Angela John: How men helped women to win the vote

Taken from a lecture by the professor of history at the University of Greenwich, delivered at The Women's Library, in London

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When we think of male links with women's suffrage, the chances are that we conjure up pictures of men behaving badly or, at best, indifferently, towards what was, after all, a movement specifically run by women and for women. We know that there were male hecklers at demonstrations, organised rowdies who disrupted proceedings, boys and students who let off stink bombs in meetings, policemen and stewards who manhandled women protesters. The horrors of forcible feeding by doctors, the sentences meted out by magistrates and the smug superiority of the all-male Members of Parliament who devised Edwardian legislation such as the new Children's Act, suggest that sympathy was in short measure and that perhaps a sex war was on the agenda.

When we think of male links with women's suffrage, the chances are that we conjure up pictures of men behaving badly or, at best, indifferently, towards what was, after all, a movement specifically run by women and for women. We know that there were male hecklers at demonstrations, organised rowdies who disrupted proceedings, boys and students who let off stink bombs in meetings, policemen and stewards who manhandled women protesters. The horrors of forcible feeding by doctors, the sentences meted out by magistrates and the smug superiority of the all-male Members of Parliament who devised Edwardian legislation such as the new Children's Act, suggest that sympathy was in short measure and that perhaps a sex war was on the agenda.

The new Labour Party had its own priorities. The Tories were not in the forefront in promoting equal rights for women, and even the party which had seemed like women's best hope, the Liberal Party, let the suffragists down time and again. With some notable exceptions, they seemed decidedly illiberal on this issue, and with Asquith, known to be hostile, as prime minister from 1908, too many ambitious MPs were unprepared to speak out. And as if this weren't enough, in this same year those overtly hostile to women's suffrage, known as Antis, came together in a Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage.

But I wish to take a different approach and to focus instead on a less publicised group, the pro-suffrage men, supporters of the movement. Like the women, they ranged from moderate to militant, and covered the country. They too expressed their beliefs in a range of ingenious ways, and formed a number of organisations. They found that they not only fell foul of many men who delighted in labelling them as effete, emasculated types, but also ran the danger of offending some of the very women whose rights they were claiming.

Henry Nevinson chaired the most militant of the men's support groups, the Men's Political Union for Women's Enfranchisement. He was a glamorous figure, a radical war correspondent who was a household name among those who read the liberal and progressive press. He was well known as a campaigner for social justice.

Many male supporters drew on history, and even the classical civilisation that so permeated the education of the Victorian gentleman, in their justification for women voting. They also tended to dwell on abstract concepts such as natural justice to legitimate the women's claims and validate their own roles. They viewed votes for women as an integral part of the evolution of democratic rights. Many were disappointed Liberals, though their ranks also encompassed Tories – the President of the Men's League was the Earl of Lytton.

Many male supporters were part of the intelligentsia and espoused progressive issues of many kinds. They liked to see themselves as new men of the new century, though some, such as HG Wells, were good at the theory but less advanced in their personal practice. Many were, however, members of families where the women were active suffragists. Lawrence Housman and his sister Clemence, the Pethick Lawrences, the Rhys family in Oxford, and medical experts such as the Drysdales are just a few examples.

Men's support for women's suffrage was a complicated, contested issue. Used to being in charge, many found it difficult to resist taking over. Yet there were some prepared to take risks. Cecil Chapman came close to losing his job. Henry Nevinson surrendered his. He was one of the three suffrage supporters in the central lobby at Westminster when the Royal Assent was finally announced on 6 February 1918.

Such men's involvement might at times be equivocal and vary in its sensitivity to women's needs and to the fundamentals of gender transformation, but it is interesting to note that in his triple-decker autobiography published in the mid-1920s, the much-travelled Henry Nevinson described the 6 February 1918 as a day unsurpassed in relief and joy.

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