Researching 'No Votes Thank You' at Kedleston
The history of the suffrage movement is a prime example of an historical event that is remembered by the winners. For an important progressive change like votes for women this is quite right, and this year the National Trust is celebrating the centenary of the event.
However it was with this in mind that I entered into researching the anti-suffrage movement with some trepidation. What stories would emerge? Would George Curzon be revealed as a suppressive misogynist? In reality, the story of Curzon’s involvement with the anti-suffrage movement is far more complex, and most importantly Curzon was a leading voice who represented both men and women protesting to defend “traditional” values and maintain societal “norms”.
Opposition to suffrage
Researching Curzon’s story was about fleshing out what we already knew about his involvement with anti-suffrage and giving motive to his actions. His role as founding member of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage (NLOWS) was well understood. But what had led Curzon down this path, and how did he respond to the Representation of the People Act in 1918?
The British Library archive was a vital starting point. Curzon played a prominent role in British politics both at home and abroad at the turn of the century so the collection relating to him is huge, spanning 1866 to 1925.
Conflict within the movement
Of particular interest to this project was the correspondence between Curzon and NLOWS co-founder the Earl of Cromer. The two men struggled to harmonise the idea of allowing women into their organisation that would politicise women in opposing the inclusion of other women in politics. This paradox would haunt the organisation and ultimately led to Cromer stepping down as president leaving Curzon to take his place.
" I suffer tortures of dyspepsia, and I really have not the health, strength, youth, or may I add, the temper to go on dealing with these infernal women"
Unlike his political life, records of Curzon’s private affairs are sparse so for his early life I relied on second-hand accounts and biographies. Despite this limitation, a clear pattern emerged from a childhood blighted by mistreatment at the hands of an abusive governess. The impact of this experience was clear, when Curzon recalled the events he expressed his intention to never again be controlled by a woman.
Hansard, the official record of debates in the British Parliament, was also a vital source of information. Curzon’s role as Leader of the House of Lords at the time the Representation of the People Act was debated in 1918 had not previously been investigated in this context, so it was here I turned for a conclusion to the story - And what a dramatic conclusion it was.
" I personally remain unconvinced that it is either fair, or desirable, or wise, in the manner that is proposed, to add 6,000,000 female voters to the electorate of this country."
The whole speech, available online, demonstrates the turmoil that Curzon must have felt. He went to great lengths to express his opposition and concerns and NLOWS members (who were in the galleries and said to have been in raptures at his performance) were confident that votes for women would again be blocked.
However, Curzon had other plans, concluding his speech the pragmatic politician took centre stage by declaring his decision to abstain from voting. His decision opposed his personal attitudes and was made as a politician determined to protect democracy and avoid a conflict between the House of Commons and House of Lords at a time of war. It could also be argued that the decision was also one of political self-preservation.
" ...although I think the House of Commons is mistaken, although I think the majority of my Party in that house is mistaken, and although I think both will rue the day when they acted in the manner that they have done."
The research into the story of Curzon’s involvement uncovered a number of surprises and his participation was far more nuanced than first thought. Motivated by personal experiences as well as his social position, responsive to the politics of the day, and ultimately pragmatic in the face of a potential political crisis, Curzon was a man who wore his heart on his sleeve.