Reading The Women’s Victory – and After: Personal Reminiscences, 1911-1918 by Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1920), it’s hard not to think that little has changed in the campaigning world. Fawcett was president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and this little memoir is a pretty well blow-by-blow account of the final push from the non-militant wing of the suffragist movement. (They were, you might say, today’s Friends of the Earth and the suffragettes, with their militant tactics, the Sea Shepherd of the time.)
The parliamentary tactics, the lobbying, the enlisting of parliamentary supporters to convert waverers, the plotting to find ways to disarm the enemies of your cause, and the betrayals coming from those who’d promised support but found excuses to back down might come straight from an account of any similar efforts today.
As today, that often involved meetings with people with whom you had little sympathy – and they the same for you. Fawcett is delightful on the subject of her first meeting with the Chancellor Asquith. “We had with us Miss Emily Davies, the founder of Girton college; Lady Strachey, wife of the well-known Indian administrator; Miss Frances Sterling; Miss I.O. Ford, and other well-known suffrage leaders from our various societies. While we were still in the waiting-room, I was sent for by myself for a preliminary interview with Mr Asquith’s private secretary. If found him a rather agitated-looking young man, who said: ‘I want you, Mrs Fawcett, to give me your personal word of honour that no member of your deputation will employ physical violence.’ ‘Indeed,’ I replied, ‘you astonish me. I had no idea you were so frightened.’ He instantly repudiated being frightened… As we entered the room, where Mr Asquith was sitting with his back to the light on our right, I observed in the opposite corner on our extreme left a lady I did not know. So I said to the secretary in a clear voice, ‘I give no guarantee for that lady’ I do now know her.’ ‘Oh that,’ he rejoined, and again showed some agitation – that lady is Miss Asquith.’” (p. 17)
There’s also some of the same dilemmas as for today about how far a “non-party” campaigning group should do in backing parties that support it and working against those with which it disagrees. There’s some clear defensiveness in Fawcett’s tone as she describes the decision from 1912, after the Liberals had gone back on plans to include women’s votes in the Government Reform Bill in 1911. “It is interesting now to look back at the NUWSS report in the year 1912, and see the care with which we defined our position. No Government candidate was to be supported, because the Government, under Mr Asquith, had shown the most determined opposition to our enfranchisement. When a Conservative candidate was supported, it was because we deemed this the best way of securing the defeat of a Government candidate; when the Labour candidate was supported, it was made clear that this was done because the Labour Party was the only party which had made women’s suffrage part of its programme, and had, moreover, rendered us the signal service of calling upon its parliamentary representatives to oppose any Franchise Bill which did not include women.” (p. 34)
She also explains the now rather puzzling decision in 1918 to give the franchise to women over the age of 30. “One main objection of the antisuffragists to our enfranchisement was that the number of women in this country was about one and a half million in excess of the number of men. It was therefore plausible, although fallacious, to say that women’s suffrage would result in making over the government of the country to women. What was desired by the friends of women’s suffrage in the Speaker’s conference was accordingly the creation of a constituency in which women, though substantially represented, would not be in the majority. … The thirty years age limit for women was quite indefensible logically; but it was practically convenient in getting rid of a bogie whose unreality a few years’ experience would probably prove by demonstration. We remembered Dsraeli’s dictum: ‘England is not governed by logic, but by Parliament.” (p. 143)
Fawcett notes that the same thing had been done in Norway in 1907, and had lasted for six years. That highlights another aspect from the book that shines out – the way different suffragist movements around the world learnt from each other, and were buoyed by each other’s successes. She highlights the events of 1916: “In that year a great suffrage movement swept over Canada, like a mighty win, from the West to the East. One after another, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and British Columbia enfranchised their women. In British Columbia, a referendum (only men voting) showed a majority of more than two to one for women’s franchise, and the soldiers’ vote, which came in later, only swelled the large majority. Ontario followed…. And in May, 1917, Sir Robert Borden announced his intention to introduce a women’s suffrage measure for the whole of Canada… The Province of Alberta, in the meantime, had bettered its own record by returning a lady, Miss Roberta Catherine MacAdams, to its Legislative Assembly. … she was chosen entirely by men who were performing military service in Europe. There were 20 men candidates and one woman.”
There’s very little that’s personal in these memoirs – Fawcett mentions occasionally the frustration a reverse occasioned, or the joy of victory, but any editor today would surely urge an author to put much more of themselves in the text. But nonetheless Fawcett’s character shines through – she was obviously clearheaded, determined and optimistic.
And very happy with victory. She wrote: “People used to talk about our fifty years’ struggle as fifty years in the wilderness, and offer their sympathy upon the length of time we had had to work for our cause. But there was no call for commiseration. We had had a joyful and happy time, marked by victory in some phase or other of our movement all along. We had won municipal suffrage and all local government suffrages. Municipal offices had been opened. Women had been elected to be mayors in important boroughs. The education of girls had been enormously improved; the Universities had been opened; the medical profession had admitted women to its ranks; nearly all the learned societies had followed suit…. The time we had taken to win household suffrage for women had been two years less than the time men had taken to cover the same ground…. Taking 1832 as their starting-point with the reform bill of that year.” (p. 154)
And as for that sense of déjà vu … well it gets very strong when Fawcett comes on to “what next”. The NUWSS became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. Among its causes “equal pay for equal work” and getting women elected. She’d surely be horrified at how far we are today from both goals. And on electoral reform, she points to the Speaker’s Conference recommendation for proportional representation, saying it “would secure a much fairer reflection of the whole nation than the present system, which may, and frequently does, result in the practical exclusion from representation of large masses of the voters”. (p. 166) Quite!