Tag Archives: Women’s suffrage

‘A delicate attention’ from the suffragettes?

This entry from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt describes the discovery of a bomb hidden in a tree at his Oxfordshire home Nuneham Park in 1907. Harcourt was the First Commissioner of Public Works in the Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. He was strongly opposed to the extension of the electoral franchise to women. Writing in his journal, Harcourt reasoned that the planting of the bomb was probably ‘a delicate attention to me from the Female Suffragists.’

Entry from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt, 23 February 1907.

Entry from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt, 23 February 1907.

Entry from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt, 23 February 1907.

Entry from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt, 23 February 1907.

Nuneham Park was the object of another Suffragette attack in 1912. By that time Harcourt had been promoted to the Cabinet and was serving as Colonial Secretary in H.H. Asquith’s government. Asquith, a regular visitor to Nuneham, also opposed votes for women. Both men were eventually reconciled to female suffrage in 1916. Harcourt recorded in his journal the following discussion at a Cabinet meeting on 9 August 1916:

‘P.M. says his opposition to female suffrage is vitally affected by women’s work in the war. I said the only logical and possible solution is Universal suffrage (including women). This upset most of the Cabinet, but the P.M. agreed with me.’

Lewis Harcourt’s political journal, along with further political papers, are currently being catalogued. Extracts from Harcourt’s political journal will be on display in the Bodleian Libraries’ forthcoming exhibition The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches.

-Matthew Neely

Further resources: Suffragette interviews on Radio 4

Those of you interested in the suffragette movement may enjoy ‘The Lost World of the Suffragettes’ from Archive on 4 on BBC’s Radio 4. In the 1970s, Sir Brian Harrison recorded interviews with women who had been a part of the early 20th-century suffragette movement, and the audio files are discussed and aired as a part of discussion with Dan Snow (the great great grandson of Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George), Sir Brian, Baroness Brenda Dean. Director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti and suffragette historian Elizabeth Crawford.

The tapes include the statements of ordinary women who openly discuss their own experiences as well as views of suffragette leaders such as the Pankhursts.

The programme is available for the next few days at the Archive on 4 site.

For more on suffragettes in the Conservative Party Archive, see previous blogposts on the Conciliation Bill, the history of women’s suffrage through the CPA part one and part two, and CPA resources for the study of women’s suffrage.

Parliament Week

Just a quick note to say that the Conservative Party Archive featured prominently as a part of the Bodleian Libraries’ participation in UK Parliament Week. Parliament Week is a new national initiative supported by both Houses of Parliament that aims to increase awareness of Parliament and its work as well as encourage participation in the democratic process.

The theme for this year was ‘Stories of Democracy’, and the Libraries highlighted items and collections relating to democracy and Parliament in the United Kingdom, from the Magna Carta to the Conservative Party Archive.

All the week’s posts can be found on the Libraries’ Parliament Week pages. The CPA features in the following:

In addition, Conservative Party Archivist Jeremy McIlwaine spoke to Culture 24 about the work and contents of the Archive; the interview is up on the Culture 24 website

Conservative Women after Suffrage (Part Two): Women in the Party

Women’s organising was an evident part of party politics from the inception of the Primrose League in the 1880s. The Ladies’ Grand Council, set up in 1885, allowed thousands of women (generally upper-class) to participate in canvassing and other political work. Women’s organisations outside the official workings of the Party itself flourished throughout the first two decades of the 20th century. Other distinctly political organisations such as the Women’s Tariff Reform Association (founded in 1905) provided a concrete way for women to enter the political arena, but the organisations and their participants were often relegated to a ‘quiet’ role and kept behind the scenes.

When women over 30 were granted the vote in 1918, the Party restructured itself to encompass these already-established women’s groups. The first Conservative women’s organisation – the Women’s Unionist Organisation – was founded in 1918/1919. Not only were women now allowed to play a real and tangible role in political organisation, the Qualification of Women Bill allowed female MPS; three female Conservative MPs took office in the first four years after the Bill, in 1919 (Lady Astor), 1921 (Margaret Wintringham) and 1923 (Mabel Hilton Philipson). In fact, the Party was concerned at the 1921 Conference that it not be seen to lag behind the Labour and Liberal Parties in putting forward female candidates (NUA 2/1/37, p. 31); Lady Astor, MP, responded by pointing out that women ‘are your great bulwark against Bolshevism’. George Younger remarked, ‘She is quite equal to it [working as an MP] … but she requires support’. 

A November 1931 photograph featuring the national women MPs on the terrace of the House of Commons. The women were being filmed for a ‘talkie’ film. From left to right: Lady Iveagh, Irene Ward, Thelma Cazalet-Keir, Mavis Tate, Ida Copeland, Lady Astor, Sarah Ward, Florence Horsbrough, Mary Pickford, the Duchess of Atholl, and Norah Runge. (Barratt’s; from the Conservative Party Archive Photograph Collection)

Not all factions of the party were comfortable with female participation. Some who supported suffrage and women’s rights pointed out that giving too much power to a separate women’s organisation in effect divided the Party to its detriment (see letter from ‘Darius’ – aka Robert Topping – in the Conservative Agents’ Journal, August 1922, p. 9, PUB 3/3). Others replied, ‘Women have become part and parcel of our organisation system, and that they are out to help us men, if we will only let them help us’ (letter from ‘B.M.’ in September 1922 issue, p. 20). Another writer stated, the success of mass politics ‘stands or falls on … whether or not there is a good women’s organisation in the constituency’ (CAJ, April 1923, p. 68). This argument continued throughout the 1920s, with regular articles in the Journal criticising the segregation of men and women. 

The Report of the Council to the Annual Conference indicates that a Women’s Conference was held in April 1921 in London. Elizabeth Hodder writes:

‘London under siege’ was how one Tory woman delegate described the Conservative Women’s Conference in 1921. Hatted women from all corners of the land packed to overflowing the largest hall available.

(PUB 182/4: Hats Off! …to Conservative Women, p. 8)

Empire was a significant issue in the first part of the century, and Viscountess Elvedeen, Chairman of that first Conference, spoke to the women of their focus on unity and equality:

Unionism sounds for unity, for the unity of our Empire, for that unity which alone makes for strengths, which stands for unity between classes, the greatest good for the greatest number, not the greatest good for any section of the community.

(Hats Off, p. 13)

In 1928, the conference and the Women’s National Advisory Committee were officially recognised by the Party; that year the Prime Minister addressed their Conference at Royal Albert Hall. The Countess of Iveagh told the 1928 Women’s Conference that the Women’s Unionist Organisation had a membership of over one million already (CCO 170/4/11, p. 5). We do know that the annual expenditure allowed to women’s organisation had increased by astronomical amounts; in 1924, the spending totaled £425, but by 1930 it had reached £3,800 (CCO 500/1/5).

The Women’s Unionist Organisation worked hard at bringing women into the political arena. It produced its own publication from 1921-1930, called Home and Politics. The journal proved far more popular than some of the men’s equivalents, and by 1928 its circulation had topped 2.5 million! The WUO/WNAC called for more women’s education and requested speakers from Central Office, particularly in areas such as economics. Women travelled to the Conservative Party College for training, and study groups formed throughout the country, offering courses on everything from canvassing to foreign policy.

[PUB 212]

Although it can be by no means said that the struggle of women for equal rights ended in the 1930s, by that decade Conservative women had fostered a groundswell of support and organisation. A report to Neville Chamberlain indicated that by 1931, ‘So great has been the advancement … it was decided to omit any provision as to the ratio of men and women representatives to be elected by the constituencies to the Conferences and Council’ (CCO 500/1/5). In 1939, the WNAC had over 1.5 million members, 474 Divisional Committees and well over one hundred paid organisers. They ran weekend courses, study schools, and other training sessions. Home and Politics had given way to Home and Empire, and they produced numerous other smaller publications. 

The 1958 Conservative Women’s Conference, held at Westminster. (Keystone Photos; from the Conservative Party Archive Photography Collection)

Gender equality may still be an issue in both the political and social sphere, but the Conservative Women’s Organisation (as it is known today) is still going strong after over 90 years. It provides a network for supporting women in the Party as well as encouraging campaigning and political activity, and it still holds an annual conference. More information about the Organisation’s current activities can be found at http://www.conservativewomen.org.uk.

Conservative Women after Suffrage (Part One): The Handbook for Women Organisers and Workers

This post is part of a three-part series that will provide brief insights into the changes in the party after the enfranchisement of women. This post, which takes an introductory look at the women’s organisations through the Handbook for Women Organisers and Workers, will be followed by an exploration of the ways in which women changed and used the Party’s organisational structure. A final post will provide some guidance on Archive material for further research.

While sorting files returned by one of our readers, we came across a 1928 Handbook for Women Organisers and Workers, published by the Women’s Unionist Organisation under the authority of the Conservative and Unionist Central Office. The Party produced quite a few of these sorts of guides, and they provide fascinating insights into the ways by which various facets of the Party worked.

By 1928, all women over the age of 21 could vote, and the Party was keen to attract what it saw as an enthusiastic but untapped segment of the electorate – as well as to show it was including women in its politics (see our post in two week’s time for more on the history of women in the Party). It was still the 1920s, however, and women often joined separate groups:

The Women’s Unionist Organisation formed in 1918/1919 (it became the Women’s National Advisory Committee in 1928); the Handbook states on its first page:

It is essential that the Conservative and Unionist Party should adopt every possible means to interest the women of the country in public affairs, and to ensure their close co-operation with men in political work. (PUB 190/5)

The Handbook also points out that women were often able to meet at different hours, preferred different issues (especially education), and were extraordinarily successful fundraisers.

The earlier 1925 edition of the Handbook (PUB 203) is slightly more anxious that women be educated in the political sphere. Suffrage was still an issue, and the book states that although ‘Increasing numbers of women are anxious to improve their political education … many women electors do not yet realise the importance of the vote and the responsibility it imposes.’ It goes on: ‘Experience has proved that amalgamated associations of men and women do not enable either section of the electorate to develop its full efficiency in constituency work.’

The Conservative (or Conservative and Unionist Party) was fairly well organised, and it supplied a great deal of literature for both men and women on running constituency organisations, elections and other events. The Handbook covers everything from keeping track of finances and canvassing to sample agendas and branch rules. It also includes advice on a number of miscellaneous projects, including Empire Day (women’s organisations were expected to organise something in celebration) and, most importantly for any good British organisation, tea. On page 83, the Handbook reads:

Tea is an established feature at almost all ordinary branch meetings, and most branches have a regular Tea Committee … Tea should not be given free … It should not be served during the address; and care should be taken not to interrupt the speaker or entertainer by the clashing of tea cups.

The importance of tea is not something to be laughed at, however, as many attribute the enormous success of the WUO to the social opportunities it provided. From tea to outings to educational opportunities, social occasions were an enjoyable way to meet candidates and proved successful fundraising and Party-building opportunities.

Next post: Women and Party Organization in 1910-1920

All images ©Conservative Party Archive Trust

100 years ago today: 300 suffragettes clash with police over Conciliation Bill

Letter to The Times on the subject of women’s suffrage, 4 July 1910 [The Times’ Digital Archive]

A seemingly innocuous sentence hidden away in the ‘Diary’ pages of the National Union’s December 1910 edition of National Union Gleanings belies a story with much wider significance:

‘November 18. The Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill, 1910. – A letter published which Mr. H.H. Asquith, K.C., M.P., the Prime Minister, addressed to the Earl of Lytton with regard to the refusal to grant further facilities to this Bill.’

National Union Gleanings, Vol. 35, Jul-Dec 1910 [PUB 220/35]

As the momentum towards the enfranchisement of women picked up speed, several successive Private Members’ Bills introducing female suffrage failed in the Commons (see snippet from The Times noting one such occasion). On 12 July 1910 the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill – or Conciliation Bill – was introduced by the Labour MP DJ Shackleton with the compromise proposal of giving the vote to one million wealthy property-owning women.

Despite The Times’ 4 July publication of a memorial showing the support of 196 MPs, the Bill failed. It passed its second reading by 299 votes to 189 and was referred to a Conciliation Committee consisting of 25 Liberal MPs, 17 Conservative, 6 Irish Nationalist and 6 Labour, under the chairmanship of Lord Lytton. But owing to the opposition of the Prime Minister, Asquith, no further time was given to the Bill in that Parliamentary session, though it was eventually altered to enfranchise a larger number of male voters. The Bill’s failure led to increasingly militant tactics from the frustrated Women’s Social and Political Union.

Copy of the Memorial concerning the Conciliation Bill, as published in The Times, 4 July 1910 [The Times’ Digital Archive]

On 18 November, 300 Suffragettes clashed with police outside Parliament; the encounter resulted in the death of one Suffragette, and the day came to be known among those involved as ‘Black Friday’. The following week, a further column of about 100 Suffragettes headed for Downing Street, sparking further violent clashes (The National Archives has a poster advertising the second march). The Times reported,

‘The rioters yesterday appeared to have lost all control of themselves. Some shrieked, some laughed hysterically, and all fought with a dogged but aimless pertinacity. Some of the rioters appeared to be quite young girls, who must have been the victims of hysteria rather than of deep conviction….The women behaved like demented creatures, and it was evident that their conduct completely alienated the sympathy of the crowd.’

[Transcript of The Times, 23 November 1910, following the Suffragettes’ attack on Downing Street the previous day].

Despite the words of The Times, the incident turned into a PR disaster for the government as the press printed pictures of policemen assaulting the protesters.

The annual Conservative Party Conference, meeting in Nottingham that year, had already ended its final session on 18 November. Despite the controversy surrounding the Conciliation Bill, the enfranchisement of women had received little discussion during the conference. Although three motions had been tabled on the subject in advance, two of which were in favour of votes for women, the conference ran out of time and did not vote on them at all – though Conference had given its support on several occasions back to 1887.

Three motions on the subject of the women’s suffrage – two in favour, one against – put before the 1910 Conservative Party Conference [NUA 2/2/4 – p.41, 1910 conference agenda]

It was not until 1928 that women in the UK were allowed to vote on equal terms to men.

Images and text may not be used without the permission of the Conservative Party Archive Trust.