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Fighting for (and against) women’s suffrage

A black and white photograph of a woman in an Edwardian-style striped dress with her hair parted in the middle and tied in a bun. She wears a thick, black fabric necklace with a heart locket hanging from it. Below her locket is a large brooch. She is holding something in both her hands but it's unclear as to what it might be.
Edith Craig, playwright and women's suffragist | © National Trust

Many of the places we care for were home to impassioned people who campaigned both for and against women’s suffrage in the early 20th century. From Edith Craig of Smallhythe, whose plays on women’s rights gently educated the ‘frivolous’ people, to National Trust founder Octavia Hill who, despite staunch social reform views was actually against women’s suffrage.

Fighting for women’s suffrage

Some were members of the leading suffrage groups, taking part in marches and protests, whilst others used theatre and literature to champion female empowerment.

Agnes Pochin and Laura McLaren

Bodnant Garden in Conwy was home to Laura McLaren who was almost certainly inspired into activism by her mother, Agnes, an early campaigner. Agnes was one of the key speakers at the 1868 meeting of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, a starting point for the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain.

Mother and daughter both campaigned for women’s rights and suffrage, as did Laura's mother-in-law, Priscilla Bright McLaren.

Laura became part of the executive committee of the newly formed National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1872. She later led a group to Downing Street to confront Prime Minister Asquith about his opposition to women’s rights, but rejected militant tactics. She argued that women’s changed positions during the First World War as workers and heads of households made it crucial their voices were heard.

Edith Craig

Smallhythe Place in Kent was home to Edith Craig, daughter of the acclaimed actress Ellen Terry. Like her mother, Edith was immersed in theatre. She directed plays on women’s rights and said: ‘Plays have done such a lot for the Suffrage [movement]. They get hold of nice, frivolous people who would die sooner than go in cold blood to meetings. But they watch plays, and get interested, and then we can rope them in for meetings.’

Edith co-founded the feminist bookshop, the International Suffrage Shop and sold the Votes for Women newspaper on the streets of London.

Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart

Few defied expectations of women as completely as Edith, Lady Londonderry who lived at Mount Stewart in County Down. ‘A young hound running riot’, is how a fiercely anti-suffrage Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry, dubbed her wayward, pro-suffrage daughter-in-law.

Edith moved in powerful circles and used her influence to empower others, including as Colonel-in-Chief of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve during the First World War. She even formed a breakaway organisation – the Women’s Legion – in 1915.

You can see reminders of the Women’s Legion emblazoned on her garden pots and even her butter stamps at Mount Stewart.

A charcoal drawing of a lady in her mid-30s, with curled hair and a benevolent look on her face
Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Lady Londonderry | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Shaw

Playwright George Bernard Shaw who lived at Shaw’s Corner in Hertfordshire was at the height of his fame as the women's suffrage movement was at its strongest.

In 1906, when he moved to Shaw’s Corner, he was one of the most famous men in the world. He moved in suffrage circles for years but refused to speak at meetings, saying: ‘Every time you ask a man to appear on your platform, you consent the insufficiency of women to plead their own cause.’ Instead, Shaw gave suffrage a voice in his plays, which feature strong, independent women. One of his best-known suffrage plays, Fanny’s First Play, ran for more than 600 performances.

Shaw believed in suffrage for all women – not just the wealthy ones with property. He supported the cause, but social equality more broadly across gender and class was more important to him.

Fighting against women's suffrage

There were many reasons people opposed female suffrage and learning about some of these key objectors can help us understand the reality of the times they lived in.

George Curzon

Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire was home to one of the staunchest opponents of female suffrage, Lord Curzon, Co-president of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, from 1912 to 1918. He maintained that women lacked the ‘balance of mind’ to use the vote.

Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, Curzon used his political influence to persuade his peers of the damage that allowing women to vote would do to Britain’s international reputation. In 1914, he warned the House of Lords that suffrage would ‘unquestionably weaken (Britain’s) prestige and influence throughout the world’.

He was passionate about Britain’s heritage, and bequeathed Bodiam Castle in East Sussex and Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire to the Trust.

Octavia Hill

Co-founder of the National Trust Octavia Hill was seen by suffragists as truly deserving of the vote. In 1884, the suffragist Millicent Fawcett spoke of ‘thousands of women who daily fulfilled all the qualifications for the suffrage … notably Miss Octavia Hill who had … solved the question of the housing of the poor’.

A social reformer, Octavia helped drive the development of social housing in Britain. She also believed in the right to clean air and open spaces, co-founding the Trust as she lobbied to save green spaces from development.

However, Octavia was anti-suffrage, writing in a 1910 letter to The Times: ‘a serious loss to our country would arise if women entered … political life’. She worried that the vote would take women away from ‘the quiet paths of helpful, real work …’.

Rudyard Kipling

Bateman’s in East Sussex was home to Joseph Rudyard Kipling, the much-loved author of the Jungle Book and Just So Stories. Kipling was fiercely anti-suffrage and held extremely misogynist views on women who campaigned for suffrage.

An oil painting of a man with a round face and a bushy moustache. He's wearing small, round spectacles and a white shirt buttoned up to the neck.
Rudyard Kipling | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Kipling’s chauvinist poem ‘The Female of the Species’ was parodied by suffragettes. He believed that ‘from the lowest to the highest, the driving force of the suffrage agitation comes (a) from the surplus who, consciously or unconsciously want a man and don’t care a curse for the politics (b) from the women without power to hold or charm the man they’ve got’.

Women’s contribution to the war effort failed to change his views on the vote.

Margaret (Leigh) Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey

Osterley Park was home to Margaret (Leigh) Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey, a Tory political hostess and philanthropist who became Britain’s leading female anti-suffragist. She chaired the first meeting of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League and was co-president of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.

On 21 June 1910, she led an anti-suffrage deputation to the Prime Minister on the same day as a pro-suffrage demonstration led by Laura McLaren.

A Times article describes her telling Prime Minister Asquith that: ‘The opponents of woman suffrage did not think that women were more stupid than men, but they knew that their hands were overfull already. There was a large field for woman in social improvement, in the care of the schools, and in municipal affairs’.

Despite her conservative views, she worked as a journalist and playwright.

Women and Power podcast

In 2018, to mark 100 years since some women were granted the vote, and as part of a series exhibitions, events and other activities exploring suffrage stories at our places, we launched the Women and Power podcast.

Presented by journalist and broadcaster Kirsty Wark, the podcast explored the stories behind key characters in the suffrage debate, lifting the lid on National Trust archives to uncover seldom-told stories of maids, millworkers, politicians and even royalty who helped shape the world we live in today.

Explore the podcast

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA (London 1876 ¿ Middleton in Teesdale 1941)

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