IWD: The Press and Women’s Suffrage

Amelia Bashford

What is left to understand about the British Women’s Suffrage Movement?
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Contemporary historians have condemned the gap in literature as justification for pursuing certain narratives in history, justifiably arguing that just because something has not yet been done, that does not mean it should. However, the gap in the previous analyses of the women’s suffrage movement has caused our understanding to be inaccurate. The women’s rights movement has been portrayed as exclusively political, whilst the experiences of a large majority of women have been disregarded, including the working-class, unmarried, and prostitutes.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913

In 1912 Emmeline Pankhurst addressed the difficult relationship women in the suffrage campaign experienced with the press. She approached the stand at the Old Bailey and explained that, ‘..then in 1905 we faced the hard facts. We realised that there was a press boycott against women’s suffrage. Our speeches at public meetings were not reported, our letters to the editors were not published, even if we implored the editors; even the things relating to Women’s Suffrage in Parliament were not recorded. They said the subject was not of sufficient public interest to be reported in the press, and they were not prepared to report it’. This speech confirms categorically the existence of a press war between suffrage and anti-suffrage advocates.

Vital to spreading information about their cause, print press media became an invaluable source for those fighting for and against the progression of women’s emancipation. Nevertheless, historical intervention concerning the women’s suffrage movement has traditionally focused on books and biographies written by leaders of the movement rather than the multitude of texts in the print press media. Many of these books, although considered primary sources, were often written up to ten years after the suffrage movement. As it was only the higher classes that had the money and influence to take a book to publication, our understanding has become dictated by the voices of the middle and upper-classes resulting in the opinions of many lower-classes being disregarded. Consequently, it is inevitable that opinions and information will be missed, whether accidentally or on purpose.

The suffrage movement seemed to act as a catalyst for newspapers to represent women negatively. It received a tirade of negative press from the most widely read newspapers such as The Times, The Pall Mall Gazette, and The Telegraph. Suffragist women were ‘masculine’, the men were ‘effeminate’, and suffragettes were ‘feral’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘irrational’. However, outside of the political narrative, many anti-suffrage newspapers also exhibited progressive opinions towards women at the time with regards to their position in the home, education and employment.

The oldest representation of women throughout history has been as subservient domestic homemakers. When studying opinions of the suffrage movement, the question is posed as to whether common opinion of women progressed away from the traditional family dynamic, and towards the belief of women’s propensity for their own leadership and independence? In this period of complex opinions on which the boundaries of women’s liberties were being re-established, even traditional thinkers were advocating for a more equal family dynamic. When the representation of motherhood and domesticity is examined in both pro and anti-suffrage papers such as Common Cause and The Pall Mall Gazette, similar progressive views concerning divorce rights and autonomous marriage are presented.

Before an organised suffrage movement began, many thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft believed that the key to women’s emancipation was education. Unfortunately, the law made it difficult for women to gain an education, especially for those of a lower class. However, when print news media is interpreted there is clear consensus that women deserved to be educated, even if its purpose was to reinforce their domestic role. Well regarded reading material in the women’s conservative community, such as The Mother’s Companion and Young Woman, began to print job adverts for roles such as librarians and teachers that required a higher education. Highlighting progression in the general opinion of women well before the vote and legal change.

Moving forward as historians it seems only right that we give as much care and attention to what has been written in the print press media as to what was published in books if we want to have an accurate understanding of events.