Friday, June 23, 2006

The Green Fields of France

In a couple of weeks time (1st July) it will be the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. On the first day, the British Army lost 58,000 men, the worst single day in its history. By the end of the battle, which only ended in November because of the arrival of heavy snow, the British had suffered 420,000 casualties, the French, nearly 200,000 and German casualties were in the region of 500,000. The scale of this carnage is almost unimaginable. More than a million men in total killed, maimed, blinded and/or driven insane. And how many women? Er... none.

My grandfather took part in that battle. He was a sergeant, and a relatively old man in his late twenties. A German shell hit the trench that he was in, and killed everyone in his unit except him. A piece of flying shrapnel chopped off two of his fingers. He was very lucky (or was he unlucky? I can't decide). When he came to his senses and looked around, he must have seen a picture straight out of Dante's Inferno. There must have been chunks of human flesh sliding down the walls. He would have been drenched in blood, mainly other people's. He was probably picking bits of his friends' brains off his uniform. At some point he must have noticed his missing fingers and he managed to get himself to a medic, no doubt a minor achievement in itself. He survived the war, got married and had three daughters, one of whom was my mother. He died about a month before I was born, so I never met him.

The thing I didn't realise until very recently was that he, and the men who died in his trench, and most of the other 420,000 British casualties, couldn't even vote. Most of the men - British anyway - who fought in WWI didn't even have the right to vote. Did you know that? It doesn't seem to get mentioned very often. The only gender issue we remember from that time, a time when men were being exterminated by the million, is that women couldn't vote.

Soon after the war ended, Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act 1918. "...millions of returning soldiers were still not entitled to vote. This posed a dilemma for politicians since they could not withhold the vote from the very men who were considered to have fought to preserve British democracy. The Representation of the People Act 1918 widened suffrage by abolishing practically all property qualifications for men." The same Act also gave the vote to British women for the first time ever, "by enfranchising women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The enfranchisement of this latter group was accepted as recognition of the contribution made by women defence workers".

Women and the working class only got the vote because of the First World War. The Suffragettes had finally got what they wanted, and all because of the war, a war which they actively supported. Today, we are all supposed to hold the pre-war Suffragettes in religious reverence. These brave, nobly-struggling women, battling resolutely against a vicious Partriarchal, misogynistic society, blah, blah, blah.

Personally, I think the Suffragettes had a bloody nerve demanding the Vote. You find that shocking? Remember this: they weren't asking for Universal Suffrage - they were only asking for Women's Suffrage. They didn't want votes for everybody (and certainly not smelly working-class men like my grandfather). They only wanted votes for themselves. I'd like to ask them, 'Given that almost no-one else in this country can vote, what the hell makes you think you have the right to do it? Why are you special?' They would no doubt have justified themselves in terms of class. 'As a propertied gentlewoman of good family I should be able to vote on the same basis as my husband. And, no! We certainly do not want to give the vote to the labouring classes! That would never do!'

Modern feminists represent the pre-war campaign for Women's Suffrage as a struggle between men and women. It was no such thing. Queen Victoria was opposed to votes for women, and almost all male liberal thinkers were in favour of it. The Suffragettes' biggest intellectual gun was John Stuart Mill, but he wasn't alone. They also had the support of HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and many others. Consider on the other hand, Mary Augusta Ward, co-founder of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League. Have you ever heard of The Men's League for Women's Suffrage? No? The Women's Suffrage debate has been grossly misrepresented by post-1960s feminists, who want to use the Suffragettes' reputation to justify themselves. Male support for women's suffrage - and women's opposition to it - have been air-brushed out of history. It certainly was not a struggle between men and women. It was far more complex than that. It is better represented as a struggle between Conservative and Progressive social forces, and the debate at the time stank of the Edwardian class system.

"It is worth noting that had women been enfranchised based upon the same requirements as men, they would have been in the majority." Very true, but why is that? Why was most of the adult British population in 1918 female? Very simple. Because most of the men were dead.

But the only gender issue we remember about that time is the bold struggle for Women's Suffrage. We've all been told a pack of lies.


Richard said...


Absolutely brilliant! My guess is that almost no women wold have had an interest in voting prior to 1917 in any case for the simple reason that the state did not stick its nose into the family very much until recently. Every decision the state took (such as war and peace) affected men far more than women. Why should women want to vote?

The situation has now reversed as most women have the state as their husband- so naturally they have an interest in selecting their husband. It is now men who are pushed to the sidelines as we are no longer full members of our own families because these have been nationalised by the state. Therefore it is men who are most likely not to vote.

Darren Blacksmith said...

Superb article. And great to see such an interesting new blog.

lee said...

Great piece!
I had no idea that working class men only got the vote AFTER World War 1!!!
As you know womens right to vote is the biggest argument feminists have that women were "oppressed" in those days. Alot of people miss the connection though between the right to vote and sacrifices made on the battlefield. Democracy was never a social experiment - but something which was fought for and won by young men who literally gave their lives so that others could be free. It was only men who were expected by society to win freedom, by fighting off tyranny - and it is still - even today - men who society turns to when that very freedom is threatened. The draft is still the law in all western countries as far as I know - and this law applies to all healthy MEN of a certain age - NOT WOMEN. Females of course have the right to choose whether they wish to be canonfodder or not - but it is still men who are duty bound to stand up and be counted in such a crisis - like it or not. And that is a different thing alltogether!!

Society (made up of both men and women) would never point an accusing finger at a woman who chose not to fight. A man, on the other hand who refused to do "his duty" would, under such cicumstances, be ostracised at the very least.

So it is fair to say that when women were given the RIGHT to vote without the OBLIGATION to defend that very same right, they gained far more power than men have ever had.

Daniel Amneus gives a great account of the double standards of the Suffragette movement in his book “Back to Patriarchy” (This book is well worth a read by the way) when he talks about Mrs. Emily Pankhurst and how she reacted to the news of the impending war with Germany and the threat to Englands freedom from "the bloodthirsty imperialistic huns"

He says the following;

"..such a catastrophe in a world possessing weapons undreamed of in 1914 is hard to contemplate, but of one thing we may be sure - it would solve the problem of feminism. Then the Betty Friedens and Gloria Steinems of our day would do what their illustrious predecessor Mrs. Pankhurst did in August of 1914. This good woman dutifully and patriotically put her leaflets away in the drawers of her escritoire, placed her placards in the back of her closets, and issued forth into the streets to distribute white feathers to men of military age who were not wearing the uniform of their country`s armed services. Whether with a pang and a throe one cannot say, but Mrs Pankhurst did at least temporarily renounce her struggle for women`s rights and took up instead the slogan "Your King and Country Need You" and "There`s Something About a Soldier That Is Fine, Fine, Fine". And, oh yes, also "Morale Is a Womans Job".

That beautiful comment says it all really.

JamesTi said...

I remember an old black and white movie where the hero was given a white feather.

Conducting a google I discovered two interesting sites.

Order of the White feather and White Feather Feminism.

jbgood said...

Hi Heretic,

Yes, I've been pushing this point on various sites. This is a quote from a historian who has a site called Breakofdayinthetrenches. She says that only about 10% of the male population had the vote at the outbreak of war. Something the Womens (man hatred) Studies class are either ignorant of or ignore!

"The suffragette movement collapsed in the war, and the WPSU was disbanded - since internal struggle in Britain was seen as 'unpatriotic'. Instead, the suffragettes and activists threw themselves into organising women for the war effort (and did so extremely well). It is now generally agreed that the war put back the 'votes for women' campaign because of the lack of protest during the war.

Women were employed across the spectrum before the war, but not across classes. Although women working in heavy industry was uncommon (and despite the munitions factories, remained uncommon), most women who did work in factories were working class, of whom at least 36% were already in employment before the war broke out. The percentage of women in employed work went down on the outbreak of war as many were either sacked for 'war economies', had to return home to look after their families, or were sacked to make room for men recalled from retirement to 'replace' soldiers at the front. Returning to work was an option that avoided the accusations of shirking, especially if these men were over the age of recruitment, had been declared medically unfit, or were prevented by religion (eg. The Quaker Movement, one of the largest pacifist resistance groups during the war) from joining up. By the end of the war, the number of women employed was 24%. By 1920, it had fallen to 16%, only 1% greater than pre-war levels.

One of the most important changes in employment was the shift from domestic to clerical work. The First World War is seen at the point at which the job of secretary became a female-dominated role. Most women after hte war were happy to return either to their previous jobs (to make way for the returning men), or to return home. Emancipation was seen by many as an irrelevant (see below) or undesirable condition.

The vote was given to women over thirty in 1921, but only in a certain income bracket. At the outbreak of war, this condition already meant that less than 10% of the male population had the vote.

Moral Panic in the 1910's now taken as verbatim historical fact?

Home Front Mythology of the War leading to an entirely different 20c conception?

Surely not...

October 10, 2003"