Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus on women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. For the last Turbulent Londoner in this Vote100 series, I am looking at one of the most prominent anti-suffrage campaigners, Mary Augusta Ward.
Not every woman in the early twentieth century wanted the right to vote. Some, including some very well-respected, intelligent, talented women, actively campaigned against giving women the right to vote. The most prominent of these women, now lost in obscurity because of her unpopular views, was Mary Augusta Ward, campaigner, novelist, and president of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League.
Born on the the 11th of June in Hobart, Tasmania, Mary Arnold was part of a family that was highly influential on British intellectual life. Her family left Australia when she was 5, and Mary spent much of her childhood in boarding schools. She moved back in with her family in Oxford in 1867; her father was a lecturer there. During this period she starting conducting research and writing stories and novels. In July 1871 Mary met Humphry Ward, a fellow of Brasenose College. They were married on the 6th April 1872. The couple had three children: Dorothy in 1874, Arnold in 1876, and Janet in 1879. Female education was a cause close to Mary’s heart. She helped establish the Lectures for Women Committee, which then led to the foundation of Somerville College in 1879, one of the first colleges for women at Oxford University.
In 1881 Humphry became a writer for The Times and the family moved to London. Mary started to get her writing published. In 1888 she achieved widespread critical and commercial success with Robert Elsmere; she became the highest earning novelist in England. Mary was also very active with charitable works during this period; in 1897 she founded the Passmore Edwards Settlement in Tavistock Square near Euston Station. Settlement Houses were established all over London in the Victorian period to offer social services to the poor and campaign for social justice and equality. Mary wanted equal access to education, irrespective of background. For a small annual fee, members of the Passmore Edwards Settlement could take intellectual and practical classes, participate in social activities and participate in self-help groups.
At the Passmore Edwards Settlement, Mary pioneered the Play Centre movement in England, providing care for children after school and during the school holidays. This enabled working class mothers to work full time. The Settlement was also the location of the first school in England for disabled children, opening in 1899. After her death, the Settlement was renamed the Mary Ward Settlement, and it still exists. The Mary Ward Centre is an adult education college, whilst the Mary Ward Legal Centre offers free legal advice to Londoners. Mary wanted the Settlement to be “A place for ideals, a place for enthusiasm,” and that legacy continues today.
In 1908, Mary agreed to become President of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League. She threw herself into the campaign with her usual dedication, writing articles, giving speeches, and founding and editing the Anti-Suffrage Review. By June 1910, 320,000 people had signed an anti-suffrage petition. The group has 15,000 members, and 110 branches. Having women like Mary in the anti-suffrage movement allowed the argument to be made that respectable, intelligent women did not want the vote.
There has been much speculation about why Mary agreed to take such a prominent position in the anti-suffrage campaign. It cost her dearly; she alienated friends, family, and colleagues at the Settlement. The popularity of her writing was also affected. It did earn her political capital for the causes she was passionate about; the education of children and the working classes. Her anti-suffrage stance was also motivated by fear. Mary saw suffragettes as terrorists, and was also wary of the influence of lesbians in the pro-suffrage movement. Finally, Mary’s reasons for opposing women’s suffrage also related to the British Empire. Mary believed that only the special knowledge of men could solve the problems facing the empire. She also argued that the vote was a reward that men deserved because they risked their lives to protect the empire. Women did not take such risks, and therefore did not deserve the right to vote. This argument is flawed, as many of the working-class men who served in the British military did not have the right to vote until the 1918 Representation of the People Act, but it was Mary’s argument nonetheless.
During the First World War, Mary was the first female journalist to visit the Western Front. She wrote propaganda for American audiences, and is credited with helping persuade the USA to join the war. She was made a CBE in March 1919, and was invited to become Britain’s first female magistrate in February 1920. Her health was very poor by this point, however, and she died on the 24th of March.
Mary Augusta Ward fought hard for a position that we now find difficult to comprehend. If she hadn’t fought so hard for the anti-suffrage cause, she would probably be remembered as a talented novelist and dedicated philanthropist and campaigner. As it is, she is barely remembered at all.
Sources and Further Reading
Griffiths, Jack. “Anti-Suffrage: The British Women Who Didn’t Want the Vote.” History Answers. Last modified 22 October 2015, accessed 2 October 2018. Available at https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/the-gruesome-origin-of-sweet-fanny-adams/
Mary Ward Centre. “Settlement History.” No date, accessed 3 October 2018. Available at http://www.marywardcentre.ac.uk/history/
Simkin, John. “Mary Humphry Ward.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified June 2017, accessed 2 October 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wward.htm
Sutherland, John. “The Suffragettes’ Unlikeliest Enemy.” The Guardian. Last modified 4 June 2013, accessed 2 October 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/04/suffragettes-mary-ward
Sutherland, John. “Ward [nee Arnold], Mary Augusta [known as Mrs Humphry Ward].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 10 January 2013, accessed 30 September 2018. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36736 [this link requires a subscription to access].
Wikipedia. “Mary Augusta Ward.” Last modified 19 Septmber 2018, accessed 30 September 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Augusta_Ward