Monday, 26 February 2018


In all the commemorations around the one hundredth anniversary of votes for (some) women, it’s easy to forget that there were many women who didn’t want the vote. In 1908 a National Women’s Anti-Suffrage League was formed. It later combined with the Men’s League to form the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. One of the leaders of the anti suffrage movement was best-selling novelist Mrs Humphry Ward (1851-1920).

Amongst my collection of suffrage books are signed copies of two of Mrs Humphry Ward’s works. The first is England’s Effort: Six Letters to an American Friend (1916) written to encourage America to join the war. The other is the 1910 novel Lady Merton, Colonist, inside which is a copy of the order of service for Mrs Humphry Ward’s funeral.

Mrs Humphry Ward made her anti-suffrage views known not only through her public speaking but through her novels. In 1915 she published an anti-suffrage novel, Delia Blanchflower, which tells the story of the eponymous heroine and her friendship with a very unpleasant militant suffragette, Gertrude Marvell.

Mrs Humphry Ward was convinced that the majority of English women did not want the vote. Her evidence for this was that only 3% of women had joined any suffrage society at all, although it’s not clear where she got the figure from. By contrast, she said, the Anti-Suffrage League had managed to gather 320,000 signatures on an anti-suffrage petition sent to Parliament in 1909.

Mrs Ward's signature in England's Effort
Pro-suffrage campaigners had often to deal with the argument that women simply did not want to be enfranchised. In a meeting on the Downs in Bristol in 1910, suffragette Dr Helena Jones, who was a medical inspector of schools, was interrupted during her speech by a man who reminded her that women did not want the vote. She replied, “It did not matter whether they wanted the vote, but it did matter if they needed it”. She added that this was exactly the stance taken by Gladstone when he extended the vote to agricultural labourers and was told they did not want it. His reply, Dr Jones said, was “that is all the more reason for giving him the vote”.

Anti suffragists fell broadly into two camps: those who believed that women were completely incapable of wielding political power of any kind, and those who, like Mrs Humphry Ward, thought that women did have a role to play in public life – but in local, not national, government. On the whole, most of those in the “women are incapable” camp were men.

Mrs Humphry Ward was not prepared to argue for the total incapacity of her sex. Indeed, she was a very capable woman who campaigned for the extension of further education opportunities for women, as well as better education for disabled children. By 1907 women had won the right to vote and stand for election on parish, rural district, urban district and county councils. It was in these areas that Mrs Humphry Ward thought women should apply themselves since issues such as education and poor law provision were natural extensions of women’s domestic role.

A signed copy of Lady Merton, Colonist
On the other hand, Mrs Humphry Ward thought that national government was men’s business: “In the field of local government…women are in their right, and the nation has given them powers of which they have scarcely as yet used a fraction…What we want now…is a strong local government movement among women, wholly dissociated from the franchise movement and opposed to it. Women’s local government societies of this kind are now beginning to spring up. The more widely they can be diffused…the more plainly [women] will they see that in a wise renouncement lies their strength, that in leaving to men the work and the responsibilities which are rightfully and specially theirs, they are not curtailing but strengthening their own influence with the nation.”

Unfortunately, Mrs Humphrey Ward contradicted her own argument by involving herself in national politics (as did many other women). During the election in January 1910 she campaigned for her son, Arnold, when he stood for election. The WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women, commented, “Mrs Humphrey Ward, who thinks that other women are not sufficiently intelligent to exercise the vote, has been writing letters on behalf of her son, instructing the electors of his would-be constituency. He was defeated.”

For all that her anti-suffrage views aren’t likely to win much sympathy nowadays, I think it’s a pity if Mrs Humphry Ward’s achievements are forgotten. And while it’s true that some of her novels aren’t much to modern taste – Delia Blanchflower ends with Delia seeing the error of her ways, marrying and looking forward to having lots of babies with a husband whose “tenderness will be the master-light of all her days” – I think she is sadly under-rated as a novelist. Her 1888 novel Robert Elsmere, which explores the contemporary crisis of religious faith, was a ground-breaking book which challenged religious dogma.

So I’m pleased to own my two little bits of anti-suffrage history!

The order of funeral service tucked inside Lady Merton, Colonist

You can find out more about the life of Mrs Humphry Ward in the Spotlight OnArchive (opens as pdf document). 

And for more on the anti-suffrage movement, read Julia Bush’s excellent book Women Against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain.