History essay: How far had the political position of women changed between 1850 – 1914? The political position of women had improved quite significantly from 1850 - 1914. Although this was an improvement, to what extent and how successful it was is largely debated. Firstly, women’s involvement in politics, until 1918, was limited to only a local level. Secondly, women’s involvement in political events and public life seemed to gain more support from the public to the female suffrage campaign.
Finally, female suffrage was beginning to become a heated discussion in parliament as women were desperate to get the vote, in order to stand up for their own rights and gain equality with men. This lead to the development of the WSPU and its militancy of the suffragettes, which could be seen as a “barrier” of the progression of the political position of women. By analyzing these 3 issues, I will demonstrate the argument of “how far” the political position of women had changed between 1850 – 1914. Womens limited involvement in public life and politics created additional pressure for the vote.
The introduction of the 1870 Education Act made elementary education compulsory for all members of society, providing women with ever increasing educational opportunities, and also women were able to vote and be elected onto school boards. Also, the Poor Law ( a system of poor relief which developed in England and Wales in the late medieval and Tudor era) offered involvement for women. There was no actual law preventing women from becoming poor law guardians, provided they owned enough property, but it seems that they did not move officially into this field of public service until towards the end of the century.
By 1901, there were about 1000 female guardians of the poor, Emma Sheppard who was a middle classed women being one of them, distributed throughout some 500 poor law unions. This therefore shows that Women were determined to gain the vote through patriotism and doing what they can to improve their communities. This therefore is evidence that the political position of women had improved, however their opportunities to participate in these events remained limited. Local politics were often considered to be women’s “realm”, as they were seen as an extension of the home, charity and philanthropic work.
Women engaged in local politics in towns and cities which had a history of women’s participation with a large participation of middle class women with time, money and energy to spare. In 1869, The Municipal Franchise Act enabled female ratepayers to vote in Municipal elections. By the mid 1880’s, women formed between 12 and 25% of the local electorate, even though they were debarred from becoming councilors. The establishment of the Primrose league, in 1883, was set up to promote the conservative party and support tory members of parliament.
The women to were members oragnised events, and dealt with catering. They also handed out leaflets and helped bring conservative voters into the polls on election days. This shows the determination of women to participate in any form of politics, and that women wanted the vote as it had a symbolic significance which represented citizenship. Without this, women felt like second class citizens. Therefore this supports the fact that the political position of women had changed positively from 1850 – 1914 by increasing participation of women in public life and local politics.
The development of the WSPU acted as a “barrier” to the progression of the political position of women between 1850 – 1914. The Women’s social and political union was formed by Emmiline Pankhurst and her daughters; Christabel Pankhurst and Sylvia Pankhurst. Many historians have condemned the elitism of the WSPU as it recruited mostly rich, influential women. When the WSPU moved to London in 1906, the emphasis on recruiting working class women was thought to have been lost. This limited the representativeness of the organization.
The growth of Militancy, by the suffragette’s e. g. Window smashing, assaulting police officers, arson, and criminal damage did not conform to the traditional and expected behavior of a Women. This therefore gained negative feedback from both government and public. Also, the autocratic structure of the WSPU was criticized by historians. It was considered hypocritical of the WSPU to demand greater democracy from a liberal government while not being prepared to exercise the same elements of democracy in their own organization.
Although, Emmiline Pankhurst never did claim that the WSPU was democratic: she simply considered the structure that she devised to be the most effective ways of achieving its goals. Therefore, it is clear that the WSPU made a limited contribution to the progression of the “position of women from 1850 – 1914” To conclude, all 3 of my points demonstrate that the political position of women from 1850 – 1914 has drastically changed and improved, however with some limitations. Womens involvement of public life such as being elected onto school boards, and the poor law, meant that women gained public support in the bid to gain female suffrage.
Womens involvement in local politics e. g The Municipal Franchise Act, which allowed female ratepayers to vote in municipal elections, and the establishment of the primrose league, meant that womens influence was gaining strength over getting the vote. However, The actions of the WSPU and its militiancy can be seen today by historians to have hindered the progression of the political position of women, by gaining negative attention from both the government and public. Women did not actually get voting equality with men until 1928, therefore this ultimately limits the progression of the “political position of women between 1850 - 1914