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The anti-suffrage movement

  • Article written by: Julia Bush
  • Published: 5 Mar 2018
The early 20th century saw widespread support for anti-suffragism. Dr Julia Bush looks at the people and organisations campaigning against the suffragists and suffragettes, and the arguments they used to advance their cause.

Reputation and reality

During the early 20th century there was widespread public support for anti-suffragism, yet modern histories have generally focused upon the triumphant suffragists and suffragettes rather than upon their defeated opponents. Initially the opponents of women’s suffrage were ridiculed by suffragist opponents and their reputation has been further diminished by historical neglect. Millicent Fawcett wrote in 1912 of the ‘inherent absurdity of the whole position of anti-suffrage women’, while Ray Strachey, one of the first historians of suffragism, claimed that the organised anti-suffrage leagues ‘soon began to afford great delight and comfort to their opponents by the ineptitude and futility of their ways’. It suited the suffragists to portray a laughably ineffective opposition dominated by misogynistic men, rather than acknowledge the predominance of fellow women within a large and well-organised anti-suffrage movement.

Photograph of Millicent Fawcett

Millicent Fawcett

In 1912, Millicent Fawcett wrote of the ‘inherent absurdity of the whole position of anti-suffrage women’.

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Yet there is a strong case for giving closer attention to the so-called ‘Antis’. In many ways the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements were interdependent, reacting to each other’s arguments, responding to each other’s tactics, and connecting as well as clashing across the wider arenas of male politics and female social action. Both suffragism and anti-suffragism were part of what became known in late Victorian times as ‘the Woman Question’. How desirable was male and female equality? How would expanding opportunities for women impact upon nation and empire, as well as upon individual happiness and the welfare of families? In this broader context, it is not surprising to find that voting rights for women was a hotly contested cause. Far from being outdated and irrelevant, the anti-suffragists could plausibly claim to speak for a silent majority of men and women who feared that valuable gender differences would be diluted by too much political equality.

The campaign for the vote was a long one, most obviously because of resistance by male politicians but also because public support for the female franchise was far from overwhelming. The anti-suffrage movement benefited from widespread gender conservatism across all social classes. It was only after several decades of feminist pressure had produced a noticeable parliamentary shift towards suffragism that the Antis stirred into action and started to mount their own campaign. By 1914 the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage had 42,000 paid-up members and thousands more non-paying supporters. Its members had collected over half a million signatures for petitions against votes for women and its leaders were confidently demanding a national referendum on the issue. Anti-suffragists could not match the fervour of their opponents, but they were clearly a force to be reckoned with rather than merely a target for suffragist ridicule.

Why did men and women oppose votes for women?

Anti-suffragism was rooted in popular prejudices, and especially in a deep-rooted fear of women becoming ‘masculinised’ by their entry into political life. One of the posters of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage was titled ‘A Suffragette’s Home’. It showed a grim-looking man arriving home from work to a scene of domestic chaos, with weeping children, a dangerously smoking lamp, and a casual note attached to a suffrage poster – ‘Back in an hour or so’. This image embodied a widespread feeling that women’s suffrage was merely the tip of the iceberg. Below lay the dark forces of a radical feminism which could eventually subvert the entire social order by undermining the gendered foundations of domestic life.

Most of the arguments against women’s suffrage drew upon this fear, in one form or another. However the anti-suffragists expressed their views in many different ways, resulting sometimes in confusion and self-contradiction. Broadly, anti-suffrage arguments can be divided into positive and negative categories. Men and women opposed the vote for many of the same reasons, but male leaders of the anti-suffrage movement were far more likely to voice negative arguments. Lord Curzon, President of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, listed ‘15 strong, valid and incontrovertible arguments which could be advanced against women’s suffrage’. These included three arguments related to the British Empire and another to the ‘physical force’ premise: women could not join the army or the police, so they should not be given responsibility for sending men to war and or for making laws which men must enforce. Curzon’s other arguments related to women’s lack of ‘calmness of temperament’ and ‘balance of mind’, especially in ‘emergencies or on occasions of emotional excitement’. Plainly male Antis believed that women were the weaker sex. A Trafalgar Square speaker claimed in 1910 that ‘Women’s franchise will make England the laughing stock of Europe. It will bring misery on our homes and ruin on our Empire.’

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook, volume 5

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook, vol 5

This is an article by E.B. Harrison, a member of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. She details that a ‘division of functions’ is ‘the keystone of civilisation’, and women should refrain from entering into the realms of politics, law and defence – in fear that in being granted the vote - women would fail in their ‘own special work’.

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Usage terms Mrs Frederic Harrison, 'The Opponents' View. Women's National Anti-suffrage League': Public Domain  Badge of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for the design of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League badge. Please contact with any information you have regarding this item.

Yet the anti-suffrage cause was also supported by many strong and intelligent women. They formed their own Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908, and their merger with the Men’s League in 1910 became problematic because of their preference for positive arguments. Leading women voiced a wide range of progressive anti-suffrage arguments which they called ‘the forward position’. They claimed that women were as capable as men, if not superior in some ways, but destined to fulfil a different role in society. Their caring and maternal role rested upon their moral strength and emotional sensitivity. These qualities would be threatened by immersion into parliamentary politics, but did not preclude them from other forms of public service. Domestic strengths were needed not only in the home but also in the wider fields of education and social service. Women could contribute to and find personal fulfilment through philanthropic work or in the expanding field of local government, without trespassing on the male territory of parliamentary politics. At the launch meeting of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, Mary Ward declared that ‘all sorts of powers are lying unused under the hands of women…meanwhile good brains and skilled hands are being diverted from women’s real tasks to this barren agitation for equal rights with men…this sex rivalry, which has too often masqueraded as reform.’

NUWSS pamphlets

Anti Suffrage Arguments

This pamphlet from 1912 responds to anti-suffrage arguments.

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Usage terms Public Domain

Who were the Antis?

Men and women who opposed women’s suffrage did not necessarily join the organised anti-suffrage movement. Resistance to the vote, and to the changing gender roles which this implied, often took the form of passive prejudice. However the growing threat of suffragist success stirred some powerful men and some outstanding women into action.

The men who defeated women’s suffrage in Parliament belonged to both the main political parties. The Liberal party, despite generally appearing more attuned to the advance of democracy than the Conservatives, included many Liberal Unionists who were convinced that the British Empire was more important than the female franchise. It also produced two key anti-suffragist leaders in William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith. The Conservative party, in contrast, was led by suffrage sympathisers such as Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour. Its members nevertheless included the most important male organisers of the early 20th century anti-suffrage leagues. Lord Cromer founded a Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage in 1908 and led it into a problematic merger with the Women’s League two years later. Lord Curzon took over the presidency of the combined National League in 1912 and remained at its helm until the defeat of the anti-suffrage cause. Both Cromer and Curzon were famous empire-builders – Cromer having shaped British rule in Egypt and Curzon having served as Viceroy of India. Their imperial prestige was an enormous asset for the anti-suffrage movement, giving substance to its claim to be defending the Empire rather than merely defending male privilege.

The leading women anti-suffragists included eager imperialists as well as maternal social reformers. Lady Jersey was president of the female imperialist Victoria League as well as of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. Gertrude Bell, first secretary of the Women’s League, was a great admirer of Lord Cromer and herself a distinguished expert on the Middle East, where she helped establish the post-war British mandate over Iraq. Violet Markham, probably the National League’s most effective woman speaker, was an admirer of Cromer and also of Lord Milner, whose South African War (1898–1902) had received her enthusiastic support. Other women imperialists who opposed female suffrage included the West African explorer and writer Mary Kingsley and the pioneering journalist Flora Shaw (later married to Lord Lugard, Britain’s leading man in Hong Kong, East Africa and Nigeria).

Mary Ward’s life outside the anti-suffrage movement included support for the Empire and extensive social work in London, as well as her earlier support for women’s higher education. Like most other progressive anti-suffragists, she believed that well-educated women would make better mothers and more effective workers in the non-political sphere of female social service. Several of the women who opened up female pathways into Oxford University were self-declared anti-suffragists. Other anti-suffrage women became successful novelists, using popular fiction to promote a conservative ideal of womanhood which resonated with mostly female readers. Best-selling anti-suffrage writers included Charlotte Yonge, Marie Corelli and Eliza Lynn Linton. Mary Ward’s own anti-suffrage novel, Delia Blanchflower (1915), tells the romantic tale of a hot-headed young woman rescued from her suffragette delusions by an older and wiser man.

How did anti-suffragists oppose the vote?

Although they remained opposed to suffragette militancy, in some ways the anti-suffragists were forced into mirroring the much livelier suffragist campaign. They were conscious, however, of the implied contradiction between women’s public campaigning for anti-suffrage and their advocacy of a quieter, more domestic role for women.

Men opposed the vote in Parliament, both through direct voting and through their management of the parliamentary agenda. Given their power to influence the outcome through Parliament, it is not surprising that most anti-suffrage men attached less importance to extra-parliamentary campaigns than the leading anti-suffrage women. Women’s opposition was first mobilised in 1889, when an Appeal Against Female Suffrage was published above the names of more than a hundred influential women. A second ‘Women’s Protest’ appeared two months later, with two thousand more signatures. The basic argument that women neither wanted nor needed the vote appears to have made an impact and was frequently repeated in Parliament.

Talked Out! pamphlet

Talked out page 1

‘When the question of women’s suffrage was introduced to Parliament, the issue was often ‘talked out’. This pamphlet is a word-for-word report of Israel Zangwill’s speech to the WSPU, detailing his outrage after opponents to women’s enfranchisement after a vote for the Women's Enfranchisement Bill was blocked for the second time.

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The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was created in 1908 with the intention of proving once again that women had their own views on the matter. By this date the suffragettes were advancing their cause through ‘deeds not words’ and law-abiding suffragists had joined them in a vibrantly modern campaign of propaganda and peaceful mass protest. The Women’s League soon had its own newspaper as well as its own propaganda literature, and adopted the colours of pink, black and white in contrast to the NUWSS green, white and red and WSPU green, white and purple. It set itself the aim of rousing women through a network of branches established across England and eventually Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Despite the inhibitions of some anti-suffrage ladies, and a marked lack of interest among poorer women, successful mass meetings were held in many towns and cities. During 1909 Mary Ward addressed 1400 people in Bristol and over 2000 in Edinburgh, while Edith Colquhoun’s Welsh campaign culminated in a Newport meeting of 1600 supporters. By the date of its merger into the National League, the Women’s League boasted 104 branches and up to 20,000 mainly middle-class members.

Despite this success, anti-suffrage women did not hesitate to accept the male leaders’ invitation to mount a joint campaign from 1910 onwards. Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon had concluded by this date that they needed mass female support and the propaganda benefits of a network of branches. For the women, the mixed-sex National League offered prestigious male speakers, greater fund-raising opportunities and the prospect of direct parliamentary influence. Hopes were high, and membership numbers continued to increase up to 1914. However the inside story of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage reveals much gendered division and misunderstanding. Male leaders were unwilling to allow women to take leadership roles, and reluctant to employ them as senior office staff. They continued to campaign through male networks of political influence, while women continued to emphasise the importance of opening up female opportunities in philanthropy and local government. This distracting ‘second objective’ was a particular thorn in the flesh of Lord Cromer, who resigned in disgust after a particularly difficult bout of office politics.

Progressive anti-suffragists were eventually forced to accept that local government campaigning must be separated out from the National League. But this did not prevent some leading anti-suffrage women from suggesting other reforms which would enhance women’s influence over national government without their entry into Parliament. Their more creative proposals included a Ministry of Women, a separate, advisory Women’s Chamber, and a Joint Advisory Committee of leading women and male Members of Parliament. Opposition to the vote was not merely negative and backward-looking, as the suffragists so often claimed.

1918: Defeat and afterwards

The First World War transformed the context of the suffrage debate and the lives of many campaigners. Female enfranchisement became inevitable for a variety of reasons, including the need to enfranchise returning soldiers and to rebuild a stable society in a world disrupted by war and revolutions. Moderate suffragist arguments prevailed and a limited number of older women finally received the vote. Even Lord Curzon, still president of the National League as well as a member of the War Cabinet, finally decided to abstain rather than to oppose the Representation of the People Bill.

Mary Ward and other leading women fought on to the end, but accepted their defeat with calm and a new kind of determination. ‘Our work is not ended, it is beginning’, claimed Beatrice Chamberlain at the final meeting of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. Lady Jersey urged women Antis ‘to continue in the future, as we have done in the past, to try to do the work which is lawfully ours to the very best of our ability’. Male anti-suffragists soon resumed their normal lives in the masculine professions, while suffrage and anti-suffrage women reunited within non-political women’s organisations shaped by women’s everyday needs. During the interwar years women banded together enthusiastically in Women’s Institutes and Mothers Unions, while making very slow progress into the male world of parliamentary politics. Anti-suffragism was a lost cause after 1918, but conservative gender attitudes continued to thrive.

  • Julia Bush
  • Dr Julia Bush is a retired teacher and academic manager who spent much of her career at the University of Northampton. Her research into Victorian and Edwardian women's history focuses upon the outlook of middle and upper class women who supported the British Empire and often opposed women's suffrage. The broad concept of gender conservatism is explored in her books Edwardian Ladies and Imperial Power, and Women against the Vote. 

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