Yesterday in suffrage/anti-war history, 1915: the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies splits over support for WW1.

This should have gone out yesterday… but we were partying with Lady Stardust…

By the 1890s there were seventeen individual groups that were advocating women’s suffrage in the UK. This included the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage, Liberal Women’s Suffrage Society and the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage. On 14th October 1897, these groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Millicent Garret Fawcett was elected as president. Other members of the executive committee included Marie Corbett, Chrystal Macmillan, Maude Royden and Eleanor Rathbone.

The NUWSS held public meetings, organised petitions, wrote letters to politicians, published newspapers and distributed free literature. The main demand was for the vote on the same terms “as it is, or may be” granted to men. It was thought that this proposal would be “more likely to find support than a broader measure that would put women into the electoral majority, and it might nevertheless play the part of the thin end of the wedge.” (Remembering that up to two thirds of men were also unable to vote up until the twentieth century). Its message was directed at the Liberal Party, who it was hoped would win the next election. However, as one historian pointed out, the NUWSS’s achilles heel was that it remained “irrationally optimistic about the Liberal Party”. Liberal thinkers had been very supportive of votes for women individually, and Liberal-oriented groups had formed the original backbone of the movement that produced the NUWSS. But Liberal Party leaders consistently failed to implement women’s suffrage, gradually alienating many activists.

Dissatisfaction among women activist with the slow progress of support for women’s suffrage within the Liberal Party coincided with the increasing strength of a working class movement with an ambivalent attitude, at best, to women voting. While many Independent Labour Party, Social Democratic Federation members and trade unionists were supporters of female suffrage, just as many were opposed. However, many suffragists, both among what were later divided into the militant and constitutional camps, also became socialists, members of the Labour Party and trade unionists… If there is a tendency to portray suffragettes as posh (especially in fiction, films etc), the movement was in fact broad based, with mass working class membership; although in common with many other social movements, the power structures of the existing society were reflected in their organisation (a dynamic not unknown today…) and middle class women tended to dominate the leadership positions.

Though initially supportive of the militancy of the Women’s Social & Political Union when it was founded in 1903, including prison hunger strikes, NUWSS leaders like Millicent Garret Fawcett increasingly disagreed with the Pankhursts over their ‘violent’ tactics, especially deliberate property damage, which she thought were alienating MPs and the ‘voting public’. She favoured lobbying, education and gradual winning people over by persuasion, and focused efforts on Bills in Parliament, such as the 1912 attempt to give votes to all heads of households.

As growing political tension in Europe slid into World War One, in common with trade unions and socialists groups, the NUWSS campaigned against the possibility of war. IN Summer 1914, Millicent Garrett Fawcett issued a statement on behalf of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. “We, the women of the world, view with apprehension and dismay the present situation in Europe, which threatens to involve one continent, if not the whole world, in the disasters and horrors of war… We women of twenty-six countries, having bonded ourselves together in the International Woman Suffrage Alliance with the object of obtaining the political means of sharing with men the power which shapes the fate of nations, appeal to you to leave untried no method of conciliation or arbitration for arranging international differences to avert deluging half the civilised world in blood.”

Two days after the British government declared war on Germany (on 4th August 1914), the NUWSS declared that it was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. That night Millicent Fawcett chaired a meeting against the war. Speakers included Helena Swanwick, Olive Schreiner, Mary Macarthur, Mabel Stobart and Elizabeth Cadbury. Fawcett said there were millions of women who thought that war was a “crime against society”. She added: “A way must be found out of the tangle… In the first place they should try and avoid bitterness of national feeling. They should on the one hand keep down panic and on the other the war fever and Jingo feeling.”

However, in common with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and the WSPU leadership, when it came down to it, Garret Fawcett and many NUWSS leaders supported the War effort, partly pragmatically, believing mass women’s support for the war effort would lead a grateful granting of the vote for women in response. But also, because the movement reflected the wider society, and if for some, the struggle to win the vote was just part of a wider program to change society for the better, there were others who wholeheartedly bought into the nationalist and imperialist mindset of the time. And that wasn’t just the suffragettes – millions of socialists, trade unionist and even some anarchists fell in behind the war myth.

Although Fawcett supported the war effort she refused to become involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. The WSPU under Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s leadership took a very different view. After secret negotiations with the government, on the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Christabel Pankhurst, arrived back in England after living in exile in Paris. She told the press: “I feel that my duty lies in England now, and I have come back. The British citizenship for which we suffragettes have been fighting is now in jeopardy.”

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as “We Demand the Right to Serve”, “For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work” and “Let None Be Kaiser’s Cat’s Paws”. At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men. She told the audience: “What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!”. Emmeline would go on to spearhead campaigns to shame men who had not volunteered into signing up, carry out vitriolic attacks on pacifists and opponents of the war, denouncing any opposition as treason and accusing anti-war activists of being German spies. (She went as far as specifically making lists of trade unionists who went on strike, passing the names to the army and demanding they be forcibly enlisted and sent to the trenches. On at least one occasion this was carried out.)

Despite not going anything like this far, Millicent Garret Fawcett refused to argue against the First World War. At a Council meeting of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies held in February 1915, Fawcett attacked the peace efforts of people like Mary Sheepshanks. Fawcett argued that until the German armies had been driven out of France and Belgium: “I believe it is akin to treason to talk of peace.” Her biographer, Ray Strachey, argued: “She stood like a rock in their path, opposing herself with all the great weight of her personal popularity and prestige to their use of the machinery and name of the union.”

The NUWSS contained probably more pacifist feminists than the WSPU; as a result the organisation’s support for the War was less strident, (and unlike the WSPU they continued to campaign for the vote throughout the slaughter). There was a tussle in the organisation over whether to support or oppose the war, though, and many pacifists were forced out, after they tried to push the NUWSS towards an anti-war position. On March 4th 1915, this split came to a head at an NUWSS executive meeting, and while the majority of the executive – and possibly the activists – were anti-war, the pro-war leadership managed to mobilise the mass of the (mostly passive) national membership, in support of their position.
Ray Strachey, a leading acolyte of Millicent Garret, and definitively pro-war, wrote to her mother: “We have succeeded in throwing all the pacifists out… They wanted us to send a delegate to the Women’s Peace Conference at the Hague, & we refused. Then they resigned in a body – and they included the majority of our senior officers and committees! It is a marvellous triumph that it was they who had to go out and not us – and shows that there is some advantage in internal democracy, for we only did it by having the bulk of the stodgy members behind us.”

After a stormy executive meeting all the officers of the NUWSS (except the Treasurer) and ten members of the National Executive resigned over the decision not to support the Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague. This included Chrystal Macmillan, Margaret Ashton, Kathleen Courtney, Catherine Marshall, Eleanor Rathbone and Maude Royden. “Wounding language was used on both sides. Mrs Fawcett did not normally turn disagreements among friends into quarrels but this one she experienced as a personal betrayal. It became the only episode in her life that she wished to forget”.

Kathleen Courtney wrote when she resigned: “I feel strongly that the most important thing at the present moment is to work, if possible on international lines for the right sort of peace settlement after the war. If I could have done this through the National Union, I need hardly say how infinitely I would have preferred it and for the sake of doing so I would gladly have sacrificed a good deal. But the Council made it quite clear that they did not wish the union to work in that way.” According to Elizabeth Crawford: “Mrs Fawcett afterwards felt particularly bitter towards Kathleen Courtney, whom she felt had been intentionally and personally wounding, and refused to effect any reconciliation, relying, as she said, on time to erase the memory of this difficult period.”

In May 1916 Millicent Fawcett wrote to Prime Minster Herbert Asquith that women deserved the vote for their war efforts. In August he told the House of Commons that he had now changed his mind and that he intended to introduce legislation that would give women the vote. On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities. MPs rejected the idea of granting the vote to women on the same terms as men. Lilian Lenton, who had played an important role in the militant campaign later recalled: “Personally, I didn’t vote for a long time, because I hadn’t either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30.”

The Qualification of Women Act was passed in February, 1918. The Manchester Guardian reported: “The Representation of the People Bill, which doubles the electorate, giving the Parliamentary vote to about six million women and placing soldiers and sailors over 19 on the register (with a proxy vote for those on service abroad), simplifies the registration system, greatly reduces the cost of elections, and provides that they shall all take place on one day, and by a redistribution of seats tends to give a vote the same value everywhere, passed both Houses yesterday and received the Royal assent.”

The First World War ended in November 1918. Millicent Fawcett lost “no fewer than twenty-nine members of her extended family, including two nephews” in the war. Whereas the WSPU “were prepared to accept votes for women on any terms the government had to offer… the NUWSS continued to press its old case for equality with men”. Garret Fawcett was urged to stand for Parliament in the 1918 General Election, but aged seventy-one, she decided to retire from politics.

After the granting of the franchise for women under 30 in 1919, the NUWSS became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, working mainly for a lowering of women’s voting age to 21 to match men.

Read a PDF of The British Women’s Peace Movement during World War I. 

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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