Balfour.

Henry Hunt had tried to amend the 1832 Reform Act to apply to women…   Female suffrage was a long-standing aim on the Left, ever since 1792…   It was not a peripheral issue, especially after John Stuart Mill's celebrated motion to include it in the 1867 Reform Act.   The arguments in favour of it were regularly outlined in Lydia Becker's Women's Suffrage Journal and in the almost annual parliamentary debates on the private members' bills on the issue from the 1870s onwards, at least three of which made it to second reading….   In 1869 single women ratepayers got the vote in municipal elections and in 1870 in elections to the new School Boards; women could also vote under the 1888 Local Government Act and in 1894 they were allowed to sit on local councils.   By 1900 there were something like a thousand female elected Poor Law Guardians, including Mrs Pankhurst…   Women had begun to establish themselves in the universities and in the learned professions like medicine and the law.   The development of new technology provided young women in particular with a whole range of work in typing pools, offices, telephone exchanges, department stores and elementary schools …   The central question would seem to be not so much how it was that men could have been so blinkered as not to give women the vote, but rather how it was that, with such a tide of emancipation flowing in their favour, and given the deeply ingrained Victorian belief in giving the vote to those who had proved themselves worthy of it, women should have missed their chance so completely that by 1914 the vote actually seemed further off than ever.

The paradox

Why did they fail to get the vote when they had so much success and support?


Part of the answer lies in the parliamentary problems posed by defining the suffragists' and suffragettes' actual aim.   The suffragette slogan was 'Votes for Women', but which women?    At the time there was no universal suffrage for men, so only those on the Left who actually wanted genuinely universal suffrage interpreted it to mean Votes for All Women (an aim which in turn raised the awkward prospect of an electorate in which women would be the majority).   For others, Votes for Women would mean deciding where to draw the line between voting and non-voting women…   It could be drawn along property lines, but many in the Liberal and especially the Labour parties were opposed to [giving the vote to] Conservative­voting ladies.   For this reason, politicians like Lloyd George, who supported female suffrage, nevertheless opposed specific female suffrage measures, such as the property-based Conciliation Bill.  

The bottom line was that no party, and certainly no party leader, would support a measure which was likely to harm his own party…   In any case, with the House of Lords vetoing government proposals far less controversial than female suffrage, the issue was highly unlikely to get through Parliament even had it enjoyed govern­ment support, until after the powers of the Lords had been reduced by the 1911 Parliament Act.   Even then parliamentary logistics worked against it.   It was established practice that measures affecting the franchise were to be put into practice as soon as possible after they passed into law, which meant drawing up new electoral registers and holding a general election.   For this reason parliamentary reform bills were usually introduced towards the end of a parliamentary session, so as to give the government time to get some legislation under its belt before facing another election.   Where these measures were likely to meet opposition in the Lords, as female suffrage most certainly would, this would not leave enough time for the measure to go through the Commons the three times required under the terms of the 1911 Act in order to overcome the Lords' veto.

Political factors

Which women?

Party politics

House of Lords

Parliamentary schedules


The question of which women should get the vote, and on what basis, had an even more divisive effect on the already chronically divided women's suffrage movement.   Millicent Fawcett's National Union of Woman Suffrage Societies … comprised no fewer than sixteen separate suffrage groups, though at least it succeeded in holding them together - Mrs Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union went through seven bitter splits in the first ten years of its life.   The key role of Mrs Fawcett's Suffragists in mobilising working-class support has been stressed by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris; by contrast the suffragette leadership, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and Emmeline and Frederick Pethick Lawrence, were at best indifferent to working-class support and by 1912 increasingly opposed to it, to the point of expelling the socialist-sympathising Sylvia Pankhurst altogether…   In 1907 the WSPU had changed its stated aim from `Votes for Women on the same terms as it may be granted to men' to 'Tax-paying women are entitled to the parliamentary vote', which convinced Labour and the Liberals, not to mention the NUWSS, that the WSPU was, to all intents and purposes, a stooge for the Conservative Party.

Divisions in the Movement



Class divisions


The whole question of female suffrage was bound to be controversial and divisive, but many of the suffragette tactics seemed deliberately geared to aggravate these divisions.   They appeared to go out of their way to heckle and alienate Liberal ministers like Lloyd George and Churchill who were actually in favour of female suffrage...   The increasingly autocratic and dictatorial leadership of the Pankhursts and Pethick Lawrences, who demanded absolute obedience from everyone around them, caused intense bitterness among their supporters.   In 1912 the Pankhursts even drove out the Pethick Lawrences, and according to Sylvia Pankhurst her sister Christabel expelled her from the WSPU saying `You have a democratic constitution for your [East London] Federation; we do not agree with that ...’.

       To make matters worse, although the WSPU proved good at mounting impressive processions and pilgrimages to link the cause to noble themes from British history, the good effects of these spectacles was outweighed by the Pankhursts' increasing obsession with issues of sex and prostitution…   The Pankhursts [became] stridently anti-male, ruthlessly dropping even the most loyal of their male supporters from the WSPU, and claiming, as Christabel did in 1913 in The Great Scourge, that men were little more than carriers of venereal disease.   This was simply ammunition for those who dismissed the suffragettes as cranks.

Counter-productive Tactics

Alienating supporters

Autocratic Leadership

Obession with sex



But by far the most controversial and divisive aspect of the whole controversy over female suffrage was the suffragettes' use of violence...   No other issue split the women's movement so decisively.   The middle-class activists of the much larger NUWSS were dismayed to see the effects of their hard work jeopardised by the suffragette tactics; even stronger was the disgust of working-class suffragists.   One suffragette activist emerged from seven days in Holloway to find she had to run a gauntlet of her suffragist workmates, who spat at her as she walked between them.   It was all very well for middle-class suffra­gettes to get themselves arrested, knowing they had servants at home to see to their children and keep the household running; working-class women, for whom the suffragettes had little enough time anyway, could hardly afford to engage in that sort of behaviour - nothing alienated women from the suffragettes more than this insistence on violence.

The crucial point, of course, is not so much its impact on the suffragists but its effect on the government.   Obviously, the WSPU itself justified its use of violence, pointing out that men had used violence in 1831-2 and in 1866-7, and some historians have agreed with them; the weight of evidence, however, seems to be very firmly the other way….   it is very hard to see what the suffragettes had to show by 1914 for ten years of campaigning.   On the other hand, they had hardened attitudes against them in Parliament and in the TUC.   There was already concern that, if given the vote, women would swamp parliament with 'female' issues of social reform or education, and considerable resentment at the thought that women might get the vote and yet be exempt from military service.   Now the suffragette campaign seemed to justify the widely-held belief that women were not physically or mentally stable enough to be trusted with the vote.   Above all, Suffragette violence had very effectively alienated the prime minister, and in a political situation where so much depended on the personal attitude of the prime minister this was a fatal mistake.   Asquith had been quite prepared to look at the issue of female suffrage [but] suffragette violence not only repulsed him personally but made it virtually impossible for him to bend on the issue even had he wished to, since it would make it appear as if he were giving in to threats.   Bearing in mind that he was also dealing at the same time with violent industrial conflict and with the threat of civil war in Ireland , this was a precedent he simply could not afford to set…   the government would not be dictated to.

The most that can be claimed for suffragette violence is that it kept the issue on the political agenda and made it impossible for the govern­ment to ignore [but] historians like David Morgan, who have looked at female suffrage in its political context rather than in isolation, are in no doubt that militancy harmed the women's cause: `while it kept the Suffrage pot boiling [it] served little real purpose, losing in Parliament more supporters than were gained, and hardening enemies as little else could have'.   Even outrage at the treatment of suffragette prisoners had its limits: Edgar Feuchtwanger describes how 'arrests, imprisonment followed by release ossified into a kind of ritual and no longer moved the public' - a sort of `outrage fatigue'.

Use of Violence

And working class women

And the government

And the Prime Minister



Indeed, there is even a danger of overestimating the importance of the issue itself to Asquith's government… the question was not discussed in cabinet until June 1910, well after the cycle of hunger strikes and forced feeding had begun.   It is quite clear that the government's main concerns lay with the forthcoming battle with the House of Lords and the showdowns with the trade unions and the Nationalists and unionists in Ireland, not to mention the naval race with Germany and the increasingly unstable political situation in Europe; female suffrage was essentially an issue of major but secondary importance…   It all added up to a good case for delaying a decision on female suffrage until things looked a bit more settled.

Relatively Unimportant


In conclusion, therefore, the failure of the women's suffrage movement to attain its objective by 1914 may be ascribed to a number of factors.   High on the list must be suffragette militancy and violence, coupled with the personal style of management adopted by the Pankhursts…   Neither the suffragettes nor the suffragists succeeded in concluding a firm alliance with either of the major political parties, and the suffragettes squandered their potentially very useful link with the ILP.   They were perhaps unfortunate in that Asquith was so personally opposed to women's suffrage, but the depth and strength of his opposition was almost entirely a product of suffragette militancy, to which must also be ascribed the low level of public support and the generally hostile national press.   They were also unfortunate in that their campaign coincided with other, more titanic struggles in Ireland and in the House of Lords…   The great strength … the suffragettes in particular, lay in presentation and propaganda: it did not hurry the vote along, but it determined the version that passed into the history books.

Summary of Argument