Do you agree with the view that between the years 1884 and 1914, the Liberal Party had no real interest in women’s suffrage?
In the early years, the campaign to enfranchise women was undoubtedly endorsed by the Liberals - Do you agree with the view that between the years 1884 and 1914, the Liberal Party had no real interest in women’s suffrage? introduction. The general election of 1906 resulted in a Liberal landslide and with this victory, the hopes of all those pressing for the enfranchisement of women were raised high. The party’s initial huge majority gave the government the power to enfranchise votes for women. However, the Liberals were apprehensive and no more willing than its Conservative predecessors to support the cause of women’s suffrage because of their fear that property-owning women would vote Conservative. Although many members of the Liberal Party were privately supportive of women’s suffrage including the influential David Lloyd George this was not in concord with the main party line.
This essay will argue source 17’s claim that the Liberal Party did not ‘care a straw’ for women’s suffrage. Firstly, the Liberal party were not dedicated to women’s suffrage and time after time, women were led to believe that votes for women were achievable, only to be let down and humiliated. This can be seen in the response to various reform bills. Before 1906, none of the bills for the enfranchisement of the women were introduced by the government but by individual members. Indeed, all these bills failed during this period due to a lack of government support and refusal for parliamentary time to debate this issue. For example the government refused to support an amendment to a Plural Voting Bill in 1906 which would have enfranchised a number of propertied women. Moreover, in 1910 when the First Conciliation Bill passed its second reading it failed because the government failed to grant it parliamentary time and in 1911 when the Second Conciliation Bill passed its second reading Asquith announced that he preferred to support manhood suffrage.
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These failures and lack of government support for the Conciliation Bills suggest that the Liberal Party may not have had any real interest in women’s suffrage as they failed to dedicate parliament time to debating it which puts forth the idea that they did not consider it to be an important issue. Nonetheless, the fact that several of the reform bills even made it to the Second Reading puts forth the idea that women’s suffrage was not completely disregarded by the Liberal Party and thus to some extent perhaps the Liberal Party were concerned. Additionally, Gladstone was also ambivalent over the idea of women’s suffrage and sometimes raised women’s hopes by speaking in favour of female suffrage. However, he opposed a women’s suffrage amendment to the 1884 Reform Bill claiming that it might jeopardise its successful passing. In Source 17, Lydia Becker who was one of the most ardent supporters of female suffrage possibly takes Gladstone’s rejection as a Liberal rejection and explicitly argues, the Liberal Party did not ‘care a straw for the interests and wishes of women,’ which suggests that she is frustrated with the hypocritical behaviour of the Liberal Government and that they were not serious about women’s suffrage but only making a ‘mockery’ out of them; this is because they did not act upon their words. Becker could also be frustrated at the hostility of Prime Minister Asquith who obstructed every move towards accepting votes for women. More than any other person, it was the determination of Asquith that prevented the Liberal Party from becoming the party to enfranchise women. It was his opposition to votes for women that made the various reform bills fail to be enacted. For example, in 1909 Asquith refused to support the Women’s Suffrage Bill, which ultimately led to its failure. He believed that a women’s place was in the home and was strongly against giving women the vote. His views may also be taken as a Liberal Party vision on the whole and thus implying that the Liberal government was not interested in female suffrage.
However, the attitude of the Liberal Prime Minister alone cannot be representative of the party as a whole. Even Asquith, the most major obstruction to women’s suffrage, dedicated 1 week of parliamentary time to the issue of women’s suffrage due to pressure from other members of the Cabinet. Furthermore, the Liberal Party were apprehensive about women’s suffrage because they believed that the extension of suffrage to include women would damage their electoral success as they were convinced that property-owning women would vote Conservative. As Source 16 states, the progressive beliefs of the Liberal Party was at odds with ‘considerations of political advantage’ implying that their fear of losing political power was greater than their ideology for women’s suffrage. This may also suggest why the Liberals were never wholly committed to the suffrage of women because of their ‘inconclusive attempts’ to assess the growing support for the suffrage movement from the Conservative Party. Therefore, it can be argued that the Liberal party had no real interest in women’s suffrage as they were more concerned about their political power. However, the source depicts that the Liberal party was interested in female suffrage; however, their fear of the unknown and losing political power as they were ‘hopelessly mixed up’ prevented them from taking action. The liberals also had some other, more important, problems that distracted them and with which they had to deal with. For example, they faced insurrection in Ireland, rebellion by the House of Lords and widespread strike action by trade unionists.
It was a period characterised as ‘revolutionary’ and this perhaps explains the unwillingness of the Liberal government to put time aside for a women’s suffrage bill. In addition, the Liberal government’s majority was reduced by a number of elections and after 1910, was forced to rely on the support of the Irish Nationalists and the Labour Party to remain in power. Therefore, it was not likely to be willing to introduce an issue as controversial as women’s suffrage that could cause its majority to be wiped out. Moreover, the Liberals did not want to cave into suffragette violence. As a result, it can be seen that the Liberal party had other major problems to be dealing with and so were not completely engrossed in women’s suffrage as it was not one of their biggest concerns. However, these can be seen as excuses as the Liberals were ambivalent about women’s suffrage and refused to promote it as party policy. The government constantly undermined the efforts of the advocates of women’s suffrage and the many failed bills tend to prove this. The Liberal Party may not have been completely passionate about women’s suffrage due to many other problems that distracted them including their fear of losing political power, however, it may be incorrect to say that they had no real interest and did not ‘care a straw for the interests and wishes of women.’ In 1914 Asquith stated that he had come round to the idea of votes for women on the same terms as men and it was not unreasonable to presume that he had changed his mind. Source 18 also argues this when Asquith states that the vote should be given to women on the ‘same term as men.’ This shows that Liberal Party were interested in female suffrage as the Prime Minister who knew his statement would be widely publicised supported the ‘franchise for women.’ Also source 18 puts forth the idea that it was the suffragette violence that prevented the Liberal government from enfranchising women.
Asquith states that the women who have done ‘so much damage’ are the reason that the government ‘put back the cause of women.’ This implies that they are interested in female suffrage; however, the violence was averting them from advancing issues as it portrayed the women as immature and juvenile. Nonetheless, Asquith had made promises before and so his words may just have been rhetoric. In conclusion, the Liberal Party as a whole seems more publicly supportive of women’s suffrage than its leaders during the time period and the views of individuals such as Gladstone and Asquith cannot be considered as the view of the Liberal Party as a whole. Privately many members of his cabinet supported the women’s cause for equal political rights as men. Moreover, it would be wrong to agree with Source 17’s superficial conclusion that the Liberal Party was in total disregard of the women’s suffrage movement as had this been the case they would not have responded to women at all. Ultimately however, the protection of the party’s interests and social policies was given greater weight than the Liberal ideology of ‘greater freedom’ and is indicative of the party’s lack of triumph on the issue of women’s suffrage. The Liberal Party were interested in female suffrage but were fearful of the implications and thus in pragmatic terms its leadership did little to advance issues.