Women and the vote – a Poole perspective

A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project outlines some background to women’s suffrage with a Poole perspective.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed as early as 1867 and by 1913 there were 449 societies who were members. Its manifesto had fourteen reasons for women’s suffrage. For example, that those who objected to women’s suffrage based their opinions on ‘sentiment not reason’ and that women were affected by laws on which they were neither consulted nor could they offer an opinion. One stark statistic put forward in 1912 by the NUWSS was that 331 babies died in the deprived area of one city for every 1000 born. The NUWSS believed that if mothers had the vote they could use it to improve their living conditions.

The NUWSS believed in discussion and influence but some women believed that this approach was going nowhere and Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 to take more militant action.

There were several organisations who opposed women’s suffrage. The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League said that women had no experience in national matters. If they had the vote, this would place the country ‘in peril’, there would be conflict within the family, and there were more women than men. The National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage took the latter argument further by saying that there were 1.3 million more women than men so they would become ‘the dominant political power’ leading to the domination of men by women. Other organisations argued that children and family life would suffer if women had the vote.

Militant action by the WSPU was widespread. The local newspaper reported in 1913 on attempts to damage the contents of public letter boxes in Parkstone and Branksome.

In 1909, many newspapers reported on incidents that had occurred at Liberal meetings in Branksome and Canford Park. The disturbance at Canford Park was the most serious. Prior to the meeting, which was attended by 12,000 people and at which Winston Churchill spoke on the budget, a cry of ‘suffragettes’ was followed by two women being ‘practically mobbed’, roughly treated and  threatened with being ‘ducked’ in the river and the police had to escort them to safety. The two women claimed they were innocent onlookers. It was noted that many in the crowd attempted to intervene on the women’s behalf and letters to the newspapers expressed outrage over their treatment. Other women in the crowd were greeted with shouts of ‘suffragettes’ and were asked to leave the meeting.

Curiously, one of the latter women, Annie Kenney, is quoted in a book on the women’s suffragette movement saying that she was severely manhandled ‘in a most shameful way’ with her clothes being torn before being forcibly ejected from the park. She had witnessed the other women being mishandled as well as a carriage, whose occupants were women, nearly being overturned by the crowd. Annie Kenney was a suffragette from Lancashire who, along with Mrs Minnie Baldock, formed the London branch of the WSPU.  She was also the sole working class woman to make it into the hierarchy of the suffrage movement in which she took a very active role.

One form of action was refusing to pay income tax on the basis of ‘No vote, no tax’. The local newspaper reported on the sale of items belonging to Miss H. Symons of Parkstone at the Stout and Eustace auction rooms in May 1912. Some of the goods on sale were bought by women supporters of her action. An impromptu meeting was then held in Madeira Road by members of the NUWSS, WSPU, and Women’s Taxation Resistance League.

Many suffragettes faced imprisonment. Mrs Lucy Minnie Baldock, who moved to Hamworthy in 1923 and lived there until she died in 1954, was put in prison twice. The first time was in 1906 for being part of a small WSPU demonstration outside Parliament. The second time was in 1908 after using a megaphone to carry her appeals for the vote throughout Parliament Square.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Millicent Fawcett of the NUWSS coined the phrase ‘Women, your country needs you’, prior to Kitchener’s more well-known phrase. The general approach of low-key protest and encouraging women to help in the war effort aided the arguments for the vote. The WSPU did continue with a militant policy but quickly realised that it was counter-productive and stopped. Women took on many roles during the First World War that had previously been denied them and this removed many of the arguments against women’s suffrage.

An article in the local newspaper published in 1915 was headlined ‘The Women’s Freedom League’ on the announcement of their manifesto. They asked the Government to ensure that:

  • a woman who was trained, and doing the same work as men, should be paid the same as men.
  • the needs of women in work should be taken into consideration when the war ended
  • all women should receive financial help during training

The manifesto noted that as the Government was asking women to help in the defence of the country and were taking on greater responsibilities then it should enact ‘the political enfranchisement of women’.

A letter to the local newspaper in May 1917 from someone who lived in London put forward a different view. According to the writer ‘the vast majority of women’ are solely interested in the home and family and do not want to be involved in politics. He believed that local council enfranchisement would satisfy those eager to get involved in politics but that a ‘woman’s temperament and inexperience’ excluded her from being involved in matters of national importance.

Two linked First World War era postcards which were considered ‘humorous’ at the time. Interestingly, the handwritten text on the reverse of the first postcard says ‘Will women have the votes NO’ (Poole History Centre)

The Representation of the People Act was passed by the House of Commons in 1917 and a year later by the House of Lords. A woman was entitled to vote if she had reached the age of 30, and had property rights or was married to a man who was entitled to vote.

The local newspaper reported in April 1919 on the creation of voter’s lists following the 1918 act. This was not straightforward and a tribunal was asked to determine whether someone met the requirements.

For example, the Rev C.A. Trew of Canford Cliffs asked whether his daughter was entitled to vote. The request was denied as she did not pay her father rent and her room was furnished. Similarly, Miss E.K. Allen of Parkstone was denied the vote because she only occupied a furnished room and did not pay any rent. In contrast, Miss W. Duxbury lived with her uncle in Parkstone.  She paid 5s/month for a room, had meals with the family and owned her own furniture. The entitlement to vote was allowed if she could prove that rent was paid. Miss F.A. Price of Parkstone had bought the property she was living in. Her claim to entitlement was refused because only two names could go on the list and she was ‘third joint-occupier’. Another claimant argued that ownership of furniture was sufficient and but the court ruled that they also had to pay rent.

In October 1919, Miss A.E. Briggs (Independent) stood in the Parkstone West Ward and Mrs E. Cloutman (Labour) stood in the Branksome West Ward in the Poole Town Council elections. Mrs Cloutman narrowly lost to Mr Parnell (Independent) 303 votes to 321 votes. Miss Briggs won Parkstone West and became Poole Council’s first woman councillor. She took an active part in local politics until 1925.

‘Message to the Women of East Dorset’ was the headline of a newspaper report of a meeting held at Shaftesbury Hall in Poole in September 1921. Mrs Colville Hyde, who chaired the meeting, expressed the view that most women had not wanted the vote ‘but now they had it they had to make the most of it’. The first speaker said it was the duty of all women to ensure that every woman knew about politics and exercised their right to vote. She also argued that women needed training and education sessions to help them understand the issues so they could make an informed decision. She believed that women should take an active interest in politics because it was they and their children who suffered the most during violent change and highlighted the recent revolution in Russia.

It was only when the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 was passed were women over the age of 21 allowed to vote ‘regardless of property ownership’.