The Suffragette Dilemma in World War One

views updated

The Suffragette Dilemma in World War One

Journal article

By: Maud Selbourne

Date: 1915

Source: Selbourne, Maud. "The Suffragette Dilemma in World War One." The Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Review 22 (1915).

About the Author: Lady Maud Selbourne was married to William Waldegrave Palmer, the second earl of Selbourne. The couple lived in South Africa, where the earl was stationed as High Commissioner of South Africa; Lady Selbourne Township is named for her. An active suffragette in early twentieth-century in Britain, Lady Selbourne was the treasurer of the Consultative Committee of Constitutional Women's Suffrage Societies and a founder of the Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association.


Although Swedish women had been granted limited franchise by 1862, New Zealand led the women's suffrage (also known as "woman suffrage") effort by giving all women of majority status the right to vote in 1893. Starting with Wyoming in 1869, American women in individual states gradually gained the vote in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. During this same period, however, British women could only watch as male suffrage rights were expanded in their country. Although the philosopher John Stuart Mill had advocated for women's suffrage in 1867, Parliament considered, then passed, a bill permitting wider voting rights for working class men. In 1885 Parliament extended the vote to most men over the age of 21.

The fight for British female suffrage began in the 1860s, roughly parallel to its sister movement in theUnited States. Highly educated, often aristocratic women such as Emmaline Pankhurst, her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, Millicent Garrett Fawcett helped organize and lead the movement to enfranchise women in Britain.

By 1903, when these women formed the Women's Political and Social Union (WPSU), suffrage activists had been working for nearly four decades. The WPSU was a more radical organization than the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which had fought for suffrage and other social issues since 1887. Despite minor victories, such as the right to run for council or vote in local elections in some areas of Britain, suffragettes saw other nations extend the vote to some—if not all—women. Pankhurst and her daughters were convinced that more militant action was needed to bring attention to their cause.

By 1905 the WPSU was well known for disrupting political party gatherings and fighting against any party that did not work toward female suffrage. When the Liberal Party gained control of the government the following year, more than 400 of the 650 Ministers of Parliament were sympathetic to female enfranchisement. The Women's Suffrage Bill, introduced in March 1907, timed out before passage, however. Over the next seven years various bills for women's suffrage were introduced, timed out, or dropped because of new elections. In the meantime, WPSU members were jailed for protests and disruptions and force-fed during hunger strikes; the latter tactic gained them sympathy from the British public. By the beginning of World War I in 1914, suffragettes struggled with the dual issues of the war effort and gaining the vote.


It may be useful at the beginning of a New Year just to take stock, as it were, of the reasons which lead us Conservative women to be in favour of the change which is involved in cutting away the sex basis of the parliamentary franchise.

For it is implied in our profession of Conservatism that we require every proposal of change to be abundantly justified. Our natural prepossessions are against change. On the other hand, common sense teaches us that some change is necessary. "Time is the great innovator," as Lord Bacon says, "and a forward retention of custom is as turbulent a thing as an innovation." So that the Conservative avoids change until it becomes necessary, but does not delay it, when delay is deleterious.

The grounds on which we think the granting of votes to women is a timely reform may be divided into two groups, under the heads of reason and experience. Reason teaches us that women are naturally as fit to vote as men. Their intellectual capacity differs to certain extent from that of the other sex. There are fewer people of genius among women than among men; but in practical common sense there is no such inferiority, and in conduct more men fail than women. These are reasonable grounds for expecting that women will make as good voters as men.

Experience emphatically confirms the deductions of reason. The weight of testimony in all countries which have made the experiment is overwhelmingly that it has worked for good.

And now when we see how much misery has been caused by the failure of the men of peace to restrain the lovers of war in the German nation, we may justly think that in the male sex the lovers of war are too numerous. The addition of women to the electorate will always strengthen the forces that make for peace. We know that some wars are rendered inevitable, but to women war brings nothing but sorrow. To some men it also brings glory, so that they do not always fairly weight the evil side of it.

Maud Selbourne.


Lady Maud Selbourne, wife of the second earl of Selbourne, helped found the Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association, a group of upper-class British women who favored suffrage for "qualified" women. The Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association (CUWFA) produced the Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Review from 1910 to 1916.

In sharp contrast to the WPSU, the hunger strikes from suffragettes, and the WPSU's interest in the Labor party, the CUWFA advocated a more restrained approach. Continuing to work for the women's vote during World War I was frowned upon by many, including some women's voting rights activists. Women were expected to support the troops and their country during the war, and to continue to clamor for the vote was often viewed as unpatriotic.

At the same time, as Lady Selbourne notes, "we see how much misery has been caused by the failure of the men of peace to restrain the lovers of war.… The addition of women to the electorate will always strengthen the forces that make for peace." By using the war as a platform, Selbourne capitalized on British patriotism and used the war effort to her advantage without appearing to be opportunistic.

By war's end in 1918, women's efforts during the war and a sympathetic public paved the way for the enfranchisement of many women: Parliament granted women 30 and older (and men over 21) the right to vote. Ten years later, in 1928, universal suffrage was granted to any citizen 21 or older.



Buele, Mary Jo, and Paul Buehle. The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from History of Woman Suffrage. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Felder, Deborah G. A Century of Women: The Most Influential Events in Twentieth-Century Women's History. Kensington Publishing Corp., 1999.

Fletcher, Ian Christopher, and Laura E. Nym Mayhall, et al. Women's Suffrage in the British Empire; Citizenship, Nation and Race. London: Routledge, 2000.

Holton, Sandra Stanley. Feminism and Democracy: Women's Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900–1918. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

About this article

The Suffragette Dilemma in World War One

Updated About content Print Article