Women in the hundreds of years preceeding the crucial date of 1870 had always faced a life that they would be better of in as men. They had few, if any, rights to the things they owned, even there own children and they could effectively be bought or sold by parents and prospective partners alike. A woman belonged first to her parents then to her husband and was expected to carry out certain duties according to her class, without hesitation or complaining. The closer we get to the 1870s, the more middle and upper class women start to realise that the duel roles of child bearer and home maker are not the one that they need to be confined to.
Shifting views in society about the role of women happened over time but nothing was really accomplished until 1839 when the ‘Custody of Infants Act’ was passed which meant that women could now take custody of her children in the then unlikely event of a divorce. It was, many believe, the first step on a long road to equality which would take well over 150 years. The way in which women were treated increased the level animosity to such a point that the government started having to make concessions to women in the form of such Parliamentary acts as the aforementioned ‘Custody of Infants Act.
Also the 1857 ‘Matrimonial Causes Act’ which enabled women to have a divorce through the law courts, instead of the slow and expensive business of a Private Act of Parliament. Under the terms of the act, the husband had only to prove his wife’s adultery, but the wife had to prove her husband had committed not just adultery but also incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion, it was, however, still an improvement. Education and schooling are also quite important for showing how improvements before 1870 helped advances after it. Francis Buss and Dorothea Beale became headmistresses of their own girl’s schools in 1853 and 1857 respectively.
This was the first time that it had been considered worthwhile schooling girls to level where they could partake in public exams and, therefore, gain qualifications not only making them able to get respectable, well paid jobs thereby being able to support themselves financially (in theory). The girls taught at schools like these would be the sort of people to go on into the women’s suffrage movement post 1870 with the ability to make well constructed and relevant arguments in order to get their message across. Some of the other ways in which women were treated differently was to do with the actual vote itself.
In 1867 there was a reform act passed which allowed almost the entire population of men to vote which only gave renewed vigour to the argument that women should be allowed to do the same. Two years later women then were allowed to vote on school boards and in local elections which only really served to fuel the fire within the recently created discussion groups like the Kensington Society. The Kensington Society was the first group of women, most of them unmarried, who got together in order to pressure MPs into hearing what arguments they felt needed to be heard.
The Manchester, Edinburgh Bristol and Birmingham Societies formed soon after as an outlet for similar women all over the country. Unification started in 1967 when a reform act that tried to give women the same voting rights as men was defeated. The initial name for this loose grouping of societies was the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS). The unification started much better communication between different group, giving a good grounding for them to start co-ordinating their demonstrations and parliamentary lobbying in order to get change.
In 1868, Lydia Becker, the leader of the NSWS, began to encourage women who met the ‘property qualification’ rule to try and register to vote but this was defeated by a court saying that this practice was illegal and that women would have change the law in order to get their way. However, this was the first time the NSWS had used its collective power in a constructive way and, although they had not been successful it was a good indicator of the women’s movement was to go about things in future.
Working women tended to be a lower class phenomenon in the 1800s but when, in 1883, the ‘Corrupt Practices Act’ was passed, women for the higher echelons of society were called upon by political parties to do voluntary work for them. This was because the ‘Corrupt Practices Act’ made it illegal for people to be paid to do political work meaning rich women could step in and become part of the political system at a grass roots level. As a direct result of this, the Conservative Party’s Primrose League allowed women to become members and by 1893 the number of females in its ranks was estimated to be about 500,000.
Purely political work was not the only area women in which women developed the suffrage movement, however. Jobs that many would now traditionally associate with women, such as teaching, became ever more highly valued at the time because of the 1870 ‘Education Act which meant that schooling was required for all girls up to the age of 10. Also, a more unlikely vocation became far more available to women during this time period as a result of Henry Fawcett, then Postmaster General in Gladstone’s government.
His marriage to Millicent Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), explains his feministic views and why he recruited so many women in the postal service. All of these new jobs made it seem more acceptable to have women in the workplace and although it would be a long time before women would be considered equal with men, it was an important beginning. Already two of the most important names in helping support the suffrage idea have been mentioned, those being Millicent and Henry Fawcett.
Millicent Fawcett was passionate about getting the vote for women and excelled at organising the NUWSS after taking it over in 1900. She not only used these skills to good effect in her role as head of the NUWSS but also she used her links to the government, through her husband, to great effect by getting him to do thing such as taking on many women in the postal service. Her sister, Elizabeth Garrett, was also a major figure in the movement. Elizabeth Garrett was a pioneer in the field of female doctoring as she was the first woman to qualify as a surgeon after getting her MD from the University of Paris.
Not only did she manage to have an Act of Parliament passed in 1876 which allowed all women to take medical exams, she inspired many people, such as Sophia Jex-Blake, to follow in her footsteps. By 1902 there were 355 practising, female doctors only able to be doing so due to Garrett’s trailblazing. She precedents for women all over Britain to copy and was also very influential later in her years when she became involved with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Her influences spanned almost the entire period of the campaign for women’s suffrage. Other women who were influential in helping the suffrage movement around the 1870s were people who wrote articles and books on the subject. These included Lydia Becker who established both the Manchester Society with two others but also a periodical called ‘Women’s Suffrage Journal’ which as its name suggests, was intended to spread the message about the fact that women should be allowed to vote on the same basis as men.
All this literature inspired other women to partake in the feminist society culture, famously, women like Emily Davies and Elizabeth Wolstenholme. Ironic though it may seem, a fair proportion of the progress was made by or with the help of certain enlightened men. Henry Fawcett is one of the most influential along with John Stuart Mill MP who was fellow intellectual and feminist who believed in the idea of universal suffrage. He supported all of the Bills that came to parliament including the original one that was put forward in 1870 by Jacob Bright.
Although this, and many other bills, were defeated by Gladstone’s objection to them, J S Mill, Henry Fawcett, Jacob Bright and other MPs with similar views on the issue all campaigned long and hard in one of the few places where women could not – in parliament itself. Without the help of the male contingent, the suffrage movement may have taken far longer and become far more extreme in order to get its wish. Overall, I feel that out of the panoply of different reasons for the way in which the suffrage movement developed, the most major ones are those relating to the various leaders of the movement.
Without proper leaders who have the ability to unite and empower the people who believe in them there would be no movement at all, only subversive muttering and unheard complaints. It is also my belief that the schooling plays an important part in creating women with the will to fight for the vote. If fewer women were learned enough to take up the argument on an intellectual level then the movement would have been unable to get going with the same force of support. If I were to sum up why the suffrage movement developed after 1870 in three words they would be these; education, unification and determination.