Women Conservative and Suffrage

Traditionally, the Conservative Party has been represented as possessing a negative attitude on the question of women’s suffrage, with a few exceptions. But the reality is far more complicated, for the party’s attitude on the question was decidedly ambivalent. While it is undoubtedly true that the vast majority of diehards opposed to enfranchising women were Tories, the party contained many ardent supporters and played a major role in its achievement. They were the first party to organize large numbers of women for political work through the Primrose League, an affiliated organization, and depended on them during campaigns. Thanks to the Primrose League, the Conservatives possessed the largest body of politicized women in the nation. Furthermore, a significant proportion of both male and female Conservatives were actively engaged in the suffrage movement. The party’s leaders, from Disraeli on, had spoken in favor of at least limited female enfranchisement at one time or another — although, it must be admitted, until 1918, none of them did anything about it. Most importantly, it was a coalition government, to which the Conservatives belonged, that voted the Representation of the People Act of 1918 giving most women over the age of 30 the right to vote, and a purely Conservative government that, in 1928, enfranchised women on the same terms as men. In spite of the existence of a significant anti-suffrage rearguard, the party made numerous, very positive contributions to the ‘Cause’.

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