Catholic Men in Support of the Women's Suffrage Movement in England

By Clark, Elaine | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Catholic Men in Support of the Women's Suffrage Movement in England


Clark, Elaine, The Catholic Historical Review


The struggle to secure equal citizenship for women involved the collective efforts of countless suffragists. Their resolve was unflinching and helped to create a history that has been vividly told by English historians. My purpose is not to retell this history but to draw attention to a generally forgotten segment of the suffrage movement, one that included a small but influential group of Catholic priests and laymen who believed the political arena must become more inclusive. Mindful of religious bias, they developed a common strategy for political action, encouraging fellow Catholics to participate in every aspect of democratic political life.

Historians of religion know that Catholicism was never without critics in Victorian and Edwardian England. To a great many people, the word Catholic meant parochial and reactionary; to others it evoked "visions of a suffering and cowed laity at the foot of a dominant and tyrannous priesthood."1 In neither case were priests and parishioners easily able to defend themselves, for they had little experience of political debate and their numbers were few. Although Irish immigration had swelled the ranks of the Church, Catholics remained a small minority in England, numbering "scarcely one in twenty" at the close of the nineteenth century.2 That many were poor and uninvolved in national affairs was certainly true. It was equally true that the hierarchy wanted to nurture and maintain a distinct Catholic culture in England rather than call fellow clergy to political action. Yet, after 1900, it was no less true that a growing number of Catholics sought a wider acquaintance with the public forum. This was particularly evident when they came forward as speakers, writers, and participants in what would become a great national agitation for women's suffrage.

There was, however, a lingering suspicion in much of England that the organized Church worked to hinder the women's movement Time and again, angry voices insisted that ecclesiastical opinion reinforced and reproduced the nineteenth-century assumption that inequality was the natural order of God's world.3 Catholic spokesmen were quick to defend the church against the stereotypes of an older age, but the problem faced by priests and laymen was, I think, more complicated than this. Although various Catholic apologists-including Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Hilaire Belloc, and Wilfred Ward-sympathized with antisuffrage campaigns,others advocated electoral change. Yet it is the former whose opinions dominate contemporary narratives. The latter were Catholic men of equally strong opinions and religious conviction, but they do not have notable places-indeed, they have no place-in general histories of the suffrage era. Certainly there is a case to be made for revisiting this era and affording a hearing to those priests and laymen who, although unremarked and unremembered today, were as much part of the campaign for votes as betterknown male suffragists and Protestant churchmen.4

To remember these Catholic men is not simply to call to memory a forgotten chapter of English history, important as it is.The shifting fortunes and place of Catholicism in a largely Protestant country matter as well. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Catholics felt more heavily handicapped than their Protestant neighbors because of the legacy of three centuries of legal disabilities. Only with the Emancipation Act of 1829 did Catholic men achieve the right to serve in Parliament and occupy most governmental offices and military commissions. Even so, old resentments were slow to fade. In 1850, when the Catholic hierarchy was restored, opponents bitterly complained of "papal aggression." From this, it was a small step to argue that "Catholicity"-grounded as it was in a universal church with an international mission-neither enhanced political life nor conformed to a national culture. By the later 1800s, pamphlets and tracts deploring "popery" and "nunnery" had been scattered over England in the tens of thousands. …

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