Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Educating and Mobilizing the New Voter: Interwar Handbooks and Female Citizenship in Great-Britain, 1918-1931

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Educating and Mobilizing the New Voter: Interwar Handbooks and Female Citizenship in Great-Britain, 1918-1931

Article excerpt

Introduction

The women's movement of the interwar period in Britain was, until the mid-1990s, often presented as a declining movement, divided over its goals and the means to achieve them. (2) These views have since then been challenged by a number of scholars, such as Catriona Beaumont, Samantha Clements or Maggie Andrews. (3) Arguing that the term "women's movement" could not restrictively be applied to organisations that publicly identified themselves as feminist only but should be broadened to include "all groups which promoted the social political and economic rights of women, regardless of whether or not they identified themselves as feminist," (4) Beaumont, in particular, showed in her study of British women's organisations in the 1930s that, although the feminist movement did indeed decline after the 1918 Representation of the People Act, the women's movement as a whole managed to attract a growing number of members.

A stimulus to these developments was the new citizenship of women, around which both old and new organisations now revolved. The 1918 electoral reform, by enfranchising some eight million women aged over the age of thirty, had made it essential to many that the new citizens should be taught about their rights and responsibilities. New organizations were formed as part of the National Women Citizens' Association network (5), and the main suffrage organisations reorganised (6) and re-focused on what was to be their two main aims in the next twenty years: the education of the new voter and the fight for further reforms (7) (which involved the mobilization of the women's vote in favour of one particular party or candidate likely to support them). The women's sections of the Conservative and Labour Parties, as shown by Pamela Graves, Beatrix Campbell, Martin Pugh or Pat Thane, (8) similarly engaged into the promotion of active citizenship -a process that also often went hand in hand with the mobilization of the new voters. The two political parties, fearing that some should turn away from mainstream politics to form their own (women's) party (9) and eager to mobilize an electorate that was yet free of any allegiance, rapidly undertook massive propaganda efforts and restructured themselves to encompass existing women's groups. The Women's Unionist Organisation and the Women's Labour League, in particular, became efficient recruiting agents for their respective parties through their initiatives to organize women voters and interest them to public affairs. (10)

While everyone in these organizations agreed on the importance to be now given to women's citizenship, questions arose, however, as to how this citizenship was to be defined and are closely linked to the diverging directions then taken by the feminist movement. Whether these divisions could not occasionally be bridged, however, is debatable. Indeed, while the existence of a conflict between what the protagonists themselves named at the time "old" (equalitarian) and "new" (social) feminism cannot be disputed, its origins and nature have more recently been challenged: thus, for Barbara Caine, trying to define it as "classic division between 'equality' and 'difference'" is bound to fail as the debate, in addition to reflecting class-divisions among the movement, "went far beyond this in questioning what equality itself might mean for women and in its discussions of the relationship between feminist goals and the overall economic, domestic, and social situation of women". (11) Maggie Andrew and Sue Innes, in their respective studies of the Women's Institutes and the Edinburgh Women's Citizens Association, have also contributed to show that divisions between old and new feminism were not necessarily a cause for tension for women's organizations at local level, Innes arguing that citizenship was "a primary organizing concept within a discourse of women's changed role as political actors and one that enabled a synthesis of equality and social feminism. …

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