Politicians & votes for women

Liberal Party supporters were more likely to approve of votes for women and indeed some Liberal MPs had supported the NUWSS, though others feared that women would be more likely to vote for the Conservative Party. However while Gladstone and Asquith were Prime Ministers, they opposed women's suffrage and ensured that all petitions, amendments and bills in favour of it failed.

With their huge majority in government in 1906, the Liberals could have given the vote to women. They prioritised other issues however and by 1910 they had lost their majority.

Asquith was now Prime Minister and depended on Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party (Home Rule Party) to hold onto power. Asquith threatened to resign if women got the vote. Apart from the fact that he opposed such a measure, he was afraid to be seen giving in to women militants, to 'petticoat rule.'

Lloyd George became Prime Minister after Asquith was removed from power in 1916. He supported women's suffrage and before the war ended, the Representation of the People Bill gave votes to men over 21 and to women over 30 who satisfied certain property qualifications.

4. - (1) A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a parliamentary elector for a constituency (other than a university constituency) if she -
(a) has attained the age of thirty years; and
(b) is not subject to any legal incapacity; and
(c) is entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation in that constituency of land or premises (not being a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not less than five pounds or of a dwelling-house, or is the wife of a husband entitled to be so registered.
Representation of the People Act, 1918.

Conservative Party supporters tended to dislike change. They feared that any extension of democracy would undermine the position of the propertied classes who voted for them - remember men who were not householders had no vote until 1918.

The majority in the House of Lords which was dominated by a conservative propertied class, opposed votes for women but their veto (power to reject laws) was reduced however to a delaying power by the Liberal government in 1911.

Conservatives were afraid that the women's vote would benefit the Liberals whilst the Liberals thought it would benefit the Conservatives.

Labour MPs saw any extension of the vote to either men or women of property as a threat to their working class support and the Labour Party eventually arrived at a policy of universal suffrage - that all men and women over 21 should have the vote. They got considerable encouragement from suffrage organisations, though many of their followers strongly disapproved of militant actions by the suffragettes.

Several Labour MPs, including their leader Keir Hardie, worked hard for women's suffrage but the party was very much in the minority at Westminster in the early years of the century.

The Irish Parliamentary Party led by John Redmond, held the balance of power after the general election of 1910 and secured a promise of Home Rule for Ireland as a condition of their support for the Liberal government. Obstacles in their way included the veto of the House of Lords (reduced however to a delaying power in 1911) and Ulster Unionist resistance. But the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced at last in April 1912.

Redmond now resisted all demands that women be granted the vote, either in a separate franchise bill for the whole of the UK or for Irish women only in the Home Rule Bill. He opposed votes for women both personally and for tactical reasons: like most politicians of the day, he feared the effect on his own party at election time. But he was also afraid of a threat to Home Rule - that Prime Minister Asquith would resign if female suffrage were imposed on him and the Home Rule Bill might then lapse. Redmond kept his party single-mindedly focused on the achievement of Home Rule for Ireland while he held the balance of power in parliament.

Women were barred from the convention of the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1912 because they had heckled and asked awkward questions in previous years and Redmond and Asquith were physically assaulted by English suffragettes in Dublin in July 1912. Indeed Redmond had become a 'hate figure' for many in the suffrage movement in England and Ireland. He voted in parliament for force-feeding of women on hunger strike and for the 'Cat and Mouse Act.'

Some Nationalist MPs however supported female suffrage. They included Willie Redmond, brother of John Redmond and Tim Healy, a barrister who defended suffragettes in court in London and always voted in parliament for women's suffrage.

By the time Home Rule for Ireland could be implemented after World War I, the political scene had radically changed. Redmond and Asquith eventually voted in favour of votes for women in the Representation of the People Act (1918) but Redmond himself died before the eclipse of his party by Sinn Féin in the general election of 1918.

Unionists in Ireland, north and south, vigorously opposed Home Rule. Being in a minority position in parliament during the passage of the Home Rule Bill, they brought pressure to bear in other ways. 237,368 men signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant opposing Home Rule in 1912 and 234, 046 women signed a female counterpart. The Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1913 and subsequently imported arms.

Unionist women were then split along lines such as:

Ulster/the rest of Ireland legal means/militant means
unionist/feminist political means/military means
suffragist/suffragette support the war effort/not support the war effort

Sir Edward Carson, the Ulster Unionist leader, opposed women's suffrage on principle and Ulster was targeted in 1914 by the UK militant suffragette movement, the WSPU. When their members were imprisoned for burning houses and possessing explosives, they went on hunger strike and the WSPU could then point to the harsh treatment they received while a blind eye was turned to the UVF when they imported weapons and threatened armed resistance to the democratic decisions of the UK parliament.

Unionists dominated the parliament of Northern Ireland set up in 1920 and women were allowed to vote on an equal basis with men from 1928.

Sinn Féin accepted women members from its foundation in 1905. It was Máire de Buitléir, a friend of founder Arthur Griffith who suggested the name while Jennie Wyse Power, suffragist and one time member of the Ladies' Land League, became vice president of Sinn Féin. Most members would have been opposed to militant suffragism, however.

Sinn Féin members promised, if elected, to withdraw from Westminster, set up a separate parliament in Ireland and seek international recognition. Women members had to keep pressure on to be heard and represented when events in Ireland gathered momentum after the 1916 Rising and the reorganisation of Sinn Féin in 1917. The party however agreed on equal rights for women and issued an appeal to women voters:

We appeal to the women voters all over Ireland to vote with Sinn Féin because the physical safety of the race depends upon our immediate freedom; because Sinn Féin carries on the tradition of independence which, thanks to the Gaelic Mother, still lives in Ireland; because in every generation Irish women have played a noble part in the struggle for freedom; because finally as in the past, so in the future the womenfolk of the Gael shall have a high place in the Councils of a freed Gaelic nation.
Sinn Féin: An appeal to the women of Ireland, 1918, National Library of Ireland.

They ran only two women candidates in the general election of 1918: Constance Markievicz was elected in Dublin but Winifred Carney failed to be elected in Belfast. Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected to the House of Commons, though she did not take her seat but was appointed Minister for Labour in the first Dáil.

Six women were elected to the second Dáil in 1921. No woman was sent to negotiate the Treaty and all six women TDs opposed it as did the vast majority of the nationalist women's organisation Cumann na mBan. The election which would effectively decide whether to accept or reject the Treaty was to be held under the same franchise as the 1918 general election so women would be greatly under-represented in that momentous decision. In protest, a deputation led by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington approached Arthur Griffith (once a staunch supporter of women's suffrage) and de Valera but, according to Marie Johnson:

Griffith was ungracious to the last degree, almost brutally so ... Dev more suave, more inclined to placate, seized the chance to agree.
Marie Johnson memoirs, Sheehy Skeffington Papers, National Library of Ireland.

Like John Redmond's fears about the Home Rule Bill, Griffith now feared that the British Government or even an Irish electorate which included younger women and some younger men would wreck the Treaty. However, a majority of those who voted, opted for the pro Treaty candidates and in 1922 the Constitution of the new Irish Free State granted the vote to women and men over 21.

Now Ireland was partitioned and a bitter civil war ensued. Two very conservative states eventually emerged from the chaos of the early years of the century. The suffrage movements disintegrated, but activists went on to other causes and many still remained politically active.

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