Centenary of Women’s Suffrage10 Jul 2018
An article on the centenary of women’s right to vote by Cathedral Residentiary Canon, Georgina Byrne.
We take for granted our right to vote in national and local elections, whether we choose to exercise our democratic right or not. A hundred years ago, only property-owning men could do this.
The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enabled all men over twenty-one, and 8.5 million of the 15 million women of Britain to vote, as long as they were over the age of thirty and owned property. Full parity for women came only in 1928. Many people think that the campaign for women’s right to vote began with the suffragettes of the 20th century, but it began much earlier. Groups of women and men lobbied Parliament, spoke at public meetings, and raised awareness of injustice throughout the 19th century.
One such group was the Church League for Women’s Suffrage. The Worcester branch was led by a cathedral canon, James Maurice Wilson, who ran meetings from his home with his wife, Georgina. The Dean of Worcester, William Moore Ede and his wife Sarah were also active members, as was the Bishop.
The Church League shunned violent protest, but, by connecting equality with Christian principle, added to the tide of opinion that made the 1918 Act inevitable.
O God, the light of the nations,
we thank you for all who strive for justice and challenge our complacency.
Grant that we may use our voices and our votes for the good of all people,
and that our faithfulness to your all-embracing love may be known
not just in our words, but also in our deeds.
Through Jesus Christ, our hope and salvation. Amen.
Anne Spurgeon from Malvern Link offers this addendum with some specifically Worcester focussed information which she came across while researching a biography of the former Dean of Worcester, William Moore Ede.
In January 1914 William Moore Ede (Dean of Worcester) attended a meeting of the Annual Meeting of the Church League for Women's Suffrage (CLWS) Council in London where the question of violent militancy, which had now escalated to arson attacks and bombings, was discussed.
He was dismayed at the passing of a resolution that CWLS members ‘should refrain from expressing their personal opinion on methods of propaganda unless specifically questioned and, in that case, should make it clear that the League expresses no opinion as to such methods.' This resolution, it was stated, ‘was applicable to expressions of opinion both for and against militancy or any other form of agitation’.
The Dean, a lifelong pacifist, considered that this essentially neutral statement ‘declined to say that the present actions of the militants are wrong, disloyal to the Head of the Church and false to His teaching’. He observed that when the League was first formed the actions of the suffragettes were merely obstructive (if ‘exasperating and unwise’) but now they had become dangerously destructive to life and property. He went on:
"A Society which calls itself a Church League and which deliberately refuses to express an opinion on a grave moral question, and declines to say the present methods of militancy are not in accord with the spirit and teaching of Jesus Christ, is not true to the principles of the Church. It is condoning doing evil that good may come, which is wrong in principle, and also forgets that God’s will can only be done in God’s way."
However the Dean failed in his attempt to achieve a replacement resolution specifically condemning militancy. Returning to Worcester he announced his intention to resign from the League and was followed in this by his wife, Sarah, Canon and Mrs Wilson, the Bishop of Worcester, Huyshe Yeatman-Biggs and the majority of the ordinary members. As a result the Worcester branch of the League was effectively dissolved. Subsequently the Dean directed his energies to support the activities of the secular and non-violent National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (his wife Sarah was already the Secretary of the Worcester branch).
Meanwhile the events in Worcester sparked a number of debates in branches of the CLWS around the country on the age-old question of whether violence might be justified in support of a seemingly just cause. These debates, however, were brought to an end later that year when the declaration of war resulted in a temporary halt to the whole suffrage campaign.