You may have heard that Manchester was very important in the fight for women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century, being the birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragettes. But did you know it was also a hub of anti-suffrage activity during the same period?
With its headquarters on Princess Street, the Manchester branch of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage held meetings across the city and as far a field as Wilmslow and Alderley Edge in Cheshire. The League began with the 1910 merging of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League and the Men’s League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, founded in 1908 and 1909 respectively. Despite having many prominent members in their committee, with Lady Sheffield of Alderley as the President, the Manchester branch suffered for a number of reasons, but largely due to Manchester being a stronghold of the suffragette movement. This competition was a prominent concern throughout the campaign as is frequently documented in correspondence between leading figures in the League. The struggle to gain momentum in Manchester is clearly demonstrated in a letter written in 1910 by Lord Cromer, President of the National League, to Mr George Hamilton Esq. the chairman of the Manchester branch.
Part of the Manchester Central Library Archive+ Collection.
Manchester gave birth to some of the pioneering female figures of the British suffrage movement, including Lydia Becker, Flora Drummond and of course the Pankhursts; whose organisation, the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), had already been established for six years, with branches all over the country by the time the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage was officially formed. Lord Cromer, George Hamilton and Lady Sheffield were up against an organised and well-oiled machine in their attempt to counter the efforts of the suffragettes in the radical city of Manchester.
“I should be very sorry to see the Manchester branch broken up, not only because it would be a very considerable triumph for the suffragists, but also because Manchester is such an important centre that I am very reluctant to abandon all attempts to combat the suffragists there.”
In the letter above, Lord Cromer seems to suggest that whilst winning over Manchester was likely to be a struggle, beating the suffragettes on their own turf would be a significant victory in the fight against women’s enfranchisement.
A similar sentiment is echoed in the following letter regarding a postponed anti-suffrage meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1909:
From the headquarters of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in London to the secretary of the Manchester Branch. Part of the Manchester Central Library Archive+ Collection.
This shows dispute amongst the ranks and a lack of confidence due to the uphill battle they faced in establishing themselves in Manchester. The letter also again highlights the rivalry felt by the anti-suffrage campaigners towards the pro-suffrage groups through the perceived threat and ‘fighting talk’.
Partly as a result of this rivalry, the anti-suffrage movement suffered in Manchester due to lack of widespread support. The following newspaper article from the Manchester Guardian in 1909 gives an example of a meeting at the Memorial Hall in Albert Square which was “thinly attended and the audience contained some members of and sympathisers with the WSPU”. This shows the apathy of anti-suffrage ‘supporters’ compared with the ardour of the suffragists and suffragettes who would regularly attempt to discredit the opposition by attending not only their own meetings and rallies but also those held by anti-suffrage organisations, and responding to news articles, to promote their cause.
Extract from an article in the Manchester Guardian, 3 April 1909. Accessed through Manchester Libraries.
An example of one of these dedicated suffragists is Helena Swanwick, a feminist writer and pacifist, who wrote a letter to the editor of the Manchester Guardian in response to ‘The Anti-Suffrage Manifesto’ previously published in the paper in June 1910. She goes into great detail about the ways by which the anti-suffrage movement supposedly skewed figures and signatures in support of their cause; suggesting that there was less support for women’s suffrage than there actually was, and manipulating working class women and servants into signing anti-suffrage petitions.
Extracts from an article in the Manchester Guardian, 13 June 1910. Accessed through Manchester Libraries.
Ultimately, as history shows, the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage was never destined to achieve their goal, as the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918 and 8.4 million women over the age of 30, with a property qualification, were granted the vote. The campaign in Manchester failed to get off the ground, and this set a precedent for the rest of the country in terms of those willing to protest in favour of anti-suffrage as compared with the suffragettes who were willing to die for their cause. While the suffragettes put aside their banners and sashes and refocused their energies in to the war effort from 1914, those opposing women’s suffrage continued to protest throughout the war, as shown in the article below, dated 8 June 1917:
Article from the Manchester Guardian, 8 June 1917. Accessed through Manchester Libraries.
In some ways the passion and drive of the suffragettes could never be emulated by those opposing what they were fighting for, who perhaps were against women’s suffrage in theory but lacked the motivation to actively protest.
Blog written by Charlotte Clare and Jasmine Massey