Feminists today lay claim to the idea of the noble fight of women for the vote by the suffragettes in the early 20th century, but this is a complete canard that has turned into a meme replicating itself in the general consciousness and getting passed on in endless iterations until it becomes received wisdom.
It is not wisdom.
The stark reality is that half the British men who went to the trenches in France in 1914 didn’t have a vote either. Yet they went to almost certain death or the maiming of their young, strong bodies in their hundreds of thousands to defend their country (and their women and children).
Indeed, one of the most shameful things about the suffragettes is that they shamed thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of boys into volunteering by shamelessly and cynically pinning white feathers—a powerful signal of cowardice—on any young man who was not in uniform whilst they themselves were able to indulge in the very freedom these young men were being sent to die for.
That’s a rare form of equality, isn’t it?
It is also a rare form of chutzpah. Even at that time, women were not really disenfranchised. They had had the right to vote in local politics as much as most men, and they were able to take part in civic affairs too. They could even stand for local political office such as mayors. The suffragettes were not the heroines up at the cutting edge of social change as feminists would have us believe today. They were a group of middle-class activists, widely regarded at the time as troublemakers.
At the beginning of the 20th century, women were neither oppressed nor disenfranchised as claimed by the feminists. There was a lot more going on than this really rather historically challenged claim suggests.
The truth is, women got the vote as part of the development of the universal franchise. The Representation of the People Act in 1832 (better known as the “Great Reform Act”) instigated the process of reform. Even then, however, only about one in six adult males1 were given the vote, increasing the proportion of all voters to about 1 in 24,2 although it did nothing for the interests of working-class people, of both sexes, since voters had to possess property valued annually at £10 in order to qualify, thus excluding six out of seven men from the franchise.3 The vast majority of men were just as much the victims of this as women.
It is true that the Great Reform Act only enfranchised “male persons,” although John Stuart Mill MP, that dedicated social reformer and strong advocate of women, attempted to replace the term “male persons” with just “person” in a second reform bill of 1867 but was defeated by 196 votes to 764 in the House of Commons. He was defeated because, in the prevailing social conditions of the time, women’s interests were considered to be synonymous with those of their menfolk.
Not only that, but women were elevated by men, society, by the law, and even in the application of the law. Put simply, women were on a pedestal and accorded enormous rights over property as well as being protected legally from civil law in terms of that property, far more than men were. The crusade by the suffragettes took place in the context of women being highly privileged already, and there was little stomach for the fight being stirred up by these extremists.
Married women were insulated from legal liability in a wide range of civil matters. Indeed, they were even protected from the consequences of certain breaches of the criminal law. A woman’s husband stood between her and the world, protecting her as men had always done for women under the ancient system of couverture that placed enormous burdens on men: burdens they often could not sustain.
That is just the way things were. Society was seeking the best it could, given the prevailing circumstances, and that meant that women were highly privileged and men were held highly responsible for that privilege. Modern women (and men too, incidentally) find this wholly anachronistic. But that is the way it was.
Another factor in the resistance to Mill’s reform was that, by then, feminism was rearing its head on the back of the emerging Marxist/socialist movement. This was known as “The Woman Question” in socialism, and it was feared as a force that could radically change society.
The Great Reform Act was by no means perfect, there was still a long way to go, but it was the first step on the road to a more developed society with equality and universal suffrage—votes for ALL, not just women. It was followed by similar acts in 1867, 1918, and 1928. In 1907, the Qualification of Women (County and Borough Councils) Act was passed that allowed women to be selected for borough and county councils and be elected mayors, and the Representation of the People Act of 1918 extended the parliamentary franchise to all women, as it did to all men.
However, the First Word War had changed everything. As the soldiers returned, millions of them did not have the vote. It had been said, “If they are fit to fight they are fit to vote,”5 to which the prime minister at the time, Herbert Asquith, responded, “My hon. Friend puts it in a nutshell,” and this is the primary reason why the Representation of the People Act of 1918 was passed.
This act widened the franchise enormously and it fairly included women. It increased the overall electorate from about 7.7 million to 21.4 million, and women became 43% of those eligible to vote.6 To all intents and purposes, they had achieved near parity. However, the age restrictions for voting were different. For men, it was 21 years, and for women, it was 30 years of age, provided some minimal property criteria were met in both cases. I will explain the reason for this in a moment.
Then, in the same year, the Qualification of Women Act 1918 was passed, largely in recognition of women’s effort during the war. This provided the right for women to be elected to parliament even if they hadn’t reached the age where they could vote. Women were being recognised. They were not being excluded.
But everything had changed. To put it bluntly, there were too few men left in society to allow women the same voting rights as men. Even before the war, in 1911, females outnumbered males in England and Wales by 1.2 million. By 1921, the difference was 1.7 million.7 A whole generation of men, young men in the flower of their youth, had been wiped out in the trenches of France and Belgium.
To have granted women the vote then would have meant totally unbalancing politics, and society, and that was the main reason why there was resistance to the suffragettes’ claims. Discrimination against women had nothing to do with it.
In fact, the suffragettes were a spent force on the fringe of society by then. Most women wanted nothing to do with them. Their outrageous behaviour and civil disorder during a time when Britain was fighting a major war was out of sync with the severity of the times. Indeed, they had to curtail their activities halfway through the war because their stridency and detachment from reality in the context of what was going on was jarring.
When Christabel Pankhurst, and her mother, Emmeline, dissolved their self-styled Women’s Social and Political Union in November 1917, Christabel secured the nomination as the coalition’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Westminster Abbey Division, but, in the event, no by-election was held until 1921 when the Conservative Party chose their own candidate to represent the coalition. She then left England for America in that year to become an evangelist and prominent member of the Second Adventist movement, writing books on the second coming of Christ. She never married, though she adopted a daughter, Betty, in California, where she died in 1958.
The truth is, the suffragettes were actually a hindrance to the advancement of women’s suffrage, not a help.
Nevertheless, the Equal Suffrage/Franchise Act was passed in 1928, finally granting universal suffrage to all citizens. Needless to say, it was passed by men.
The suffragettes did not achieve votes for women: the victory was achieved by men. The fight for women’s votes and equality has not and never has been the sole prerogative of women. The suffragettes only rode on the back of a trend toward equalising society as a whole—and all driven by men of conscience who were adapting to changing times and the development of society.
Contrary to modern thinking, there was no historical male hegemony or conspiratorial patriarchy out to disadvantage women in favour of men. In fact, there has been a long and noble succession of men who fought hard for the betterment of society in which the interests of women were inextricably linked.
Almost a million noble, responsible men laid down their lives between 1914 and 1918 to protect their and their women’s way of life.
If people spent only half an hour on Google and Wikipedia, with an open, inquiring mind, not one brainwashed by the feminist propaganda that has been going on for far too long, they would see the degree to which feminism is promulgating a distorted version of history about this issue for its own selfish ends.
People need to wake up to their lying, cajoling, cynical, selfish political ideology, that like all extreme ideologies has no compunction about spreading false propaganda. It is an angry creed.