Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_cause of women su

Did the Suffragettes help or harm the cause of women’s suffrage?

Source 6

Churchill arguing for a referendum on votes for women December 1911


 CHAR 13/5/1-4, images 1-3 (left hand page of 3)

Simplified Transcript

I am very concerned that women’s suffrage may harm the government. There are 3 main questions
1 Do large numbers of women really want the vote?
2 Would giving the vote to women be good for the country?
3 Has the country been asked about the issue?

If we add a female suffrage section to the Government Bill which is being put to Parliament soon then your position will become very difficult. You will be accused of using the Parliament Act to force through votes for women. And you have said in the past yourself that you think female suffrage would be disastrous. If some ministers are going to try to convince people this is right then the ministers who disagree will have to explain themselves.

This disunity would be acceptable if it was over a small issue. But over a big issue it is damaging. What a ridiculous tragedy it would be if this strong government which promised so much hope should perish by a woman’s hand.

What about the King? Could he be persuaded to support the measure? I think he would be supportive. If we have to fight an election when we are in confusion ourselves and with Home for Ireland still a major concern and with so many plural voters (men who qualify for more than one vote because they own property in more than one constituency) still active we would lose. And with us would fall the Irish cause. I feel strongly that we cannot add 8000000 women voters to the register without consulting the nation.

I have written to Lloyd George and Sir Edward Grey about this issue. We had a secret meeting recently and we came up with an idea. If the government passed a measure giving some women the vote then the new voters could be added to the register. These women would then be re required to state whether they wanted to use their vote. If 3-4000000 women had officially asked for the vote it would greatly reduce the objections.

If the Tories then ask why we don’t have a referendum on Ireland we can say we are happy to do so.


Original Transcript

Female Suffrage

To The Prime Minister

Private & Personal

Dec 21. 1911.

My dear Prime Minister

I apprehend great danger to the govt. over Women’s suffrage. There are 3 main questions wh [which] must be answered satisfactorily. 1) Is there a real desire on the part of great numbers of women to assume political responsibilities? 2, wd [would] this addition to the electorate be for the good of the country now? 3) has the country ever been effectively consulted?

Yr[Your] own position appears to me to be likely to become extraordinarily difficult from the moment that a female suffrage amendment is included in the Govt Bill; for you will then be accused of using the machinery of the Parliament Act to force upon the Sovereign & upon the constituencies a vast change for wh [which] no organised govt or party will become responsible, on wh [which] the Electors have never pronounced, & wh [which] you yourself have characterised as a ‘disastrous political mistake’- further, if yr [your] colleagues are going to take the field and work themselves up into a keen enthusiasm for Female suffrage, other members of the govt who do not agree with them will be forced to express themselves in a contrary sense. You yrself [yourself] may even be drawn into the fray.

[page break]

This anomalous condition may possibly be tolerated so long as the question is academic or of small importance; but, if it became imminent & important & real, the govt wd [would] be utterly discredited. It is certain that as the issue became more real passion will rise in regard to it & make it a subject of overwhelming importance. What a ridiculous tragedy it wd [would] be if this strong govt from wh [which] so much is hoped were to come to grief in this ignominious way, & perished like Sisera at a woman’s hand.

What about the King? Will he not be pressed to use the prerogative of dissolution in 1913 in the same way he was pressed to use the prerogative of creating peers in 1911? I cannot help thinking that in all the circs wh [which] I foresee he might be justified. He wd [would] certainly not be disinclined. If we had to fight an Election, in confusion ourselves, with Home Rule on our shoulders & with the Plural Voter still active, we shd [should]] be beaten decisively; & with us wd [would] fall the Irish cause, with all the hopes which are centred upon it. I am quite sure that the adding of 8000000 women to the register will never be achieved without some form of appeal to the nation. Nor ought it to be.

[page break]

I have written since their speeches to Grey and to Lloyd George pointing out these dangers & explaining that I cd [could] not indefinitely remain silent; & last night by arrangement we all three dined together to discuss the difficulty. We had a vy [very] valuable talk, & both were vy [very] much inclined to adopt a suggestion wh [which] I put forward & wh [which] LG developed, that is, that if the women’s clause were carried, the adult suffrage register shd [should] be forthwith constructed, & as soon as this was complete the whole mass of the women to be enfranchised shd [should], either by referendum or initiative, decide whether they wd [would] take up their responsibilities or not. In order to get them (grey & l.g.) to adopt this position, I shd [should] have to go with them on the democratic amendment, so that we cd [could] all work together; & I am bound to say that my objections to the change wd [would] be greatly diminished if 3 or 4000000 women, representing as they wd [would] every household in the country, had officially asked for it. Also, it wd [would] probably get smashed- wh [which] again wd [would] be a solution. The conciliabule [secret meeting] refrained from coming to any fixed agreement, but we parted with a feeling that unity on these lines was not impossible.

If the Tories were to say, why don’t you have a referendum on Home rule as well as abt the women, our answer (debating)

[page break]

is clear. We have no objection at all to applying the same principle to Ireland & having a referendum on the Irish Question to the Irish people.

I hope whatever happens nothing will be said to close up this loophole of escape, wh [which] is the only one I can see.

(A few more lines about Hopwood, N Ayr Election, Sir M Aitken)


What is this source?

This is letter written Churchill in 1911 while he was First Lord of the Admiralty (in charge of the Royal Navy). He was writing to the Prime Minister Asquith.

Background to this source

At the time of this letter women’s suffrage was only one of the major issues facing the Liberal government at this time. Ireland (then part of the United Kingdom) was very troubled, and the Liberals had promised a measure of Home Rule as a solution. There were also bitter divisions over working conditions with many strikes and demonstrations. And in 1911 the government had passed the Parliament Act which effectively meant that the House of Lords could not block any measure which had been approved by the House of Commons. So it was an intense time of political manoeuvring and bitter political rivalry, particularly between the Liberals and the Conservatives (Tories).

The House of Lords was traditionally dominated by Conservatives. In 1909 the Liberal government proposed a budget involving massive tax rises for the wealthy to pay for a new measure, Old Age Pensions. The Lords rejected the budget which led to a constitutional crisis. After another election the Liberals won and passed the Parliament Act. At the same time there was a genuine fear that discontent in Ireland might result in civil war. Against this background many MPs saw female suffrage as unimportant and yet as this source shows the issue is being discussed among influential Liberal politicians.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can help us to assess the impact of the Suffragettes. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. According to Churchill what are the 3 main questions?
  2. What problems are Asquith and his party likely to face?
  3. Does Churchill want an election?
  4. Does Churchill want a referendum on votes for women?
  5. What plan did Churchill, Grey and Lloyd George come up with?

Deeper level

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Women’s suffrage is being ignored by all the major figures in the government

Churchill is a strong supporter of women’s suffrage

Churchill and other leading Liberals believe that most women want the vote

This source proves that female suffrage was a high profile concern for the government

This source proves that the Suffragettes were effective in their campaigning

Download table (PDF)
Download table (Word document)

Need help interpreting the source?

  • At the time of this source the government was facing a bitter political struggle with the conservatives, it was passing a raft of welfare reforms including Old Age Pension and National Insurance, there was concern about revolution or civil war in Ireland and the international situation was tense. As a result, the fact that Churchill is writing to Asquith about women’s suffrage suggests it is an important issue as well.
  • Sisera was a figure from the bible who was killed by a woman.
  • Grey was Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary. LG was David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

 Source 7

 Back to the sources

 Back to investigation page