Suffrage Outside Suffragism Britain 1880-1914.
New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.
Reviewed by Bradley Kadel
Myriam Boussahba-Bravard has compiled a useful collection of case studies, written by a distinguished group of British and French historians that should serve the needs of students and researchers alike in enhancing our understanding of the cultural and political forces outside of the mainstream suffrage movement in Britain. With this volume the contributors together aim to move beyond the latest scholarly focus in suffragist studies, which has tended to focus on the reactionary, anti-suffragist ideologies and organizations, to the seldom traversed terrain at the edges of the organized movement. In their efforts, the scholars in this volume seek to demonstrate how women balanced their allegiances between various forms of other activist causes and the strictly female-centred suffrage movement. Increasingly by the late Victorian period politically active women challenged political parties and organizations with their distinctly female concerns and activism; double allegiances (sometimes formal and sometimes informal) shifted the platforms of those not avowedly suffragist groups and ideologies. Indeed, the strength of this collection of studies is that they illuminate the complex interactions between women suffragist involvement in party and non-party affiliations and between national and local groupings, relationships that invited contrasts and comparisons that created new meanings in the political lexicon of the time.
In the first of the three sections in this study, “Protecting the Centre,” Pat Thane, Lori Maguire and Linda Walker lay out in three illustrative chapters the role of women in the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties respectively.
The second section of the book grapples with a range of voluntary female organizations that had an implicit—though powerful—impact upon suffragism. In the first of these three chapters, J. Bush explores the complicated and often fractious approach to suffragism voiced by the National Union of Women Workers. Though from its founding the NUWW sought to exist above the realm of politics in order to foster its development as a cross-class umbrella organization designed to promote female public service, the research presented in this chapter draws a portrait of a dynamic and ever-evolving body of largely middle-class women who held contrasting views that, despite feuds like those that nearly ripped the organization apart between 1910 and 1913, helped to give voice to political convictions that mirrored those on the parliamentary level. For Bush, the dialogs between opposing suffrage and anti-suffrage forces within the NUWW—and the compromises that were necessary for its survival—paved the way for creating room for a healthy political dialog after the political goals of suffrage were met.
In the final section of the collection, two of the most useful chapters in the book examine the relationship between suffragism and teachers unions and the avant-garde or advanced wing of suffragism. S.Trouvé-Finding finds the simultaneous growth of female-dominated teachers unions and suffragism an indicator of the latter’s impact on the politics underpinning the fight for the franchise. The generation of politically conscious teachers and union leaders—in their 40s and 50s by the time that the suffrage movement had reached its nadir just prior to the outbreak of war—played a powerful part, according to this argument, in promoting suffragism, both through their leadership roles as well as through their strong professional presence within the educational system. The movement of women into the teaching profession and suffragism, according to this interpretation, tended to reinforce one another.
Taken as a whole, this useful study follows similar developments in the neighboring field of labor history, where emphasis over the past two decades has increasingly shifted away from the center of national political parties to local organizations and constituencies. Following this historiographical trend, the contributors to this volume have added to the growing body of scholarship that is helping to deepen our understanding of the complex interactions between the well-studied suffrage movement and the various other groups and organizations that directly or indirectly supported, contested, or redefined suffragism. As is the case with scholarship that is new and original, Suffrage outside Suffragism also raises as many questions as it answers. For the moment, however, this ambitious work marks an important historiographical milestone in this rich field of study.