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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy