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Reference group
National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (act. 1896–1918) is generally characterized as the ‘constitutional’ or ‘non-militant’ suffrage body at the forefront of the twentieth-century campaigns for women's suffrage in Britain.

The formation of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) followed a conference of some twenty women's suffrage societies held in October 1896 to explore the possibility of union. It served initially as an umbrella body for the better co-ordination of the work of local societies and the more effective liaison with sympathetic members of parliament. Millicent Garrett Fawcett presided over the conference and became the foremost figure among its leadership, whose early members also included Lady Frances Balfour, Helen Blackburn, Maye Dilke (Mrs Russell Cooke) [see under Dilke, Ashton Wentworth] Mary Lyttelton, Eva McLaren, Leonora Philipps, Enid Stacy, and Louisa Stevenson. Fawcett's pragmatic, phlegmatic, patient, and authoritative presence reflected a steady confidence that her cause was part of the progressive movement of British constitutional history. As a young woman she had been among the founders of the movement, and one of the first middle-class women to speak at political meetings. As the widow of Henry Fawcett, a minister under W. E. Gladstone, and sister of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of the earliest woman doctors in Britain, she enjoyed extensive and long-established networks among women involved in both the women's rights movement and in party politics. In the controversies among suffragists in the nineteenth-century campaigns she aligned herself with the more moderate and cautious current. She opposed many of the policies of those suffragists who identified themselves with the radicals within the Liberal Party (among whom Emmeline Pankhurst had begun her career), for example rejecting as unwise the inclusion of married women in the demand.

The methods of the NUWSS centred on the education of public opinion and the organization of pressure from parliamentary constituencies. The aim was to build an all-party body of support for a private-member women's suffrage bill, and 1897 saw the first such bill pass its second reading. By such means it was hoped to persuade the government of the day to take up the question. These tactics depended on parliamentary interest in franchise reform, and this was displaced between 1898 and 1902 by the South African War. A fresh impetus to the suffrage campaign is evident from 1903 in anticipation of a coming general election, the likely success of the Liberal Party, and the revival of pressure for domestic reform. The NUWSS aimed at developing a national network of branch societies in every constituency. It collected over £2500 for a concerted campaign and began to build a corps of constituency organizers, increasing the role of its London headquarters by greater centralization. Women's suffrage was debated in parliament on four occasions from 1904 to 1906 and 415 pledges to support women's suffrage were secured from parliamentary candidates. The NUWSS adopted a non-party policy, offering support in elections to those candidates it adjudged ‘the best friend’ of votes for women in any one constituency, whatever their party. At both national and local level, however, prominent women Liberals predominated in its leadership, for example Florence Balgarnie, Catherine Courtauld Osler of the Birmingham society, and Margaret Ashton of the Manchester society.

The NUWSS formulated its demand in terms of equal voting rights for men and women under existing franchise laws, which at this time required property qualifications. Such a formulation was controversial among members of labour and socialist movements, a growing force in parliamentary politics. Many women's suffragists were also supporters of a fully democratic franchise, but believed it essential to establish first the principle of sexual equality. Esther Roper, secretary of the North of England Society for Women's Suffrage in the late 1890s, began organizing support among women textile workers in the Manchester region. The successful collection and presentation of textile workers' petitions in 1901 and 1902 led her and her lifetime partner, Eva Gore Booth, to establish in 1903 a new suffrage society, the Lancashire and Cheshire Textile and Other Workers Representation Committee, to build on this movement. In contrast to the NUWSS, the Lancashire and Cheshire committee campaigned for full womanhood suffrage, a demand that signalled a commitment to a fully democratic franchise alongside recognition of the particular disabilities of women.

The year 1903 also saw the founding in Manchester of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) by Emmeline Pankhurst and her eldest daughter, Christabel. This body acted initially as a ginger group within the labour and socialist movements on the issue of women's suffrage. From 1905, however, its methods also reflected a growing impatience with the strategy of the NUWSS, after a private-member suffrage bill that year was talked out in a spirit of ridicule and contempt. Observing this debate, Emmeline Pankhurst and WSPU members held an impromptu protest at the House of Commons, from which she dated the beginning of ‘militancy’. By the end of 1905 ‘militant’ methods also involved civil disobedience in pursuit of the prison sentences that might follow such protests. Early militancy of this kind was borrowing from the constitutionalist rhetoric and repertoire of radical constitutionalism in Britain. In contrast to the NUWSS, the WSPU actively opposed Liberal candidates in the constituencies where it campaigned, and from October 1906 began equally to oppose Labour candidates in protest at the party's refusal to include women's suffrage in its programme. So in some constituencies NUWSS and WSPU campaigning might conflict with the other's, and some prominent in the NUWSS, like Isabella O. Ford of the Leeds society, began to question the adequacy of the constitutionalist approach when observing the impact made by militancy.

Others within the NUWSS sought to distance it from the WSPU. Fawcett, however, recognized the courage its methods required and the quite unprecedented press coverage it had secured for the suffrage campaign. So she spoke out against criticism of the militants, blaming rather the refusal of politicians to listen to reasoned argument for this new spirit among suffragists. Similarly, when an old friend, Annie Cobden Sanderson (daughter of Richard Cobden), was imprisoned after a WSPU demonstration, Fawcett organized a banquet at the Savoy to celebrate her release. The NUWSS itself enjoyed a fast growing membership from the publicity generated by such ‘militancy’. Equally the WSPU often met with friendly assistance from NUWSS members. Indeed the approaches of the two bodies complemented each other at this time and membership of both was not uncommon at branch level. The NUWSS itself demonstrated the new spirit to be found among suffragists when it organized the first major suffrage procession through London in 1907, and experimented, unsuccessfully, with the tactic of running a women's suffrage candidate, Bertrand Russell, in a by-election in Wimbledon in 1907.

The election of a Liberal government in 1906 was followed by a series of disappointments for suffrage campaigners: a deputation to the prime minister in May 1906, organized by the NUWSS, on behalf of whom Emily Davies spoke, but including women from a range of suffrage and other societies, was advised to remain patient; two further private-member suffrage bills were talked out in 1907 and 1908. The government continued unimpressed by the large-scale demonstrations that the suffrage movement was now capable of staging and in 1908 a firm anti-suffragist, Herbert Asquith, became Liberal prime minister and announced his intention of bringing in a manhood suffrage bill. Militant suffragists turned now to still more controversial methods: breaking windows in government buildings and adopting the hunger strike while in prison to secure early release.

Increasingly concerned at the harm she believed was being done to the campaign for votes for women by such tactics, Fawcett now publicly sought to distance the NUWSS from the militants. It continued to grow in size and extent, with the formation of 200 branches by 1910 with a membership of 21,571. In 1909 it established its own journal, The Common Cause, edited by Helena Swanwick, one of a new generation of suffragists then moving into the national leadership of the NUWSS, including Catherine Marshall, who shortly revolutionized its press department, and went on to become a skilled lobbyist as its parliamentary secretary; its national secretary, Kathleen Courtney; Maude Royden, a notable preacher and educationalist who subsequently edited The Common Cause; and Margaret Ashton, president of the North of England Federation. During the January 1910 general election the NUWSS gathered 250,000 signatures on its ‘voters' petition’, collected at polling booths.

After the return of the Liberal government to power the NUWSS welcomed the proposal of the radical journalist Henry Brailsford for the drafting of a new private-member measure acceptable to suffragists of all parties in the House of Commons. A committee of MPs chaired by Lord Lytton drafted a Conciliation Bill based on the existing local government franchise laws, under which women had been voting since 1870. This measure successfully passed second readings in both 1910 and 1911. The Liberal government at last agreed to provide facilities for the bill to complete its passage through the house if it were again successfully introduced in 1912. The value of this offer was undermined some months later, however, by Asquith's announcement of a forthcoming manhood suffrage bill. Party politics once again dominated the issue of suffrage reform and much of the parliamentary support for the Conciliation Bill fell away, while militants returned to ever more violent attacks against property and persons.

The NUWSS at last abandoned its long-standing strategy of seeking government support through the successful introduction of private-member women's suffrage bills. It now pressed for a government measure that might include women. In pursuit of this strategy the NUWSS was assisted by a significant advance for women's suffrage early in 1912, when the annual conference of the Labour Party declared its support for women's suffrage. Now Brailsford suggested and mediated discussions between the leaders of the NUWSS and the Labour Party. The establishment of the NUWSS's election fighting fund followed, and reflected the growing influence of ‘democratic suffragists’ like Marshall, Swanwick, Courtney, and Ashton in the councils of the NUWSS, increasingly wishful of pursuing women's suffrage through a campaign for full adult suffrage. Among sympathizers with the new strategy were Ethel Bentham, Alice Clark, and Elsie Inglis on an executive whose members included Netta Franklin, Margaret Heitland, Chrystal Macmillan, and Clara Rackham. Ethel Snowden belonged to the committee administering the election fighting fund, which was to be used to support Labour candidates in three-cornered contests as a means of endangering government-held seats. The policy was pursued in a number of by-elections over the next two years or so under the direction of Marshall, and with a growing network of local organizers such as Ada Neild Chew, Selina Cooper, Helen Fraser [see Moyes, Helen Miller], Beryl Power, Sarah Reddish, Annot Robinson, Muriel Wallhead [see Nichol, Muriel Edith], and Ellen Wilkinson. It faced continuing opposition from those in the NUWSS who wished it to retain a non-party character, notably Eleanor Rathbone.

In the meantime the government withdrew its own manhood suffrage bill when the speaker declared it incapable of a women's suffrage amendment. The summer of 1913 saw perhaps the most impressive demonstration by the NUWSS, in a suffrage ‘pilgrimage’ from various points around Britain that came together for a major meeting in London. When Liberal preparations began in 1914 for the next general election, the anti-suffragists in the government at last began to lose ground to those, like David Lloyd George, who believed a radical reform of the franchise must be part of the next election manifesto, and that this could no longer be undertaken without addressing the demand for women's suffrage. He and other sympathetic ministers opened discussions with leading members of the NUWSS, offering the introduction of a new reform bill that would be capable of women's suffrage amendments, and the freedom of government ministers like himself to lend such amendments their active support. The NUWSS responded positively, for many of the democratic suffragists among its leading members, including Marshall, now wished to see women's suffrage enacted as part of a wider reform of the franchise.

These negotiations were interrupted, however, by the outbreak of war in August 1914, which also threatened to split the NUWSS. Many of the democratic suffragists on its national executive were pacifists and internationalists while Fawcett was an ardent patriot. The NUWSS for the time being suspended its political campaigning, and immersed itself in the organization of various relief programmes, upon the value of which internationalists and patriots could agree. In 1915, however, Fawcett refused participation of the NUWSS in the international conference of women that was to meet in The Hague to discuss means of bringing an end to the war. Most of the NUWSS's executive now resigned. Figures like Marshall were now free to take a still more active part in anti-war bodies and she shortly became the principal organizer for the No Conscription Fellowship. Others among her democratic suffragist colleagues, including Swanwick, helped form the British section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Meantime, supporters of Fawcett like Ray Strachey moved into the leadership of the NUWSS.

Fawcett's strategy succeeded in preserving the capacity of the NUWSS to act when suffrage reform once more came onto the political agenda in 1916, a speaker's conference being set up to consider how best to protect and extend the votes of men at the front. While some of the pre-war hostility to votes for women had dissipated, there remained a concern that women voters would outnumber men under any universal adult suffrage. The NUWSS leadership lent its support to a compromise that required a higher age qualification of thirty for women compared to twenty-one for men. After the passage of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 the NUWSS had to decide whether to wind up its organization, or to find a new purpose. A general meeting decided it should now become the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. Under the leadership of Eleanor Rathbone this body took up the needs of the most disadvantaged of women, while also pursuing sexual equality in the franchise laws, which was finally achieved in 1928.

Sandra Stanley Holton


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