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Votes for women: the 1866 suffrage petition

31 May 2016

The Vote 100 project team write about the first mass women's suffrage petition, presented to Parliament on 7 June 1866, to mark its 150th anniversary in 2016.

Suffrage before 1866

People including Mary Wollstonecraft advocated equal political rights as early as the 18th century, and women campaigned alongside men in the movement for Parliamentary reform in the early 19th century. The first petition from an individual woman for the vote was presented to Parliament in 1832, when Henry Hunt MP presented a petition from a Mary Smith from Stanmore in Yorkshire. Mary Smith argued that she paid taxes and was subject to the law, so did not see why she should not be able to vote. Although her argument sounds very reasonable today, it was laughed out of the House of Commons at the time.

The 1866 petition

In 1865 the Kensington Society, a discussion group for middle-class women which met in Kensington, London, discussed the issue of the vote at one of their meetings and then formed a small informal committee to draft a petition. The leaders included Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett, all prominent campaigners for women's rights in the mid-19th century. The Liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill MP agreed to present the petition to Parliament for them, provided they could get at least a hundred signatures, and his stepdaughter Helen Taylor wrote a first draft of the petition.

How many women signed the 1866 petition?

Signatures were sought by women from their family circles and friendship networks, and came in from a wide variety of women - teachers, dressmakers, shopkeepers, and wives of butchers, greengrocers and blacksmiths, as well as women of the leisured classes, from all over the UK and Ireland.  The scientist and mathematician Mary Somerville even sent her signature from her home in Italy. The organisers collated signatures at Aubrey House in London, home of activist Clementia ('Mentia') Taylor and her husband Peter Taylor MP, and recorded 1499 names, which were printed and circulated in a pamphlet.  However the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Petitions later counted 1521 signatures, showing an extra 22 last minute additions.

The presentation of the petition

Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett brought the petition to Parliament in a hansom cab to give to Mill.  A story later told was that they hid it under the cart of a woman selling apples in Westminster Hall in order to avoid attention, and that was where Mill found it.  He laid it before the House of Commons on 7 June 1866, and spoke on it on 17 July, when he declared that the value of the petition was that it had been organised and signed exclusively by women, and therefore demonstrated clearly for the first time that women wanted the vote.

First debate in Parliament

The following year, Mill initiated the first Parliamentary debate on votes for women, when he moved to replace the word 'man' with 'person' during the passage of the Second Reform Bill in 1867. His powerful speech was well received, even by opponents. He received support from some other MPs including Henry Fawcett, husband of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, but the resulting division was lost 73 votes to 196.  Mill was encouraged enough by this to continue to argue for votes for women, and wrote personally to Mary Somerville to ask her to be the first signatory on another suffrage petition in 1868, which gathered more than 21,000 signatures. 

The significance of the 1866 petition

The 1866 petition marked the start of organised campaigning by women for the vote.  Overall, more than 16,000 petitions for votes for women were received by the House of Commons and House of Lords between 1866 and 1918.  The battle continued throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, in the peaceful 'suffragist' campaign led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and the militant 'suffragette' campaign led by Emmeline Pankhurst and others. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all men and women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications, and in 1928 women got the vote on equal terms with men. 

The Vote 100 Project is working to mark 100 years of the vote for some women and all men in 2018. For more information see Vote 100.

Image: Extract from the 1866 suffrage petition, as printed in the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Petitions report.
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