The Woman Question by Utell, Janine

“The woman question”—the problem specifically of women’s suffrage, and more broadly of changing political, economic, and professional roles for women and of social and sexual liberation—gained increasing urgency in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as activists grew more militant and the government responded with ever more oppressive measures. The question was further complicated by the onset of the First World War and the participation of women in a wide range of war work both at home and on the battlefield.

Suffrage was granted to women over thirty on 6 February 1918, more than fifty years after John Stuart Mill brought a petition for the reform before Parliament. It might be worth beginning with those Victorian origins in order to understand and contextualize “the woman question” that so gripped society at the turn of the century up to the Great War.


Victorian Roots

Victorian attitudes towards women’s power and place in society were complex, governed by an ideology of “separate spheres.” Men functioned in the public sphere, working in a world driven by ambition and grasping, a world where perhaps they had to sacrifice a certain moral rectitude to maintain economic and social position and power. Women, on the other hand, governed the realm of the home; it was their job to create and ensure an oasis for men, a regenerative space to which men could return after a grueling day out in the world. Within the framework of “separate spheres,” a woman’s clearly delineated position was that of moral beacon and source of peace and comfort for a man who every day was forced to fall in order to gain. Within their constrained and clearly defined roles, women were believed to have transformative power. While these roles granted power, however, they simultaneously limited and restricted that power.

Yet it was within these roles, and their investment in the power they conferred, that Victorian women’s activism—including the feminist movement—was located. Victorian women entered the public sphere through their work for social change. In the 1850s and 1860s, early women’s movements were cause-driven and reform-based, focusing primarily on issues of particular material concern to women: marriage, property, employment, education. The movements were led mainly by middle-class, liberal women, and their work in philanthropy, public works, and organizing showed many that women could participate in the public sphere. The mid-Victorian period saw greater roles for women outside the home, roles still governed by an ideal of womanhood and the notion that women could improve the moral character of society. Barbara Caine writes that Victorian feminism was characterized by a “celebration of women’s self-sacrifice, which is seen as having the capacity to bring social and moral transformation, alongside a protest against the prevailing sexual hierarchy and an endorsement of rather conservative familial and moral values” (80-81). Activists sought to effect what change they could within the ideological framework of the time, questioning the ways women enacted their roles in society while maintaining the values underlying those roles.

Victorian feminism and the drive for suffrage had its origins in these early reform movements and provided the roots for later activism. The shift out of the home and into the street gave women a sense of their own importance as citizens and the vital role they could play in the workings of their nation. If they were to bring about the kind of serious social change they worked for out of duty and commitment to uplift, the vote was a necessity. In 1865, the Kensington Society, a woman’s discussion group, took up the question of women’s suffrage. In 1866, Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Elizabeth Garrett drafted a petition calling on Parliament to consider the question. They got 1499 signatures and presented their document to John Stuart Mill (whose stepdaughter was a member of the group). Mill brought the petition before Parliament and called for an amendment to the Reform Bill before the body which would grant suffrage to women. This proposal was defeated 196 to 73. Mill’s participation in this debate in part led him to write The Subjection of Women (1869) . In response to this defeat, the women of the Kensington Society founded the London Society for Women’s Suffrage; this organization would, in 1897, join with seventeen other organizations to become the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). By the early twentieth century, the NUWSS would be a powerful—though by no means the only—voice in the debates surrounding “the woman question.” The end of the nineteenth century brought reforms for women, but the battles surrounding suffrage would be played out in the public square and the home, in political, literary, and cultural arenas, calling into question the very nature of women’s subjectivity and the ways they are represented by themselves and others.


The New Woman and “the Woman Question”

These questions of subjecthood and representation surrounding the conception of “womanliness” were at the crux of the idea of the New Woman. The late Victorian period saw a number of developments that advanced the cause of women: the founding of Girton and Newnham Colleges (1873 and 1876), the Contagious Diseases Act (1883), the Married Women’s Property Acts (1882 and 1891), and the organization of the NUWSS (1897). These developments arose out of what Christina Crosby calls “the ceaseless posing of “the woman question”” (1); however, the idea of the New Woman was just as much part of a literary debate as it was part of the social debates that surrounded “the woman question.”

The New Woman emerged at the end of the century as a type, a symbol, a social force. To her supporters, she was liberated from the domestic ideology that governed women’s place in the Victorian era. To her detractors, she was a symptom of the decadence and decline of social values in the fin de siècle. The New Woman chose independence over marriage and childrearing, rejecting monogamy and bourgeois conventions for sexual freedom, political consciousness, and professional identity. In the 1880s and 1890s, she was implicated in a wide range of social problems and upheavals. She was viewed as a threat to middle-class hegemony, to the ideology of domestic space. In a gendered world governed by a strict dichotomy—angel in the house or fallen woman—the New Woman was a site of slippage, a figure that served to interrogate the nature of sexual identity and the ways it dictated public roles and representations.

In many ways, the New Woman was more of a literary construction. The term was first used by Sarah Grand in 1894 in an article in the North American Review. It referred to a wave of novels centered around a “modern” woman, raising issues of women’s subjectivity and their place in both the public and private spheres. Novelists such as Grand herself, Olive Schreiner, Grant Allen, Thomas Hardy, and George Gissing explored the woman who occupied a space outside social convention, who chose to exist on the margins, and who would often be punished for doing so. Unlike much of late Victorian society, however, these novelists saw the New Woman not as a pathology but with a sympathetic eye; as Teresa Mangum writes, the New Woman and those who wrote about her “expanded the nineteenth-century imagination by introducing what we would now call feminist issues and feminist characters into the realm of popular fiction” (1). Other critics and literary historians, such as Ann Ardis, note the importance of New Woman fiction to the development and concerns not only of the feminist movement but to modernism as a whole. The questions of subjectivity and representation were key to the modernist project, even if feminist literature was seen (at the time) as outside that project. The negotiations between modernist aesthetics and activism, particularly for writers like Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf, give lie to the supposed opposition between modernism and politics. Ultimately, the New Woman allowed for a transition from Victorian ideals of “womanliness” to modern(ist) ideas of womanhood.


The Suffrage Movement

The period between 1905 and 1914 saw a rise in activism and may be considered the height of the suffrage movement, a time of great energy only brought to an end by Britain’s entrance into the First World War. This rise in activism created some opposition to the suffrage movement, particularly among those who did not advocate the more militant activity of the suffragettes, the members of the movement who pursued radical means of activism in contrast to suffragists, who pursued more moderate means of advancing the cause. However, the period did also see increase in support for female suffrage. The declaration of war led to an cessation of militancy; this concession, coupled with women’s participation in the war effort, the directing of their public energies to the cause of ensuring the safety of the state, led many to call for legal recognition of their citizenship through enfranchisement.

Several trends are worth noting here: the rise of militancy and the split between constitutional and militant organizations; the growth of the anti-suffrage movement; the role played by politicians, parties, and the Government; and the shutting down of the militant suffrage movement at the start of the war.

Even as historians and critics speak of “the woman question” and all its aspects—suffrage, equality, and professional, economic, domestic, and sexual issues—one must be wary of thinking of the “women’s movement” as monolithic. The movement as a whole, and the suffrage movement in particular, was throughout its history roiled by tensions not simply of faction but of philosophy. There were tensions among women seeking only the vote and women seeking full emancipation, radical liberation from the sexual and economic enslavement that had been their lot for centuries. There were tensions between those who sought greater representation and rights for the working class (whose franchise was still limited at this time) and those whose concerns were primarily feminist. These tensions, in many respects, go back to the Victorian roots of British feminism. As Sophia van Wingerden has noted, “Since the nineteenth century, two types of feminism had existed, which may be described as liberal feminism, which sought acceptance for women in the world as it was, and cultural feminism, which believed that women’s influence could be used to change the world” (101). The different elements of the women’s movement during the Edwardian period could be cast in this light. The direction of the movement, the true nature to a certain extent of “the woman question,” is the question of the public and private roles of women, how those roles should be defined, and whether women should be liberated from them.

The means employed by the suffragists and the suffragettes, and the nature of militancy itself, get to the crux of this question. The NUWSS was the largest organization devoted to suffrage. Nonmilitant and constitutional, rooted in the social reform movements of the nineteenth century, it saw the suffrage movement as part of a greater project promoting liberal, democratic civilization. Its manifesto says, “We claim that women are also citizens, and that it will be a gross insult and injustice to give the suffrage to every man in virtue of his manhood while denying it to every woman in virtue of her womanhood. We take our stand on the citizenship of women and demand the representation of women as citizens” (qtd. in van Wingerden 129). The NUWSS sought recognition of the citizenship of women and the role they could play in national life, while not really calling for a radical rethinking of the nature of women’s lives either private or public. As this organization conceived of the movement, women’s private, domestic concerns could be broadened into an agenda for social reform; they worked traditional social networks, founded in nineteenth-century activism.

In contrast, the WSPU called for a revisioning of women’s roles. The WSPU broke away from the NUWSS in 1903 and was run with autocratic control by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. The WSPU originally had connections to the Labour movement, but once the Pankhursts decided that Labour was not willing to devote its full support to the suffrage cause, they severed ties. Sylvia Pankhurst, another daughter, maintained ties to Labour, however, and broke away from her mother’s organization to form the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). Christabel, in the later years of the movement, also redirected her attention to include crusades for moral reform, speaking against male vice and the sexual double standard. In these cases, one can see both the many public and private concerns that formed the women’s movement, and the call to redefine women’s roles.

The WSPU, and the Pankhursts, have received a great deal of attention in histories of “the woman question,” some have argued unduly so. While the organization and its founders remain controversial, one cannot deny the importance of the years 1905 to 1914 and the significance of the rise of militant action. In that time span, 1000 women were imprisoned for arson, window-smashing, vandalism of postboxes, demonstrations, and other forms of civil disobedience. Thousands of pounds’ worth of property were destroyed. The issue was debated regularly in the pages of The New Ageduring these years. Volume 5, for example, is full of such discussions–especially the issues for October 14 and 21, 1908 (see 5.25:438, and 5.26:458-460). (A search of the first 10 volumes will turn up over a hundred issues that discuss suffrage.) Militancy reached its height in 1913 with the death of Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at Derby; she quickly became a martyr for the cause, and her death gained sympathy for the movement. However, this might also be regarded as the tipping point in “the woman question,” as people began to turn against the more violent manifestations of female activism.

The death of Davison raises an important point about the tactics of those who participated actively in the movement, and about how they were represented, both by themselves and by others. Both the suffragists and suffragettes used their womanliness to their advantage as they pursued their agenda. Historians such as Lisa Tickner and Barbara Green have shown that Edwardians didn’t quite know what to make of crowds of beautiful, tastefully dressed and well-educated middle and upper class women taking to the streets. The kinds of public demonstrations held by respectable ladies that characterized the suffrage movement—the “Women’s Parliaments,” the marches on Parliament, Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace, the Coronation Procession of 1911 upon George V’s taking of the throne—these spectacles forced those who held to a particular ideology about the place of women in public life to question that ideology. Sophia van Wingerden writes, “On the one hand . . . suffragettes were ordinary criminals because their vigorous and violent protest clearly contradicted what was expected of them as women. On the other hand, however, the suffragettes equally clearly fulfilled their expected roles in all other respects” (79). These were not mannish, threatening New Women. They seemed to represent ideals of womanliness and womanhood, yet their radical shifting into the public sphere, into the streets themselves, subverted those ideals and forced the spectators—those in power—to acknowledge that the roles were not as stable as believed.

These demonstrations reached a key moment on 18 November 1910, also known as “Black Friday.” In 1910, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who with Bonar Law and Ramsey MacDonald, came to support limited suffrage, proposed the Conciliation Bill. This bill, supported by the Earl of Lytton and H. N. Brailsford, bringing together Liberals and Conservatives, militants and constitutionalists, would have granted limited suffrage to women, but was defeated. A contingent of women went to Parliament to meet with Asquith and were met with unprecedented police brutality. Women—young and old, mothers and grandmothers—were beaten, spit at, and cursed. There were reports of sexual assault, and the women were imprisoned.

The images of respectable ladies suffering such indignities increased support for suffrage, as did hunger strikes, which became a popular tactic around the same time. Women who undertook hunger strikes in prison would be forcibly fed; many would get physically sick from the introduction of liquid food into their lungs and rectums, and many reported sexual assault. The passage of the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act, also known as the “Cat and Mouse” Act, further turned public support against the government and police. Women who went on hunger strike in prison would be kept until they were sick enough to be released. Once they recovered, they would be summoned back to prison. These events, along with the death of Emily Davison, did much to cast the suffragettes as martyrs and gain sympathy for the cause.

However, the increased and sustained militancy, the vandalism and the violence, probably did more to hurt the movement than these images of suffering martyrs did to help. The anti-suffrage movement had always had significant numbers. A petition circulated in 1908 by the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage gathered over 300,000 names. As Brian Harrison has noted, what impelled the anti-suffragists was their “central belief that a separation of the spheres between the sexes had been ordained by God and/or by Nature” (56). This separation had to be maintained and preserved in the home and by the state. More moderate organizations like the NUWSS sought to effect political change through constitutional measures, pursuing allies in the political process. Yet after the failure of the Conciliation Bill, even the NUWSS vowed to work only with politicians who would explicitly support suffrage; this rejection of political compromise marked a turn in the constitutionalists’ policy. It also, however, marked the beginning of a loss of public and political support, a loss that would only grow more pronounced with the approach of war.


Women and the Great War

Reading the impact of the war on suffrage is complicated. Some claim that it created a new space for women to work within the public sphere. It forced men to account for female citizenship and forced women to define what they meant by such a concept. Others, like Jane Marcus, argue that it destroyed the feminist movement. Women replaced feminism with patriotism and tensions between the sexes were brought to the fore. Furthermore, differing notions over the role women play during wartime make resolving the impact the war had on “the woman question” difficult. Pacifist feminists, such as those who started the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, believed that women were meant for peace, and that women all over the world should be united in their pursuit of emancipation. Yet women were also cast in much wartime rhetoric and propaganda as the reason to fight: the home was to be protected. Still others, those more radical in their thinking, saw the home itself as a site of war—the war between the sexes.

The question as to whether militancy would have succeeded is almost impossible to answer, as militant action was suspended almost immediately after the declaration of war. War was declared on 4 August 1914. On 10 August, suffragettes were granted amnesty. On 13 August, Emmeline Pankhurst called for a cessation of militant activity and suspended publication of the WSPU’s periodical, The Suffragette. A little more than a year later, the periodical was issued with the new title Britannia; its subtitle was “For King, For Country, For Freedom.”

Initially, the WSPU planned to maintain its agenda of militant activism. In the early years of the war, the Pankhursts called for the destruction of “man-made” society; only after it was clear that the war, which quickly stalemated, would be unprecedented in its destruction did they shift their focus away from enfranchisement and towards war work. The Pankhursts forged an alliance with David Lloyd George and worked to campaign for a greater place for women in the war industries. In 1915, during a munitions shortage, they called for the opening of industries previously closed to women; this culminated in The Right to Serve March. Once Lloyd George was appointed Minister of Munitions, he continued to work with the Pankhursts to prevent strikes and reduce the influence of the trade unions (which some saw as a betrayal of the alliance between feminism and labor, although Emmeline Pankhurst had long ago disavowed any connection with Labour).

Women’s commitment to war work, to the preservation of the state, did more than prewar militancy to convince political leaders and the public of the need to grant female suffrage. The role women played during the war affirmed their value as citizens and their right to fully participate in public life. Emmeline Pankhurst’s speeches during the war illustrate this shift in the feminist agenda and the commitment to the allied cause. In a speech titled “What Is Our Duty?,” given in April 1915 in opposition to the Peace Conference at the Hague, she said, “And so it is a duty, a supreme duty, of women, first of all as human beings and as lovers of their country, to co-operate with men in this terrible crisis in which we find ourselves” (qtd. in Speeches 361). Other organizations, such as the NUWSS, kept the suffrage agenda in play. Still others, such as the ELFS, criticized the war effort and those who would profit from it, including women, at the expense of the poor; this group maintained a feminist, pacifist, socialist agenda. Ultimately, though, it was the attention of feminists redirected towards the war effort that proved their value as citizens. The vote became secondary, and part of the overall cause for allied victory and democracy. As Emmeline Pankhurst said in her speech “Woman Suffrage a Necessary War Measure,”“We want the vote so that we may serve our country better. We want the vote so that we shall be more faithful and true to our Allies. We want the vote so that we may help to maintain the cause of Christian civilization for which we entered on this war. We want the vote so that in future such wars is possible may be averted” (qtd. in Speeches 368).

The contribution of women to the war effort was noted, as was their willingness to cease agitation. In a speech on 28 March 1917, Asquith said, “Since the war began . . . we have had no recurrence of that detestable campaign which disfigured the annals of political agitation in this country, and no one can now contend that we are yielding to violence what we refused to concede to argument” (qtd. in Harrison 205). In April 1917, Lloyd George, who had replaced Asquith as Prime Minister the previous winter, agreed to meet with a group of suffragists. On 15 May 1917, the Representation of the People bill was introduced to the House of Commons, passed the House of Lords on 10 January 1918, and received royal assent on 6 February 1918. The WSPU reformed as the Women’s Party, with a platform of war until victory and harsh peace terms, as well as equality in marriage and work. Still, the achievement of women’s suffrage did not decide the question of women’s roles in public life; for example, Volume 22 of The New Age (see 22:5:88 and 22.22:425) reveals a continuing skepticism towards the public role of women as fully enfranchised citizens, and particularly towards the creation of the Women’s Party.

“The woman question” was one of the most divisive and urgently contested issues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. With the Great War and the passage of women’s suffrage came some resolution of that question, although, as James Longenbach argues in his essay “The Women and Men of 1914,” the debates surrounding the relationships, both public and private, between men and women in the modernist period were far from over.

— Janine Utell


Appendix 1: Chronology of the “Woman Question” in the 20th Century


  • National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) founded


  • Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded


  • Liberals come to power.
  • First use of the term “suffragette” in the Daily Mail (10 January).
  • First march and demonstration by WSPU at Parliament in February.
  • WSPU moves to break away from Labour.


  • First march by NUWSS.
  • WSPU “Women’s Parliament,” followed by march on Parliament and 51 arrests.
  • WSPU breaks away from Labour.
  • Women’s Freedom League (WFL) formed.
  • Women’s Suffrage Bill defeated.


  • Herbert Asquith becomes Prime Minister; opposes votes for women.
  • WSPU “Women’s Parliament,” huge meeting in Albert Hall and demonstration in Hyde Park.
  • First window-breaking.


  • Largest march on Parliament.
  • First hunger strike by Marion Wallace Dunlop; forcible feeding introduced.
  • Large demonstrations outside London.


  • Liberals returned to power in General Election.
  • Conciliation Bill for limited franchise introduced by Asquith, killed.
  • Black Friday (18 November): WSPU deputation to meet with Asquith met with police brutality.


  • Coronation Procession: 40,000 women march.
  • Asquith announces the introduction of a manhood suffrage bill and says an amendment for women might be possible.
  • Resumed militancy on the part of the WSPU.


  • Window-smashing, arson, post attacks, arrests.


  • Height of militant activity, destruction of public and private property.
  • Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act (“Cat and Mouse” Act) introduced in April: hunger-striking prisoners released until they recover, and are then rearrested.
  • Emily Wilding Davison throws herself in front of the King’s horse in Derby and dies.


  • First World War. Militancy suspended. Suffrage workers, militant and nonmilitant, come out in support of the war effort.


  • David Lloyd George replaces Asquith as Prime Minister.


  • Lloyd George meets with suffragists.
  • Representation of the People Bill clause to give women the vote passes the House of Commons 387-57.


  • Representation of the People Act enfranchises women of 30 years of age and older who are householders, wives of householders, property owners (worth £5), or university graduates. Mrs. Humphry Ward weeps.

Appendix 2: Names and Organizations to Know

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS):

  • Founded in 1897. Democratic, constitutional, nonmilitant. Led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Pursued equal franchise for men and women. Highest number of members: 53,000+ (1914).

Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU):

  • Founded in 1903. Militant. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst with her daughter Christabel. Originally affiliated with Labour, the WSPU broke with the organization in 1905. Supported by Margaret Haig (Lady Rhondda), who wrote for the organization’s newspaper Votes for Women (later The Suffragette [1912], and then Britannia [1915] ); and by Lady Constance Lytton, who was sent to prison and went on hunger strike (Lady Constance’s husband, the Earl of Lytton, sponsored the Conciliation Bill). Highest number of members: 4459 (1909). Became the Women’s Party after the passage of the Representation of the People Act.

Women’s Freedom League (WFL):

  • Founded by Teresa Billington-Greig in 1907 as a breakaway group from the WSPU. More democratic. Highest number of members: 4000 (1914). “Truculent Teresa,” as some journalists called her, wrote some columns in the first volume of The New Age. But the magazine printed pieces on both sides of this debate, which makes it a good place to study the history of suffrage before the War.

Votes for Women Fellowship (VWF):

  • Founded in 1912 by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence as a breakaway group from the WSPU.

The Women Writers’ Suffrage League (WWSL):

  • Founded in 1908. Maintained neutrality regarding tactics. Members included Olive Schreiner, Elizabeth Robins, Cicely Hamilton, Sarah Grand, Evelyn Sharp, May Sinclair, and Edith Zangwill.
  • Another important outlet for writers committed to suffrage was The Freewoman; Dora Marsden was the editor, and one of its main writers was Rebecca West. The Freewoman later became The Egoist, when it was taken over by Ezra Pound and transformed into one of the more important “little magazines” of the modernist period. West stopped writing for the magazine after this shift and became a regular contributor to Time and Tide.

National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage:

  • Founded in 1908 as the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. Collected 337,018 signatures for an anti-suffrage position that same year. Aristocratic, opposed to women’s public activity. Prominent members included Mrs. Humphry Ward, Lord Cromer, Lord Curzon, Lady Jersey. Membership reached 10,000 in 1909, and by 1913 there were 255 branches.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Ardis, Ann. New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990.
  • Caine, Barbara. English Feminism, 1780-1980. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.
  • Cooper, Helen M., Adrienne Auslander Munich, and Susan Merrill Squier, ed. Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.
  • Crosby, Christina. The Ends of History: Victorians and the “Woman Question”. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • Green, Barbara. Spectacular Confessions: Autobiography, Performative Activism, and the Sites of Suffrage, 1905-1938. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
  • Harrison, Brian. Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Woman Suffrage in Britain. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978.
  • Longenbach, James. “The Women and Men of 1914.” In Cooper et al. 97-128.
  • Mangum, Teresa. Married, Middlebrow, and Militant: Sarah Grand and the New Woman Novel. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.
  • Marcus, Jane. “Corpus-Corps-Corpse: Writing the Body in/at War.” In Cooper et al. 129-150.
  • Purvis, June. Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Speeches and Trials of the Militant Suffragettes: The Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1918. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1999.
  • Tickner, Lisa. The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-1914. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
  • van Wingerden, Sophia. The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866-1928. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
  • Voices and Votes: A Literary Anthology of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign. New York: St. Martins’s Press, 1995.
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