Lessons from Mary Ward and the Women’s Anti-Suffragist Movement

Helen Andrews

When the fight in Britain over women’s suffrage came to an end with the passage of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which enfranchised property-holding women over thirty, Mary Augusta Ward was almost relieved to have been defeated. For nearly forty years she had been the public face of the anti-suffrage campaign: head of the Woman’s National Anti-Suffrage League, editor of the Anti-Suffrage Review, author of the League’s founding manifesto, which attracted 104 signatures including Gertrude Bell’s, Beatrice Webb’s, and Virginia Woolf’s mother’s. In her capacity as the famous novelist “Mrs. Humphry Ward,” she had published Delia Blanchflower, a social problem novel about a feminist virago who comes to grief after burning down a cabinet minister’s house as an act of protest.

But all of this campaigning had come at a cost. Old friends had cut ties. Her college at Oxford had quietly disavowed her in 1909, although she had been one of its founders—the name “Somerville Hall” had been her suggestion. Sales of her novels suffered, or so she believed to the end of her life. Nor was Mrs. Ward the only one to pay a price for her involvement. Her son Arnold, a Unionist MP for eight years, was rejected by his party before the following election because women in his constituency objected to his family’s well-known anti-suffrage stance. The nomination instead went to a seventy-one-year-old rubber tycoon whom Mrs. Ward called “the stupidest man I know, and a perfectly incompetent speaker.”

Mrs. Ward also had reason to feel bitter over the way the suffrage fight had ended. It had all come down to the House of Lords. The suffragists wanted them to pass the Commons’ bill, and the antis wanted them to reject it and call for a referendum on the suffrage question. Ward believed, probably correctly, that any referendum in which women themselves voted would yield a negative, as such plebiscites had in the United States. The leader of the House of Lords was then George Curzon, an Anti-Suffrage League board member and the man who had approached Mrs. Ward about becoming involved in the cause in the first place. She therefore assumed that the vote was likely to go their way, even if her referendum proposal did not get through.

But Curzon let her down. On January 10, at the end of an exceptionally long speech, he declared that although he personally opposed the suffrage bill, as leader of the house he felt obliged to abstain from the vote. The reason he gave was the looming threat of “Lords reform,” which, if the upper house picked the wrong moment to be recalcitrant, might result in its complete abolition. But of course Mrs. Ward did not see his point. She saw only cowardice and a stampede of skittish Nays. When she complained of Curzon’s betrayal to the pro-suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett, Mrs. Fawcett is said to have replied, “That’s what comes of trusting to your men friends.”

As she contemplated the future, Mrs. Ward could not help but feel pessimistic—about the prospects for British politics, and British womanhood, and about her own future. But however pessimistic she was then, she could not possibly have predicted just how complete would be the oblivion to which history would consign her and her friends.

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Of all the female anti-suffragists, Mrs. Ward was probably the most intellectually distinguished. She was, to begin with, one of the famous Arnold family, granddaughter of Thomas Arnold of Rugby and favourite niece of Matthew Arnold the poet. Growing up in Oxford, she became the country’s foremost expert on early Spanish literature before the age of twenty, simply by making judicious use of the Bodleian as a teenager. Later, her crisis-of-faith novel Robert Elsmere became a national sensation and attracted a ten-thousand-word response from William Gladstone, then between his third and fourth premierships. (Gladstone also refused to be deterred from putting Mrs. Ward through a marathon in-person theological grilling by the fact that her mother had died the day before, but that was more a matter of Gladstone’s natural solipsism than a sign of intellectual esteem.)

But Mrs. Ward was by no means slumming it. Other antis included Eliza Lynn Linton, who in her youth had been a professional rival of George Eliot, and Frances H. Low, journalist and author of the wonderfully practical Press Work for Women: What to Write, How to Write It, and Where to Send It. As a poor spinster who lived with her sister, Low was particularly galled by suffragettes who claimed that antis were all pampered ninnies—as if any of the Pankhursts had ever had to work for a living! In the United States, anti-suffrage activists were no less accomplished, as a glance through the author dossiers in Anti-Suffrage Essays by Massachusetts Women (1916) will prove.

Obviously these women did not think their sex was stupid. They did not think that the burden of deciding whom to vote for would cause infertility by diverting blood from the uterus to the brain. (This uterus line was the only anti-suffrage argument ever mentioned in any of my public school American history classes.) Anna Howard Shaw denigrated them as “the home, hearth, and mother crowd,” but that was a caricature. These were intelligent women, and while we may not find their arguments intelligent today, it is to our discredit and not theirs if we do not at least find them intelligible.

A brief pause before I go any further. I am happy to take for granted that (perhaps not all) the readers of this essay are out of sympathy with the anti-suffragists. However, you will never be able to see these women clearly if you insist, anachronistically, on seeing suffrage as a fundamental human right. No one in the Edwardian era put suffrage in the same category as freedom of opinion, the right to a fair trial, or the right to property. Suffrage was a political rather than a natural right, and therefore a matter of expediency. Previous expansions of the franchise had hinged on the practical question of whether the new voters would yield a Britain that was governed better or worse. No one was having their humanity denied—not £7 householders in 1866, not women in 1914. If you do not understand that, you will never understand women like Mary Ward.

Back when democracy was considered a means and not an end, it was thought to be a bad idea to have a large segment of the population that was entitled to vote but habitually did not. Such blocs would be a temptation to demagogues and would mean that, in times of crisis, elections would be decided by the inexperienced, the injudicious, and the excitable. Thus, when anti-suffragists claimed that women should not have the vote because most did not want it, they were not suggesting that suffrage would be a waste—they meant it would be dangerous. And not even the suffragettes thought a majority of women wanted the vote. Many local and school-board elections had been opened to women in Britain and the U.S. in the nineteenth century, partly to test female interest in voting, but turnout remained dismally low, often in single digits. In 1895 a Massachusetts referendum of both sexes ended in humiliation for the suffragists, which discouraged them from further direct appeals to the people.

Another argument that had nothing to do with female weakness was the general desirability of small electorates. Common sense decreed that elections should not involve any more voters than are necessary to obtain a good result. Large constituencies devalue each individual’s vote, and they lend themselves to mass-advertising-style tactics rather than true deliberation. If women’s interests were protected well enough by men—and Parliament had passed a good deal of feminist legislation since the Married Women’s Property Act 1870—then safer to keep the electorate small. It was also a Victorian commonplace that voters should be financially independent, not in the pocket of any landlord or employer—or husband.

The existence of “separate spheres” for men and women was generally agreed upon by both sides of the suffrage debate. The only question was whether the woman’s sphere should be politicized. “I advocate the extension of the franchise to women because I wish to see the womanly and domestic side of things weigh more and count for more in all public concerns,” declared Mrs. Fawcett in 1894. But unlike Mrs. Fawcett, Mrs. Ward had decades of experience as a genuine social reformer, in real charities and not just radical activist groups, and in her experience there were benefits to remaining apolitical. When men allowed partisan considerations to stand in the way of sound policy on education, poor relief, the Contagious Diseases Act, or some other issue in which social reformers had an interest, women could break through the rancor and appeal to their better natures. But only as long as women could plausibly claim political neutrality.

Finally, there was the physical force argument. “Votes are to swords exactly what bank notes are to gold,” said F. E. Smith, the age’s best lawyer. “The one is effective only because the other is believed to be behind it.” The nightmare scenario that most British antis had in mind was prohibition—if temperance were imposed by a female majority, could the law be enforced without provoking a constitutional crisis?—but a better thought experiment would be a case like France. Gallic women were known to be far more pious than their husbands; what if they used the franchise to install a Catholic king, just as a male majority had made an emperor of Louis-Napoleon? If men believed that women could not enforce their coup, it would mean civil war.

Suffragists retorted that physical strength no longer counted for much in an age that had moved beyond barbarism (not to mention an age of pistols and bombs), and that women were not so weak as all that anyhow. Male antis were unmoved, though, and it is noteworthy that the men most skeptical of this counterargument—Curzon, Asquith, Reginald McKenna, Joseph Chamberlain—had all had wives who died, or nearly died, in childbirth.

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It is likely that you have come up with rebuttals to these anti-suffrage arguments as you have been reading along. That’s fine—I have a dozen myself. The important thing to know is that, whatever enlightened counterarguments you have in mind, they were almost certainly espoused by none of the suffragettes at the time. For women who were not terribly political themselves, that was the decisive argument against suffrage: half the women arguing in favor of it seemed to be utterly daft.

Daftest of all was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who is now remembered for The Yellow Wallpaper but who was cherished by anti-suffragists for wild quotes like “The home of the future is one in which not one stroke of work shall be done except by professional people who are paid by the hour.” Catherine Gasquoine Hartley thought suffrage would lead to free love. Sylvia Pankhurst thought it would put an end to war. Many otherwise sane suffragists thought it would, at the very least, put an end to political parties. Government would become a matter of administration rather than politics, as all good progressives desired. And drink would be banned.

The suffragist’s foreign policy views were particularly worrying to imperial antis like Curzon and Lord Cromer, former consul-general of Egypt (in which role he had, incidentally, insisted on better treatment for Muslim women). The suffragettes’ terror campaign peaked on the eve of World War I, after all. Most suffragists were naively indifferent to foreign policy, and those who did speak on the topic implied that women once empowered would unite behind pacifism. If male antis worried about suffrage’s effect on Britain’s ability to defeat the Kaiser, their fears were not entirely baseless.

Ideally the suffragists would have been able to point to states where women could vote—Colorado, New Zealand, South Australia—and show that they were better governed, or had passed more laws protecting women, or were in some way superior. Alas, an empirical case was not forthcoming. “After thirty years of Woman Suffrage in the United States, the results are either negligible or disastrous,” wrote Mrs. Ward in January 1918, on the eve of defeat.

Divorce is more rife in the Suffrage States than in the non-Suffrage. The wages in Colorado are 47 per cent of the wages of men, whereas in Massachusetts they are 62 per cent. . . . The facts are by now so striking that the Woman Suffrage speakers are abandoning the ‘results’ argument and falling back upon that of ‘natural right.’

That last sentence was largely true. Neither could the suffragists point to any laws that would be passed under the new regime, since everything on their wish list—higher education, inheritance rights, guardianship of children, divorce reform, factory laws—had already been granted. (So much for the argument that power yields only to force.) Sometimes it seemed like the antis were the only ones who anticipated any practical consequences to follow from suffrage. Of course, the effects they had in mind were things like the routinization of suffragette tactics: blowing up buildings, shouting down public speakers, pouring acid down pillar-boxes, slashing priceless paintings, horsewhipping ministers on the street.

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The mass of people were not swayed by any of these tactics, or by the radical feminists’ crackpot arguments. Yet in the end everyone lined up behind suffrage or at least acquiesced in its inevitability. What clinched it for them? One simple argument: If a woman doesn’t want to vote, no one is going to force her. Or, as the stereotype Irishwoman “Molly” puts it in the pro-suffrage propaganda play The Arrest of Suffrage (1912) when a well-heeled anti accuses her of thrusting votes on unwilling women: “Och! Thrust nothing! Yer don’t have to vote if yer don’t want to!”

This was, of course, deceptive. Leave aside for the moment the practical matter that conservative women could hardly be expected to stand on their scruples while the left-wing parties were literally doubling their votes. Many of the things that female anti-suffragists wished to preserve would be destroyed simply by admitting women to the franchise, whether they personally chose to vote or not. The moral high ground of non-partisanship, which Mrs. Ward had found so helpful in her social reform battles, would disappear.

More importantly, the bright dividing line between politics and home life would vanish. In practice the “separate spheres” remained separate for a little while longer, but both spheres would now be political. Lloyd George once said that woman’s suffrage became inevitable “from the moment the Legislature began to interfere in the home, to interfere with the health of the people, with the education of their children and their upbringing.” The dynamic also runs in the other direction: In order to attract women, parties had to put forward policies that appealed to women’s interests, which brought the state deeper into the home, which brought women deeper into partisan politics.

Of course, it was difficult for antis to put all of this into a ten-word slogan. In the exhaustion following the Great War, the bulk of the male population was complaisant enough about the whole issue that they figured it couldn’t do much harm to give the vote to those women who wanted it, as long as no one was forcing anything on anyone. Changes to the meaning of some very fundamental institutions were being forced on everyone, but such redefinitions are always hard to explain, and anyway the changes might well turn out to be benign.

Further weakening the antis’ case was the defection of many conservative allies. A surprising number of rock-ribbed reactionaries went over to the suffrage side, including the Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury, the same man who as a young politician had resigned in protest from Disraeli’s Cabinet over the democratic excesses of the Reform Act of 1867. Salisbury, like many English conservatives, was both emotionally and intellectually attached to the English constitution’s hallowed safeguards against the tyranny of the majority. They believed in property restrictions and household (as against manhood) suffrage just as modern Americans believe in representative democracy rather than plebiscites, and for much the same reasons.

But once the limits in which they fervently believed had fallen, in slow sequence between 1832 and 1884, it seemed a trifling matter to let the sex barrier fall as well. Dean Inge, the sardonic clergyman, was no friend of democracy—he identified it with “the famous occasion when the voice of the people cried, Crucify Him!”—but his final comment on woman suffrage was unprotesting: “There is something to be said for extending an absurdity to its logical conclusion.”

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So, to sum up: In the second decade of the new century, a reform that had been a pipe dream of a radical fringe thirty years earlier came to be seen as inevitable. Proponents had a history of being bullying (or worse) in their tactics and frankly out-there in their arguments, but by framing the issue as a matter of live and let live, the necessary majorities were obtained. The antis, alas for them, had no shortage of sound arguments and conducted themselves in a more civilized fashion (no tantrums) but could not stop the reform from coming to pass, partly due to the defection of reactionaries who thought the institution in question was too far gone to salvage. Soon the whole fight was forgotten, apart from a vague but definite conviction that before the great reform was passed, its beneficiaries lived miserable lives of abject non-personhood.

Perhaps a parallel has occurred to you. As someone who favors the former but not the latter, I hesitate to draw too close a comparison between women’s suffrage and gay marriage. Still, I regret that the anti-suffragists have been scrubbed so completely from our historical consciousness. They were among the very last people ever to take a stand against the politicization of family life, against the elimination of all havens from the culture wars, against the displacement of human relationships by the benevolent state. As those fights rage anew, we are worse off for not having the memory of the antis to call upon.

In a sense, it is to the antis’ credit that they allowed themselves to be forgotten. The suffragettes were all born activists who were motivated, to a greater extent that their fans like to admit, by sheer love of the game. After suffrage was won, many eschewed the dull world of party politics in favor of new causes that would offer the same thrill—like Mosleyite fascism, in the case of Norah Elam and “Slasher” Mary Richardson. The antis were not like that. They had joined the battle because they felt their cause was right, and when it was over, they retired from public life. They had no interest in a substitute cause or a rematch, or in mythologizing their exploits.

The aspects of marriage that traditional Christians cherish, and which they believe to be threatened by gay marriage, ought to go on mattering even if this particular fight goes against them. These traditionalists are currently the strongest and sometimes the sole defenders of the reality of male–female difference, the principle that mothers and fathers are not interchangeable, and limits on the state’s power to force religious groups to alter their fundamental doctrines. Future generations will need these concepts handy to face new challenges, even if—especially if—their current defenders go down to defeat.

It would therefore be a shame if pro-marriage arguments were cast into the same void that has swallowed up Mary Ward and Frances Low. Accepting defeat in an honorable fashion was the noble thing for those women to do, and if it comes to that, I could not exactly counsel defenders of marriage to behave in any other way. But they should not kid themselves that, after such a defeat, anyone will remember them kindly. Or remember them at all. 

Helen Andrews is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and has written for National Review, First Things, and other publications