On this day in history: 7 June 1866 - Women's suffrage petition

On 7 June 1866, a women’s suffrage petition was presented to Parliament. Supported by 1499 signatures, it requested that women who met the property qualifications required of men should be able to vote in parliamentary elections. Prominent in the group who organised the petition were Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, who three years later would be central to the foundation of Girton College.

As Parliament discussed a new Reform Bill in the spring of 1866, a group of women gathered to work on the suffrage petition. Meeting in Elizabeth Garrett's London drawing room, they included Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Bessie Rayner Parkers, Jessie Boucherett, Elizabeth Garrett, Jane Crow and Helen Taylor. From May to June 1866 they sent petition sheets to their contacts; signatures were collected from the length and breadth of the country and beyond, 300 of them almost single-handedly by Elizabeth Wolstenholme in Manchester.  The covering letter explained:

On the day itself, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett took the petition to the House of Commons to give to the MP for Westminster John Stuart Mill. Mill was the foremost public intellectual of the day, and it was his 1865 promise to support women’s suffrage if elected to Parliament that had prompted the creation of the petition. In her Family Chronicle Emily Davies wrote that, as the petition was large and conspicuous, they asked an apple seller to hide it behind her stall.[2] This event is commemorated in the 1910 painting by Bertha Newcombe.[3]

At the suggestion of Emily Davies, printed copies of the petition were circulated to the press, to members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords, and others ‘in case they take notice’.[4]  Two of these printed copies are held in Girton College’s collections - the images below shows Emily’s copy, with some of the addresses annotated in her hand.[5]

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[4] Letter from Emily Davies to Helen Taylor, 18 July 1866, held at LSE

[5] Held in the Blackburn Collection and in the personal papers of Emily Davies  – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 17/51

This petition was the first in a long line of such petitions which attracted increasingly large number of signatures in support of votes for women. In the early 1870s suffrage petitions regularly attracted between 300,000 and 400,000 signatures per year, and the final years of the Edwardian suffrage campaign saw a concerted push to collect petitions in order to rebut antisuffragist charges that women did not really want the vote. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act enfranchised women rate-payers over the age of 30 but it was not until 1928 that the vote was extended to all women over the age of 21.

 

Further reading:



[1]Extract of a letter from Barbara Bodichon to Mrs Maudie, 18th May 1866 – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Bodichon 4/1 (https://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/db/node.xsp?id=EAD%2FGBR%2F0271%2FGCPP%20Bodichon%204%2F1)

[2]Family Chronicle, An account of family and other matters written by Davies for her nephew Theodore in 1905 – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 1/1 (https://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/db/node.xsp?id=EAD%2FGBR%2F0271%2FGCPP%20Davies%201)

[4]Letter from Emily Davies to Helen Taylor, 18 July 1866, held at LSE

[5] Held in the Blackburn Collection and in the personal papers of Emily Davies  – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 17/51

 

Published: 07 June 2016