Hyenas in Petticoats and The Man in a Dress: Women and the Vote

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This week was the centenary of the 1918 Representation of People Act.  To mark the occasion, our Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian Helen O’Neill takes a look at some of the material in the Library’s collections, which tell the suffrage story.

This week, one hundred years ago, propertied British women over the age of thirty, and all men over the age of twenty-one, were granted the right to vote. On the run up to the anniversary, Radio 4 Today’s programme ran a series of interviews and a public vote to find the country’s “most influential woman”. Millicent Fawcett, President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and leader of the constitutional women’s suffrage movement, won the vote.

Mary Wollstonecraft author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

In her essay The Electoral Disabilities of Women (1872) Fawcett noted that opponents of woman’s suffrage looked upon “a woman’s rights woman as the incarnation of all that is repulsive; and a woman’s rights man… as bereft of his senses.”

Horace Walpole famously referred to Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the ground-breaking treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), as “a hyena in petticoats”. The philosopher John Stuart Mill (a founder member of The London Library and the first MP to stand on a platform that included votes for women) fared no better, being ridiculed in images, that depicted him in full female dress.

“Miss Mill Joins the Ladies” Judy 25 November 1868

In her history of the women’s suffrage movement, Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (1912), Fawcett identified texts of importance, at the outset of the suffrage movement. The most significant being Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, from whose publication,  Fawcett dated women’s demand for political equality in Britain.  She also highlighted the 1851 essay, The Enfranchisement of Women by Harriet Taylor and several works by John Stuart Mill, notably, Representative Government which, “with great force and vigour” made the case for women’s political rights.

Mill, who credited the influence Helen Taylor on his thinking on women’s rights, was elected MP for Westminster in 1865. On 7 June 1866, he presented the first mass petition for Votes for Women to Parliament, gathered by prominent women’s rights campaigners including Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett. During the Second Reform Bill in 1867, he called for an amendment to the bill to replace the word “man” with the word “person” and thus extend the franchise to women. Mill’s speech in the House of Commons was reprinted in The Westminster Review and, according to Fawcett, was “masterly … grave and high toned, [and] made a deep impression.” The amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73. As Fawcett and Mill both noted however, the support for the amendment, greatly surpassed their expectations.

Perhaps the most striking image of Mill was published in Judy on 25 November 1868.  It depicts him in full female attire, being (literally) shown the door after his defeat in the Westminster by-election. Undeterred, he published The Subjection of Women (1869) the following year.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst with the motto “Deeds not Words.” In its Special Collections, the Library has volumes of both Votes for Women and The Suffragette which were issued by the WSPU between 1907 and 1918 and 1912-1915 respectively. The full page illustrative front covers of The Suffragette, are as eye catching, and challenging today, as they must have been when first published.

The Suffragette – edited by Christabel Pankhurst – October 1913

The Suffragette – December 1913

The Library’s lending collections are rich in suffrage material and the nature of some of the Library’s historic shelfmarks testify to the evolution of thought and writing on suffrage and women’s rights. Material can be found across the collections, in newspapers and periodicals, pamphlets, biography and biographical collections, drama, literature, art and in several shelfmarks in Science & Miscellaneous, including Political Economy, Suffrage and Women.

Better Late than Never Punch satirises Asquith’s late conversion – April 4, 1917

In search for Millicent Fawcett in the London Library shelfmark S. Women, I was distracted by A Dictionary of Employments Open to Women (1898). A slight volume it is not only an alphabetical list of occupations open to women in 1898 but gives a specific picture of the challenge at hand by detailing the qualifications, salary and level within professions, women had, or were able to rise to. Thus the occupation of “Taxidermist, Bird Stuffer (See also Insect Setter)” held no barriers to entry apart from the need for “neat fingers” but there was only one women employed as a Labour Correspondent at the Board of Trade; no woman had yet passed all three sections of an examination to qualify as a chief librarian; and an Act of Parliament was required for women to practice as solicitors.  But if proof were needed that women, vote or no vote, were aiming for the stars, four women were employed as astronomical assistants in 1898, three at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and one at the Cambridge observatory.

Cartoon from Votes for Women 1911

On 2 July 1928 when women finally got the vote on equal terms with men, Millicent Fawcett wrote in her diary “It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.”

One hundred years after the Representation of People Act and ninety after the Equal Franchise Act Millicent Fawcett will become the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square.


Helen O’Neill