Do you agree with the view that the divisions in the early Suffrage movement, up to 1903, helped with the refinement of ideas and policy?

Women in the 1800’s did not really have a say in the society and had very few rights in their favour. They could not vote and were ruled by the husband of the house. During the whole of the nineteenth century, women had no political rights though there had been some movement in other areas to advance the rights of women. It was looked upon that a woman could not go wrong if her actions were directed toward the needs and comforts of her family. This role of women in society was accepted and supported by most people, men and women, of the times because history dictated that women’s place was caring for the family. It was said that although she may be capable of other things, there was no reason to even consider them. When it came to marriage, women in some circumstances could be forced by a man to marry her even if she has no wish to. There were many issues arising during the 1800’s and women began to stand up for themselves and try to fight back and attempt to get more rights socially and politically. A first Suffrage was on the cards because it had the nation’s attention and the Government looked upon it as a threat to the way the country was being run.

In 1866 a group of women from the Kensington Society organised a petition that demanded that women should have the same political rights as men. The women took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, two MPs who supported universal suffrage. Mill added an amendment to the Reform Act that would give women the same political rights as men. The amendment was defeated and the members were very disappointed when they heard the news and they decided to form the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. The following year, Millicent Fawcett joined the group. The National Society for Women’s Suffrage was the first national movement in the United Kingdom which campaigned for the emancipation of women which was created in 1868. The organisation could be seen as laying the foundations of the women’s suffrage movement so that later organisations such as the NUWSS and the WSPU could take the movement further. Similar Women’s Suffrage groups were formed all over Britain. One of the most important of these was in Manchester, where Lydia Becker emerged as a significant figure in the movement.

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Right from the start the suffrage movement faced divisions due to disagreements over how best to achieve their aims but all tactics used by them were non-militant. From this it can be said that all these disagreements were bad to start with as it would weaken the campaigns and showed there was no clear leadership and organisation within. However at the same time the women were getting experience in the Primrose League and also the Liberal Associations. The women’s Liberal Association was set up to combat many liberals indifference to women’s suffrage. Although there were a lot of different political views, the women nonetheless were learning how to organise the campaigns and this would be good for the refinement of ideas and policy.

The disagreements spread throughout the suffrage movement, and the disagreement between Helen Taylor and Barbara Bodichon about whether men should be on the committees or whether married women should be involved indicated this. Yet despite these disagreements it can be argued that it helped the women to work out what they believed in. In addition to this it can be said that working with the Liberals also helped to refine ideas and their policies. So many campaigns had begun that the movement began to split apart and new “splinter groups” were formed, some more influential than others, with some women to work on establishing colleges for women, others to work on legal reform and others to work on improving the conditions of working-class women. One of the most influential splinter groups was the Woman’s Franchise League. The Women’s Franchise League was founded in 1894 by Emmeline Pankhurst which won for married women the right to vote in elections for local offices. They identified with the Liberal Party and aimed to include married women in the franchise, as well as campaigning for “equal civil and political rights with men”. The organisation included 140 members and influenced and included many of the leading political activists e.g. Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy.

In April 1892 the Pankhurst’s led a disturbance at a Suffrage meeting organised by Lydia Becker, supporting a bill which would give the vote to single, but not married women. Consequently Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy and some others split from the Franchise League and formed the Emancipation Union because they were more concerned about the rights for married women rather than single women. The Pankhurst’s generally used militant tactics to campaign with the minority of the members agreeing with more militant action that was being taken. From this it can be said that the members who split from the Franchise League and adopted a non-militant approach didn’t really achieve anything in terms of campaigning because they weren’t really taken seriously. On the other hand the groups that were more militant got more public and Government attention.

In 1887 seventeen of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Lydia Becker was elected as president. Three years later, when Becker died, Millicent Fawcett became the new leader of the organisation. From 1897 until 1903 the more militant WSPU was set up, it co-ordinated the campaign for women’s Suffrage. Its approach was strictly constitutional. The NUWSS held public meetings, organised petitions, wrote letters to politicians, published newspapers and also distributed free literature. Fawcett promoted a non-party approach and urged women in all parties to work for MP’s or candidates who supported women’s suffrage and to refuse to work for those who did not. Unity was achieved but it meant that the NUWSS had no real authority over the various groups and no funds of its own to promote women’s Suffrage. From this it can be said that with all the groups united it certainly did help with the refinement of ideas and their policies for their campaigns.

In conclusion to this by 1903 the suffrage movement was united. All groups wanted the vote for married and single women. However the unity was about to be threatened by the WSPU because of their militant approach to the campaign but Millicent Fawcett never criticised them openly but was against what they were doing. From everything that has been discussed it has to be said that the divisions in the early Suffrage movement, up to 1903, did help with the refinement of ideas and policy. The reason for this is because of the divisions and disagreements it enabled the movement to shape their ideas and policies behind them. It can be said that the splits and divisions “had a positively creative and generative function” (Bartley) in shaping new directions for the next century. However on the other hand it can also be argued that the divisions in the early Suffrage movement, up to 1903, did not help with the refinement of ideas and policy. The motive for this is that because of the divisions and all the disagreements it showed there was no leadership or controlled organisation within the groups though these disagreements did help the women to work out what they believed in.