Suffrage and the Temperance Movement in England and Beyond

Somerset Willard Polyglot Petition

One of the most famous marriages in women’s nineteenth century activism is that of suffrage and temperance. These causes had much in common: friends, money, political affiliations, tactics. Their relationship was certainly not perfect and rifts made headlines, but theirs was a relationship that mattered. In searching for information on early suffrage movements from textbooks to wikis, much is also learnt about the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the role played by temperance women in much of the English-speaking world. Although temperance was a serious political movement that helped train women in the conventions of political lobbying, when it comes, in particular, to the English literature on suffrage their contributions are generally overlooked.

As Ian Tyrell illuminates in Women’s World, Women’s Empire women created a vast and effective political network through the temperance movement. Under the banner of temperance, women agitated for moral, social and political changes, including suffrage.   Whether it was changing the laws about alcohol or about who could vote, these politically active women were very often one and the same. The most famous global champions were American Frances Willard (1839-1898) and her close friend the English aristocrat Isabella Somerset (known as Lady Henry Somerset; 1851-1921).

But temperance women do not always get their due in the scholarly and popular literature on women’s suffrage. In English accounts in particular, they are almost entirely missing from suffrage scholarship, perhaps because their suffragist activities were more subdued than the suffragette militants. While the Pankhursts and their followers were disrupting meetings, being force-fed, smashing windows and running out onto the horse track, thousands of temperance activists maintained their long running strategy of lobbying, collecting signatures, campaigning for sympathetic political candidates and running for school boards and other offices they were permitted to hold. From their earliest days English temperance women urged women to fight for the right to vote because they believed only the ballot could persuade policy makers to change the rules governing alcohol consumption and protect women and children from men’s alcohol-fueled violence.

The English connection between temperance and suffrage was so strong that it eventually caused a major schism in the wildly popular British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA). A small faction argued that they wanted suffrage and temperance to be separated and pressed the BWTA to give up agitating for the vote. In contrast, the bulk of the BWTA, like their colleagues in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, saw the causes as inextricably linked. Eventually dissidents broke away and formed a temperance only organization while the majority acted on the advice of Frances Willard, ‘do everything.’

Once English women did get the parliamentary franchise, the BWTA urged its membership to stay politically engaged. Women should put their voting power to work, and the BWTA taught them how to do it. In fact, when the Evening News polled its readers in 1907 about who they thought the first female Prime Minister should be, they overwhelmingly chose Lady Somerset, the longtime president of the BWTA (February 27). Such dreams, however, were not to be. In the 1920s, women activists turned increasingly elsewhere for inspiration. A new generation often interpreted opposition to booze, like opposition to pornography in the 1980s, as little more than sour-faced and hopelessly out-of-date puritanism. In that condemnation, the full range of the WCTU challenge to the status quo disappeared from sight. In fact, its determined opposition to violence against women and children, an abuse that continues to scar the world, suggests that recovery of its history is overdue.





Barrow, M. (2000) Teetotal Feminists: Temperance leadership and the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage in C Eustance et al. A Suffrage Reader: Charting Directions in British Suffrage History (pp 69-89). New York, New York, USA: Leicester University Press.

Black, R. (2010) A Talent for Humanity: the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset. UK: Antony Rowe Publishers.

Evening News, London (1907, February 27) newspaper cutting.

Niessen, O. (2008) Aristocracy, Temperance and Social Reform: The Life of Lady Henry Somerset. London, UK: Tauris Academic Studies.

Shiman, L. (1992) Women and leadership in nineteenth-century England. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

Tyrell, I. (1991) Woman’s World, Woman’s Empire: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1880-1930. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: University of North Carolina Press.

Rights of Woman: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)


Painted by John Opie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, 1797.

By Tiffany Johnstone


“[Wollstonecraft] is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.”
-Virginia Woolf, Qtd. in Ryall and Sandbach-Dahlstöm, 1.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a groundbreaking social critic, philosopher, novelist, travel writer, and advocate of women’s rights in Britain at the end of the 18th century. As an highly influential social thinker and figure in the literary movement of romanticism, she was a vocal participant in Enlightenment debates relating to women’s rights, education reform, and the French Revolution. Her insistence on the equality of women and men was perhaps the most controversial and persistent topic of her writing. While her work met with acclaim during her day, Wollstonecraft’s often unconventional lifestyle overshadowed her intellectual legacy until the 19th century when she became an important icon for suffragists.

Wollstonecraft’s early life involved struggles to free herself from financial insecurities and oppressive gender roles. She was born in 1759 in Spitalfields, London, the second of seven children. Her parents, Edward John Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dixon had a difficult marriage plagued by the former’s domestic violence and mishandling of finances. Her father was a handkerchief weaver who squandered his inheritance in various failed ventures as a farmer (Powell). Between 1778 and 1780, Wollstonecraft worked as a lady’s companion in Bath, a commonplace profession for respectable but impoverished daughters that she later critiqued in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), and which she left to care for her dying mother. After the latter’s death, Wollstonecraft lived for two years with the family of her close friend and muse, Fanny Blood (d. 1785). The two women, along with Wollstonecraft’s sisters, formed a school in 1784 in Newington Green, home to many 17th century Protestant dissenters. The school, another recurring expedient for women with education but little money, closed when Wollstonecraft left, this time to nurse Blood who was dying from tuberculosis. Wollstonecraft next worked as a governess (her employments ran the gambit of opportunity for women in her predicament) in Ireland for a year, a job that inspired her children’s book Original Stories from Real Life (1788), as well as the decision to pursue the challenging career of professional writing. She moved to London to learn French and German, work as a translator, and write reviews for publisher Joseph Johnson’s (1738-1809) Analytical Review, a leading literary and political periodical of the day.

During this period immediately before the French Revolution, which set Europe and intellectuals afire, Wollstonecraft joined a radical community of activists and writers including the American colonist Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and the English philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836). This proved an especially productive period in her life. She made her mark on history in 1790 with the publication of A Vindication on the Rights of Man and, two years later, still more significantly, of A Vindication on the Rights of Woman (1792). Her relationship with married soi-disant radical artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) helped to precipitate her move to France in December 1792, where the French Revolution further inspired her assessment of the human condition.

In revolutionary Paris, Wollstonecraft began a turbulent affair with American author, businessman, and diplomat, Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). In 1794, she gave birth to Fanny Imlay. That same year, her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution was published in London. Gilbert Imlay and Wollstonecraft never married and her unrequited devotion resulted in two suicide attempts. In 1796, after a northern trip on Imlay’s behalf, she published Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

The last year of Wollstonecraft’s life marked her return to literary friends in Joseph Johnson’s circle. She began a relationship with her old acquaintance, William Godwin. Following her pregnancy, they married in March 1797. Their marriage raised eyebrows once it was known that she had not been married to Imlay, that she had been pregnant out of wedlock twice, and that Godwin had previously denounced marriage. Despite the scandal, Wollstonecraft and Godwin found in each other intellectual equality, respect, and devotion. The two authors famously resided in adjoining houses in order to promote independence within the marriage. She gave birth to Mary, later known as Mary Shelley (1797-1851), who would become the famous author of Frankenstein (1818). Tragically, but like so many women of the time, Wollstonecraft died ten days after childbirth of puerperal fever and septicaemia, leaving a devastated Godwin. In 1798, he reread all of her work, edited, and published her remaining manuscripts, and made the fateful decision to write and publish Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This biography, while an expression of his admiration, was so candid that it caused a scandal that largely eclipsed her political reputation throughout the next century.

Wollstonecraft’s intellectual legacy nevertheless persisted. While many prominent 19th century authors including the popular novelist Fanny Burney (1752-1840) disparaged her life and work, figures such as the romantic poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), the novelist George Eliot (also known as Mary Ann or Marian Evans) (1819-1880) and American philosopher and proto-suffragist Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) respected Wollstonecraft. In the widely circulated Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) (Botting and Carey 715), Fuller reinterpreted and defended Godwin’s Memoirs as well as Wollstonecraft’s character and body of work. In the 1880s, amidst a growing international movement for women’s suffrage, she was increasingly invoked as a foremother of feminist thought. American author Elizabeth Robins Pennell published her biography in 1884. In 1892, a centenary edition of Rights of Woman featured an introduction by British suffrage leader Millicent Garret Fawcett (1847-1929) that sought to reinstate Wollstonecraft in a canon of heroines. Wollstonecraft also proved an icon for prominent American suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Lucy Stone (1818-1893). All cited her in arguing for equal political and civil rights (Botting and Carey 716). Stanton and Stone are said to have quoted Wollstonecraft in the first edition of their radical newspaper, The Revolution, in 1868 (Ryall and Sandbach-Dahlstöm 7). Early 20th century activists and writers such as British modernist writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Russian anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and later second wave feminists similarly embraced her as an influential feminist thinker.

Wollstonecraft’s feminist legacy is best expressed in her texts. Her early work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and Original Stories from Real Life (1788) made the case in effect for socialization, arguing that middle-class values such as reason and self-discipline could be instilled through education in children and women: inferiority was learned not natural. The much cited A Vindication on the Rights of Man responded to Conservative Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s (1729-1827) condemnation of the French Revolution. She criticized the aristocracy and associated the equality of women with more democratic middle-class values. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman championed co-education and universal schooling (though poorer children would not reap all benefits). Invoking what would later be termed maternal feminism, she suggested that educated women benefit society as better citizens, wives, and mothers.

Wollstonecraft’s occasional deference to conventional gender binaries was understandable considering the iconic male intellectuals with whom she entered into public debate and whose hypocrisies relating to women she set out for readers. She sardonically dismissed male contemporaries such as Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who argued that the end of women’s education was to please men.

Wollstonecraft also pushed genre boundaries. Her novels, Mary: A Fiction (1788) and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) both critiqued the institution of marriage and the pressures on women to pursue romantic goals and prioritized other relationships including strong female friendships. Her thoughtful travel narrative, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, emphasized the subjective lens of the traveller by foregrounding her personal struggles and political ideals. This text was one of the rare pieces by a female author that deeply influenced the male-dominated literary Romantic movement (Anka Ryall and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstöm 2).

Wollstonecraft set invaluable precedents both as a successful professional female writer who sparred with male intellectual heavyweights and someone who struggled not only to theorize but also to embody a commitment to equality. The difficulties she faced and the overwhelming posthumous criticism of her life and work, testify to pervasive misogyny and prejudice. In the 21st century, Mary Wollstonecraft continues to remind readers that the ‘personal’ remains ultimately ‘political.’


Botting, Eileen Hunt, and Christine Carey. “Wollstonecraft’s Philosophical Impact on Nineteenth Century American Women’s Rights Advocates.” American Journal of Political Science 48.4 (2004): 707-722. Web. JStor. University of British Columbia Library. 26 May 2013.

Carlson, Julia Ann. England’s First Family of Writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Mary Shelley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Web. University of British Columbia Ebrary. 26 May 2013.

Powell, Jim. “Mary Wollstonecraft—Equal Rights for Women: Wollstonecraft Established the Individualist Roots of Equal Rights.” The Freeman. Foundation for Economic Education. 1 April. 1996. Web. 16 2013.

Ryall, Anka and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstöm. Introduction. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Journey to Scandinavia: Essays. Ed. Anka Ryall and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstöm. Stockholm Studies in English XCIX. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2003. 1-21.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Structures on Political and Moral Subjects. 2nd edition. London: J. Johnson, 1792. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web. Gale. University of British Columbia Library. 26 May 2013.

“Wollstonecraft, Mary.” The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Eds. Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, and Elaine Showalter. 675-676.

Margaret Thatcher


Margaret Thatcher by Christ Collins (The Margaret Thatcher Foundation).

In 2011, the film, “The Iron Lady,” directed and written by and starring a woman, reignited longstanding controversy about Britain’s first female prime minister. Once again feminists wondered what to make of her and the social and print media went wild with debate. On the one hand, Margaret or Maggie Thatcher was one of the very few women at that time to head a major government. In fact she won three majorities, stamped her style of forceful leadership on Britain, and maintained her own in relations with Republican President Ronald Reagan of the United States and Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada. For decades, this talented daughter of a grocer kept a club of smug upper-class Tory males at bay and proved in economic policy and much else that, as she said, the “lady’s not for turning.” On the other hand, despite an Oxford degree in Chemistry at Somerville College working with a future female Nobel prize-winner, Dorothy Hodgkin, and a first cabinet ministership, obtained only because of longstanding feminist campaigns, she was famous or notorious for saying “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib” and “the battle for women’s rights has been largely won.” Also problematic from the perspective of many feminists was her war on British trade unions, notably the miners, and with Argentina over the Falklands. Neither other political women nor women’s rights in general benefited in obvious ways from any of her administrations (Bashevkin). Is it correct to say, as did one unidentified male historian in 2002, that “Mrs. Thatcher is not a woman” (Ribberink)? The partisanship she still generates makes assessment difficult. Feminist theorist Mary Eagleton helps us, however, in emphasizing the “distinction between ‘being’ a feminist (which Margaret Thatcher clearly is not) and producing feminist effects (which Margaret Thatcher—inadvertently, unwillingly and in restricted areas—has done).” While acknowledging Thatcher’s “anti-feminist effects, not to mention lots of policies that adversely impacted on women,” she rightly concludes “it is still the case that simply to name women is … a feminist gesture”(154). Both misogynous and feminist observers understood full well that a woman, in fact an “Iron Lady,” as the Russians dubbed her, at the helm of state mattered, albeit not always in the ways they preferred. If we are to understand Margaret Thatcher, we need to ask more nuanced questions, just like the careful interpretation offered by American actress and feminist Meryl Streep. Dutch scholar Anneke Ribberink who describes how Thatcher tried “to make herself invisible—through perfection” and to appear “tough” by “staying away from women’s issues in 1960s” provides a good beginning. By the time Thatcher came to power in 1979, she had perfected a style of “gender-bending” that confused opponents and opened restricted space in the national imagination and in politics. In that sense, she became the modern embodiment of Britain’s great Queen Elizabeth who famously said in visiting her troops before they fought the Spanish Armada in 1588, “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king.”

Resources & Further Reading

Bashevkin, Sylvia. 1998. Women on the Defensive: Living Through Conservative Times. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Eagleton, Mary. 2003. “Literature” in M. Eagleton, ed. . A Concise Companion to Feminist Theory. Malden: MA: Blackwell Publishing. 153-172.

Henig, Ruth and Simon. 2001. Women and political power. Europe since 1945. London: Routledge.

Lewis, Jane. 1994. Women in Britain since 1945. Women, Family, Work and the State in the Post-War Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“Margaret Thatcher: a feminist icon?”/ 2012. The Women’s Blog with Jane Martinson Jan. 5. The Guardian

Nunn, Heather. 2002. Thatcher, Politics and Fantasy. The Political Culture of Gender and Nation, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Pilcher, Jane. 1995. “The Gender Significance of Women in Power: British Women Talking about Margaret Thatcher”. The European Journal of Women’s Studies. November. 493-508.

Pugh, Martin. 2000. Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain, 1914-1999. 2nd Edition. London: Macmillan Press Ltd..

Ribberink, Anneke. 2010. “Gender Politics with Margaret Thatcher: Vulnerability and Toughness,” Gender Forum: An Internet Journal for Gender Studies Issue 30.

Ribberink, Anneke. 2005. “‘I don’t think of myself as the first woman Prime Minister’: Gender, Identity and Image in Margaret Thatcher’s Career”. In R. Toye and J. Gottlieb (ed.), Making Reputations. Power, Persuasion and the Individual in Modern British Politics. London: IB Tauris. 166-179.

Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Years: Memoirs of the Premiership, 1979-90 (1993) and The Path to Power: Memoirs 1925-79 (1995); Statecraft: Reflections on International Affairs (2002).