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The Victorian Woman and Politics

Early in the period, politics was of little concern to the Victorian Woman as she was not allowed to own property or have her own money. She was supported by her family or her husband and in some cases, her husband's family. It wasn't until the late 1860s when working Victorian women began to play an important role in the fight for women's suffrage and improved wages and working conditions.

Political interest included more than just parliamentary suffrage, it also extended to areas of local government. By 1870 women were beginning to play an important role in this once "male dominated domain". By the mid-1870s, however, the fight for women's suffrage experienced serious setbacks. Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy wrote to a friend at the end of the century that "Unless a great effort be made now, I do not believe you or I, or persons twenty years our junior, will live to see Women's Suffrage established in England."1

The first organized committee for women's suffrage was in 1866; yet it would take almost 42 years for the movement to have much real success.  However, women who paid taxes (called rate payers) were granted the right to vote in 1869. The involvement of women in politics was seen as the opportunity for the passing of more just legislation.'"2

"To individual men the law says, 'All of you whose rental reaches the proscribed standard shall have your political existence recognized. You may not be clever, nor learned; possibly you may not know how to read or write . . .'" "But to individual women, the law says, 'It is true that you are persons with opinions, wants, and wishes of your own . . . and that you're intelligence is not inferior to that of great numbers of male voters . . . but . . . we will not allow you to have the smallest share in the government of the country."

Feminists were not only unhappy about years of government performance, but also with a number of social and economic issues as well which they believed the result of the lack of representation of women and the property less poor. The representation of women would force Parliament to face issues which had previously been ignored. It would also give women independence and increase their self development.

The argument for women's right to vote was based on equality and equal representation, but also upon the belief of a woman's moral superiority and fitness. The views among these women's groups differed significantly resulting in arguments amongst themselves, lessening their power overall. Early in the period many of these women were able to work at home in the family business; however, as Britain became more industrialized and the population migrated to the cities, these women moved into the factories, workhouses and sometimes, the streets. This shift in labor, however, did not come without its controversy as women were paid significantly less than men and the most common grievance was that they were taking jobs away from the men, the natural breadwinners. There was also concern that the long hours and horrific working conditions would have a devastating effect on the women with babies and young children.

The first suffrage organizations formed in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester in 1867 and 1868 which later combined to form the National Society for Women's Suffrage. Two years after its formation, they published The Women's Suffrage Journal". The committee was formed of women and "radical" men and included Lydia Becker, Louisa Smith and Caroline Ashurst Biggs. The organization lobbied actively against aspects of the 1867 Reform Act petitioning influential politicians and supporters for the purpose of gaining parliamentary recognition and publicly demonstrating throughout the country. Later, in 1888, due to various disagreements and political views the group was split many resignations of highly experienced women.

Two other important organizations also politically active were the Women's Franchise League (WFL) and the Women's Emancipation Union (WEU).

We talked briefly about the lifestyle of the middle-class Victorian woman in our section "A Typical Day". In this article, we will go into deeper detail on women during this time -- their work, their challenges and their accomplishments.

By the 1880s with women taking on more roles in the political sphere there were two changes that split the feminists. These were the "granting of a municipal franchise to single women and widows" and the "Married Women's Property Acts". Some believed that by limiting these rights to a particular class of women hurt their cause while the others looked upon it as more of a step in the right direction.

Elizabeth Wolenstenholme Elmy who founded the WFL (Women's Foundation) emphasized the gains married women had made while at the same time voiced what would be lost by limiting the right to vote to only women who paid taxes or owned property. The premise of the WFL was "To extend to women, whether unmarried, married, or widowed, the right to vote at Parliamentary, Municipal, Local and other elections with the same conditions that qualify men."3

Frances Power Cobbe in 1881 wrote "Nothing but our own steady and simultaneous labour can really elevate our sex". It was the strong determination of the Victorian feminists, despite hostility and diversion which won them their successes. However, it wasn't until 1928 that women were granted the Parliamentary vote on the same conditions as men.

  1. British Library, Additional Manuscript. 47451, f. 33. Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy to Harriet McIlquham, 11 December 1896.
  2. Victorian Feminism 1850-1900, Philippa Levine, Univ. Press of Florida (1994), p. 61.
  3. Manchester Reference Library, Suffrage Collection, M50/2/32/1. Women's Franchise League 1889.
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