Votes for Women 2018: Part I – Background to the Women’s Movement

Monday 5 February 2018

2018 is an important year for the commemoration of the struggle for women’s suffrage. A number of anniversaries of key events in the history of votes for women are celebrated over the course of this year.

6 February 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, 1918 which extended the vote to some women over the age of 30 for the first time.

2 July 2018 is the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act, 1928 which gave the vote to women aged 21 and over.

21 November 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, 1918 which allowed women to stand for election to the House of Commons.

14 December 2018 is the 100th anniversary of some women voting for the first time in the election of December 1918.

Tomorrow, the 6th of February, is the 100th anniversary of the parliamentary franchise in Britain being extended to some women for the first time. In honour of this anniversary, over the course of the week, we will take a look at the history of women’s suffrage and in particular, the history of the women’s movement in St Andrews based on the University Library’s Special Collections.


In the 19th century the parliamentary franchise of Britain was limited and unequal. This changed to an extent with the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 which reorganised constituencies and broadened the property qualification, though by the 1870’s still only one third of men could vote.[1] For women in particular the situation was dire, as they were completely excluded from voting. In fact, the wording of the 1832 Act specifically restricted voting to ‘male’ persons.[2]

In the first half of the 19th century arguments were made for women’s rights, such as that by the Scottish woman Marion Reid (nee Kirkland) in her work as A Plea for Woman in 1843. One of the most influential works of feminism, Reid argued against the limitation of women to ‘domesticity’ and that a woman ‘as a rational, moral and accountable creature’ should be able to vote.[3]

John Stuart Mill and his step-daughter Helen Taylor, also an advocate for women’s rights

Harriet Taylor Mill, also a prominent advocate for women’s rights, wrote in the 1851 Westminster Review (under her husband’s name) an article ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ which argued for a woman’s rights over her own children and more equality in marriage laws.[4] Harriet Taylor’s husband was the MP and philosopher John Stuart Mill who was also Rector of the University of St Andrews between 1865 and 1868.

Title page from our 1869 edition of Mill’s The Subjection of Women (r HQ1596.M5)

John Stuart Mill was the author of The Subjection of Women (1869) and admits the influence of his wife’s thought on this work, which he addressed in the dedication in his work On Liberty. Mill argued that the subordination of women was ‘one of the chief hindrances to human improvement’.[5] His views were not only theoretical as on the 7 June 1866 he presented a petition to Parliament for an extension of the franchise to women which included the signatures of women from a wide variety of backgrounds. The report of parliamentary business in the local Fife Herald and Fifeshire Journal suggests the reaction was not positive.

Fife Herald, 14 June 1866 (per AN4.F5H4)
Fifeshire Journal, 14 June 1866 (per AN4.F5J7)

A further article in the Fife Herald outlines the common view that women’s views and rights are protected by their male relatives.

Fife Herald, 14 June 1866 (per AN4.F5H4)

The view that women should be represented by their husbands and fathers was what many such as Marion Reid and Harriet Taylor Mill were fighting against, but the women’s movement that began in the 19th century was ‘not a single-issue campaign’.[6] Women were fighting for access to education, professions, and their own property and against the power their husbands had over them and their children.

Mill had not acted alone in 1866, as the presented petition for the extension of the franchise was initiated by the ladies of Langham place, London, a group formed in the 1850s which included Barbara Leigh Smith, Elizabeth Rayner Parkes, Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies. The Langham group officially formed a suffrage committee in October 1866 which would later become the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.[7] The Edinburgh Branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage was also formed later in November 1867. The women’s suffrage societies began drawing together petitions for the support of women’s votes. Between 1867 and 1876 there were two million signatures collected in Scotland.[8]

Mill again proposed an amendment to the second Reform Bill in 1867, proposing the word ‘man’ be changed to ‘person’. His efforts though were defeated by 196 votes to 73. The debate over women’s right to vote came up in parliament on a regular basis from 1870 onwards. The road to the equal votes for women though was still a long one.

A common theme in the Victorian women’s movement was the importance of education. Langham group members such as Barbara Leigh Smith and Elizabeth Rayner Parkes wrote about and advocated for the better education of women and girls, and were supporters of women’s entrance to University examinations. Barbara Leigh Smith also supported Elizabeth Garrett’s application to matriculate at London University.[9]

While the University of St Andrews ran the successful Ladies Literate in Arts scheme from 1876, the question of the admission of women to the MA degree on the same conditions as men became an issue in the 1880s. In the spirit of the women’s movement, many of those with the LLA qualification from across the country added their names to a petition to the Senatus in 1881 for the admission of women to the University (UYUY3778/1/B). The University admitted women from 1892 and the first female residence, University Hall was built in 1896, funded by the fees of the LLA.

In tomorrow’s post we will look at some of the key St Andrews figures in the advocacy of University education for women and their role in the suffrage movement.

Sarah Rodriguez
Principal Archives Assistant

[1] Margaret Walters, Feminism A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005), p.69
[2] Leah Leneman, A Guid Cause The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland (Aberdeen, 1991), p.12
[3] Margaret Walters, Feminism A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005), pp.41-43
[4] Margaret Walters, Feminism A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005), p.45
[5] Ibid
[6] Leah Leneman, ‘A truly national movement: the view from outside London’, in The Women’s Suffrage Movement, Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (eds.) (Manchester, 1998), p.39
[7] Margaret Walters, Feminism A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005), p.72
[8] Leah Leneman, A Guid Cause The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland (Aberdeen, 1991), p.12
[9] Margaret Walters, Feminism A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005), p.63



In response to the comments below, here is the entry from the visitor book of University House, 1928 in which Dame Ethel Mary Smyth included a portion of ‘The March of the Women‘, an anthem she had composed for the suffragist movement. Dame Smyth received an honorary degree from St Andrews in 1928.

Ethel Smyth’s signature and musical notation in University House Visitors Book (UYUY875/Irvine)
The March of the Women
Entry for Ethel Mary Smyth’s honorary degree (University Calendar 1928-1929)

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3 thoughts on "Votes for Women 2018: Part I – Background to the Women’s Movement"

  • Julia Melvin
    Julia Melvin
    Monday 5 February 2018, 11.05am

    Women's suffrage and St Andrews: It could be thought that St Andrews struggled with the issue no less than any other part of the country, despite it's reputation for being genteel. Meetings that were both pro-women's suffrage and anti-women's suffrage were held by groups of St Andrews ladies. Chrystal MacMillan (LLA St Andrews) and a young Edinburgh lawyer was the first woman ever to petition the House Of Lords: her plea was for votes for women graduates. In March 1909, by then regarded by many in St Andrews as a heroine, she came to speak to a St Andrews 'suffragist' meeting. In 1925, JM Barrie tried to persuade Principal Irvine that Millicent Fawcett would make a good candidate as Rector of the University. Might this have been a step too far in a growing but conservative university where the women students outnumbered the male students? Her name does not appear on the list of candidates. Might Barrie have been just a little bit teasing of St Andrews? Nansen was elected that year. However, in 1928, another prominent suffragette, Dame Ethel Smyth, was invited to St Andrews to receive an honorary degree. As she joined the procession of the honorary graduands, she hummed, The March of the Women', the anthem she had written for the movement. In the University House Visitors' Book (University Collections), she inscribed a snatch of the tune. Julia Melvin

    • St Andrews Special Collections
      St Andrews Special Collections
      Monday 5 February 2018, 2.02pm

      Dear Julia, thank you for your comments. In tomorrow's post we do cover the letter from JM Barrie suggesting Millicent Fawcett for Rector, and the 1908 petition to the House of Lords. All through the week we will be covering various aspects of the women's movement as documented in the Library's Special Collections, including the Suffragist Summer School held in St Andrews in 1913.

      • Julia Melvin
        Julia Melvin
        Monday 5 February 2018, 2.08pm

        Lucy Menzies, scholar and mystic: a notable resident of St Andrews, was a leading suffragette in St Andrews, during the years before WWI.


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