Women’s activists in political parties: taking forward the suffrage campaign

DOWNLOAD – WHS Suffrage Scotland – Political parties

Esther Breitenbach

In this section you will find information on the following:


  • How women joined political party organisations from the early 1880s onwards
  • How women activists promoted women’s suffrage within parties
  • The divisions of opinion that existed within parties on the question of women’s suffrage
  • The different political sympathies and motives that lay behind support for the demand for votes for women
  • How suffrage organisations and political party organisations overlapped.


The initial phase of suffrage campaigning from the late 1860s onwards took the form of locally based non-party suffrage societies. Some of the founding members of such organisations would have had political party sympathies or affiliations, although women did not have access to party membership as such. The non-party suffrage societies continued to function throughout the period of the campaign for the parliamentary franchise, and many were succeeded after 1918 by new non-party organisations such as Women Citizens’ Associations or Unions for Equal Citizenship. However, from the early 1880s onwards new party associations recruited increasing numbers of women, some of whom lobbied within their parties for a commitment to women’s suffrage.

Formation of new organisations and parties

Two factors influencing the creation of new forms of party organisation were the Corrupt Practices Act (1883), which forbade the payment of canvassers, and the Reform Act (1884), which extended the parliamentary franchise to male householders, and thus included some working-class men. As a consequence of the former, parties turned to volunteers, among whom women formed an important constituency, while as a consequence of the latter, parties aimed to widen their membership base. Prior to the creation of new party organisations, there were women who had been involved in political life through family and community networks, and it can be assumed that such women were involved in the establishment of the new associations. At this stage, women were not accepted into parties on the same terms as men, something that did not happen, for example in the Liberal and Conservative parties, until 1918.

primrose leagueThe main vehicle for the expansion of women’s involvement in the Conservative, or Unionist party, as it was known in Scotland, was the Primrose League. This was a nominally independent organisation, associated with the Unionist Party. Named after Disraeli’s favourite flower, and established in 1883, it attracted working-class men and middle-class women, and was also patronised by landed gentry. A Scottish Branch of the League was established in 1885, and claimed by 1901 to have attracted over 85,000 members. It is not clear how many of these were women; according to Pugh women made up 49 per cent of the League’s membership across Britain. By 1901 the League in Scotland had eighty-six local branches, known as Habitations. In the 1900s Women’s Unionist Associations (WUAs) began to form, and appear to have become more popular with women activists. A later development was the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, which also had a presence in Scotland.

Lady Aberdeen
Lady Aberdeen, President, Scottish Women Liberals Federation

Given Liberal MPs’ record in putting forward bills on the parliamentary franchise for women, and the stalwart support offered by leading Scottish Liberals such as Duncan McLaren, it might be expected that there would be strong support among women Liberals for the cause. Women’s Liberal Associations were being organised in Scotland from around 1890, with the Scottish Women’s Liberal Federation being constituted in 1891. One of the objects of the Federation was ‘To secure just and equal representation for women, especially with reference to the Parliamentary Franchise, and the removal of all legal disabilities on account of sex’ (Scottish Women’s Liberal Federation Minutes, 1891). By 1911 the Scottish Women’s Liberal Federation claimed to have 22,000 members.

The emerging socialist and Labour parties of the 1880s and 1890s also had women members. Branches of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, established in Glasgow in the 1880s had small numbers of women members. In the 1890s a Women’s Labour Party, allied to the Scottish Labour Party, was set up, remaining in existence until 1898. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was most successful in attracting women members, which, according to the testimony of Annie and Ada Maxton, James Maxton’s sisters, had women’s groups in each branch. In 1908, the Women’s Labour League, the women’s section of the Labour Party, was established in Glasgow. By this period the ILP and the Labour Party had a presence in other parts of Scotland, in Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, and in towns in industrial areas. In addition to left-wing parties there were other labour movement organisations involving women, such as the Co-operative Women’s Guild and the Scottish Trades Union Congress, both of which supported the demand for women’s suffrage.

Women’s suffrage and divided parties

Within many party organisations the question of women’s suffrage was debated. Opinions on women’s suffrage were often divided, whether on the principle as such, or the form of the demand for the parliamentary franchise for women. Within the Primrose League, the demand for the parliamentary suffrage for women, on the same basis as the municipal franchise, was unanimously adopted by the Scottish Grand Habitation in 1891 (Englishwoman’s Review, 15 January, 1892). This resolution was subsequently followed by several more on the same topic, usually meeting the response that the time was not right. In 1901, the Scottish Grand Council was asked to urge the government to prepare legislation entitling women ratepayers to vote in parliamentary elections. The response of the Grand Council was to effectively rule such resolutions out of order, on the grounds that it was ‘outside the scope of the Primrose League’, whose members were free to support or oppose such questions as suffrage, Protection, or antivaccination, as they pleased (Primrose League Grand Council minute, 1901).

Mrs Henry SedgwickThe issue was also raised in some WUAs. For example, in 1909 the Duchess of Montrose (who was an active anti-suffragist), addressing Stirling Women Unionists, acknowledged the differences of opinion on women’s suffrage, arguing that since ‘some being in favour of the franchise and others against it, it was a matter which must remain outside their Unionist Association’ (Scotsman, 18 October, 1909). This followed in the wake of an attempt to get the Association to support women’s enfranchisement. It was no doubt the failure to get organisations such as the Primrose League and the WUAs to declare in favour of enfranchisement which led to the formation of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association. This was formed in 1908, and had ‘Circles’ in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and perhaps elsewhere in Scotland.

As noted, it was one of the objectives of the Scottish Women’s Liberal Federation to secure the parliamentary franchise for women. The Liberal party itself was divided over the issue, and indeed, not all women Liberals were supporters, although women members in Scotland did not split over the issue as they did in England, where members seceded from the Women’s Liberal Federation to form the Women’s National Liberal Association. The Federation continued to push the issue within the Party, and in some areas used the question of support for women’s suffrage as a test question for parliamentary candidates. Pugh has commented that Scottish Liberals more generally converted to support for women’s suffrage than Liberals elsewhere in Britain. Nonetheless, frustration with the lack of government action to bring forward a satisfactory bill seems to have eroded membership of the SWLF by the outbreak of war in 1914.

Among left-wing parties positions on women’s suffrage also varied. One stumbling block was that the demand for the vote for women on the same terms as men implied the enfranchisement of propertied women only, and many socialists were concerned that this would strengthen the hand of the Conservative party. Some thus supported manhood suffrage, but not women’s suffrage, although by the early 1900s there was growing support for adult suffrage. This demand, however, was often seen by suffrage campaigners as a block to women’s aspirations, as they thought adult suffrage would only be realised in the very distant future. In their study of Lancashire textile workers, however, Liddington and Norris found some limited support for adult suffrage among women suffrage supporters.

Keir Hardie - The Citizenship of WomenThe ILP was most active in supporting women’s suffrage. Keir Hardie, in The Citizenship of Women: A Plea for Women’s Suffrage, first published in 1905, supported the enfranchisement of women on the same terms as men, but also argued that ‘nothing would do so much to hasten’ adult suffrage as the ‘passing of the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill’. Presciently perhaps, Hardie predicted that universal suffrage might be achieved around 1929, but he thought that this would only happen ‘If the workers were prepared to lay every other reform on the shelf, and begin an agitation for adult suffrage…’  Opposition to giving married women the vote remained in his eyes the main obstacle to adult suffrage.

The Labour Party, in contrast to the ILP, for the first decade or so of the twentieth century, refused to support women having the vote on the same terms as men, and stood by its commitment to adult suffrage. In 1912, however, the Party resolved that although it supported adult suffrage, the Labour Party in Parliament would oppose any franchise bill that did not include women. This in turn led to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) making a pact with the Labour Party and setting up an Election Fighting Fund to help Labour candidates in by-elections. This alienated some Liberal and Conservative supporters of the NUWSS. For example, the Glasgow and West of Scotland Association for Women’s Suffrage opposed this strategy.

The formulation of the demand for the vote and motivations for support

The demand for the parliamentary franchise for women was thus much debated within the major political parties of the day, and taken up by the new party organisations which women joined in large numbers. While there were supporters in all parties, there was also opposition, and it remained very difficult to get any party to commit itself to putting forward a government bill on female enfranchisement. Generally speaking the form of the demand was for the vote for women on the same terms as men. But the motivations for supporting this formulation varied from party to party. Among Unionists and Conservatives, to enfranchise propertied women was seen as a bulwark against a more radical extension of the franchise. Many Liberals were also cautious in their approach to further extensions of the franchise for men, and thus the restricted franchise for women seemed a satisfactory solution. Labour’s fears of a restricted franchise providing support for Conservatives fed its opposition to women’s suffrage on the same terms as men as then existed, while the ILP and many other left-wing suffrage supporters saw the restricted franchise as a first step, that might eventually be succeeded by a wider franchise. There was also considerable anxiety across the political spectrum, that as the prospect of manhood suffrage loomed, an inevitable consequence would be adult suffrage. Women would then become a majority of the electorate. Conservatives feared women’s susceptibility to Socialism and Bolshevism, and Socialists feared women’s susceptibility to Conservatism.

Since the franchise had been extended in 1884 to £10 householders and lodgers, an attempt was made to indicate how many women would be enfranchised using the same criteria. This was particularly a concern of working-class parties and organisations, who opposed extension of the franchise to propertied women only. It was also an exercise carried out to widen the appeal of the suffrage demand to working women. In The Citizenship of Women Hardie claimed that over 80 per cent of women registered as municipal voters were working women. This was based on returns by ILP branches, and historians have treated these claims with some scepticism. In some industrial areas, where women formed a large proportion of the workforce and consequently where there were higher proportions of female-headed households, considerable numbers of working women may have benefited from enfranchisement of women on the same terms as men. But this kind of pattern tended to exist only in areas where textile manufacturing dominated the local economy. Furthermore, most married women would have remained without a vote.

It should be noted that, despite divisions of opinion over the demand for the parliamentary franchise for women, there was widespread support for women’s right to vote and stand for school boards and local government bodies, even among women who opposed the parliamentary franchise for women. At the same time even supporters of the right of women to vote in parliamentary elections had not yet articulated the demand that women should have a right to stand for parliament.

Suffrage organisations and parties: overlapping memberships

The suffrage societies that had first come into being in the late 1860s were non-party organisations, and this was also the case with militant organisations such as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WSPU at the time of its foundation had close links with the ILP, although over time Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst became increasingly anti-party, and mounted campaigns against Liberal and Labour candidates. But their lead was not necessarily followed at a local level, and in various places the WSPU continued to co-operate with the ILP. There were often considerable overlaps in membership.

Similarly with the branches of the NUWSS there were overlaps with party memberships. Megan Smitley has demonstrated how NUWSS and SWLF memberships overlapped in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and also how these organisations were linked through overlapping membership to the British Women’s Temperance Association Scottish Christian Union (BWTASCU). The latter organisation supported women’s suffrage, in the belief that this would facilitate legislation restricting the sale of alcohol. For the same reason BWTASCU urged women to vote and stand in local elections, where they could influence local licensing decisions.

Apart from Smitley’s study, little is known about the inter-relationship between party and suffrage organisations at Scottish or local level. Furthermore, given the frequent focus on the period of militancy, the connections of the suffrage movement in Scotland with left-wing politics have been given more attention. Yet, it is clear that Unionist supporters existed, and that some Scottish Unionist MPs were among the Conservative supporters of women’s suffrage. Indeed, supporters of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association acclaimed the party’s track record of support for women’s suffrage; in 1911 Rosaline Masson declared that ‘many of the extensions of the franchise had been the work of Conservative Governments’ (Scotsman, 16 January, 1911). This suggests that further exploration of overlapping memberships and inter-relationships between parties and suffrage organisations across the political spectrum would enable a more balanced account of the movement to emerge.

Through their membership of party organisations women were raising the issue of women’s suffrage, and no doubt lobbying MPs and party leaders on the subject. They took part in election and by-election campaigns, taking different stances over tactics in the increasingly fraught period of militancy when the WSPU campaigned against Liberal party candidates. Even under the broad umbrella of support for women’s suffrage, there were clearly many shades of opinion, divisions, and sometimes rancorous splits. Women were also learning many political skills, and while our focus here is on the campaign for the vote, they were also educating themselves on a wide range of political issues, from Irish Home Rule to social reform.


Primary sources:

Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association: Primrose League Grand Council Scottish Branch, Annual Reports and minutes. NLS: Acc 10424/1

Scottish Women’s Liberal Federation Minutes Book No 1. NLS: Acc. 11765/20

Keir Hardie, The Citizenship of Women: A Plea for Women’s Suffrage (London: Independent Labour Party, 1906) 2nd edition. [Some pages from this pamphlet have been digitised at https://suffragettes.nls.uk/sources]

Englishwoman’s Review, 15 January, 1892

Scotsman, 18 October, 1909; 16 January, 1911.


Catriona Burness, ‘The Long Slow March: Scottish Women MPs, 1918-1945’ in Esther Breitenbach and Eleanor Gordon (eds), Out of Bounds: Women in Scottish Society, 1800-1945 (Edinburgh University Press, 1992), pp. 151-173.

Eleanor Gordon, Women and the Labour Movement in Scotland, 1850-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)

Leah Leneman, A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1991)

Leah Leneman, ‘Dundee and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1907-1914’ in Christopher Whatley (ed), The Remaking of Juteopolis (Abertay Historical Society, 1991), pp. 80-96.

Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us (London: Virago, 1978)

Martin Pugh, The March of the Women (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Megan Smitley, The feminine public sphere: Middle-Class women in civic life in Scotland, c. 1870-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009)

 J. J. Smyth, Labour in Glasgow 1896-1936: socialism, suffrage, sectarianism (Tuckwell Press, 2000)

Where can you find information about women in political parties/organisations associated with political parties?

You can search SCAN to identify the location of political party archives, consult party publications, newspapers, local archives and museums. Scottish broadsheet and local newspapers are likely to be a key source of information, as are newspapers published by or associated with political parties. For more details, see the General guidance on sources, especially the sections on ‘Political party archives’, ‘Individual activists’, and ‘Political newspapers.’

Questions for investigation

  • Which parties were dominant in your area? What evidence is there of women’s activity in local parties or associated organisations?
  • Were they connected to suffrage organisations? Did they organise joint meetings/joint demonstrations?
  • Did they campaign on the issue of women’s suffrage in elections and by-elections?
  • What form of the demand for the vote did they support?
  • What evidence is there for working-class women’s involvement in local parties/suffrage organisations.


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Esther Breitenbach

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