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The 1910 petitions on women's suffrage: an unofficial referendum

3 February 2017

This month, Dr Henry Miller looks at the women's suffrage petition campaign launched before the general election of 1910.

Women's suffrage and voters petitions

Petitions were central to the women's suffrage campaign. The movement was founded by the 1866 petition and the landmark ‘Special Appeal' of 1896 further highlighted the importance of petitioning.  By the Edwardian period, many campaigners had become disillusioned with petitioning the House of Commons, After the 1885 Third Reform Act enfranchised a majority of adult men, suffragists believed that MPs were more responsive to the demands of male voters than women without votes.  One consequence was that some campaigners such Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst and tie Women's Social and Political Union, adopted more militant tactics to gain the votes. However, others associated with the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies came up with innovative and imaginative new ways to petition Parliament.

In 1908-9 the National Union, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, gathered signatures from male voters in favour of women's suffrage at a number of parliamentary by-elections. The petitions aimed to show to newly elected MPs that a majority of male voters in their constituencies supported women's suffrage. Unlike the W.S.P.U., who opposed Liberal candidates at by-elections, the National Union was officially neutral. The voters petitions were designed to exert pressure on MPs and be rolled out on a national scale at the next general election.

Organising the voters petitions

The opportunity came in January 1910 after a general election was called as a result of the House of Lords rejection of the Liberal budget. The plan was to organise petitions from male electors in every constituency in the country. In essence, this was akin to holding an unofficial referendum on the issue of women's suffrage. The National Union issued careful instructions to activists and campaigners on the ground. Given the freezing conditions, canvassers were advised that ‘warm clothes, a hat that won't blow off in a wind, and thick boots are essential'. Pencils rather than pens should be used for the signatures to avoid ink running and ruining the petition sheets in inclement weather.  In many constituencies, suffragists took over shops as local headquarters, colourfully decorated them with placards and banners. As well as gathering signatures at election meetings and door-to-door canvassing, suffragists stood outside polling stations for up to twelve hours during ‘horrible' conditions.

Lack of resources and the grim weather made it impossible to organise voters petitions in every constituency. In the end, voters petitions were sent from 253 constituencies (over a third of the total), to the House of Commons, with many handed over to newly elected MPs after elaborate local ceremonies. The petitions contained over 288,000 signatures.

What happened to the voters petitions? 

The petitions were duly presented in the Commons in March and April, but after the painstaking work that had gone into them, their lack of impact was a disappointment to many of the campaigners. However, the voters petition campaign of January 1910 was remarkable and significant in a number of respects. Aside from the huge number of petitions and signatures achieved, campaigners braved awful conditions and, on occasion, hostility from male voters and authorities. The engagement with the electoral process also strengthened women's claims for the vote as citizens. Finally, the failure of the voters' petitions policy led the National Union to pursue a more direct electoral strategy in alliance with the Labour party in the years before the First World War. Abandoning its non-party stance, the National Union pledged to organise on behalf of Labour candidates as it was the only party that had made giving women the vote official policy.

Dr. Henry Miller is Senior Research Fellow at Durham University and Project Co-ordinator of the Petitions, Parliament and People project funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Image:  Parliamentary Art Collection Reference Collection