5 February 2018

Willoughby Dickinson: the forgotten suffragist

By David Chadwick

The fight for women’s votes had many champions. Liberal MP Willoughby Dickinson was one of those whose support for the cause proved particularly costly. It destroyed his career, sank his party and tore his family apart. Long forgotten in the annals of female suffrage, Dickinson’s contribution deserves to be remembered as we celebrate the centenary of women winning the vote.

Dickinson was a Liberal MP between 1906-1918 who dedicated his entire Parliamentary career to winning women the vote. He was the only MP with a perfect voting record on women’s suffrage, voting for it on every occasion. He tabled the 1906 Parliament’s first bill calling exclusively for women’s suffrage and reintroduced the bill every year until the outbreak of World War One. He called for equal pay for women as early as 1903, secured financial support for the masses of women who were left widowed by the war, and protected the rights of women who were married to foreign citizens imprisoned during the war.  He was also an active member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and founded the Liberal Party’s Women’s Suffrage League.

Dickinson was ultimately the Parliamentarian responsible for ensuring the legislation for votes for women made it into law. His Parliamentary campaign for women’s suffrage began on his second day as an MP when he recorded meeting Millicent Fawcett at a fringe event in Parliament. In backroom meetings the supporters of women’s suffrage agreed that someone ought to table a bill to set the ball rolling; Dickinson volunteered to do it but without the support of his party leader, then Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

Dickinson duly introduced the first bill for women’s suffrage in 1907. The debate proved immensely popular and even though it didn’t make it past a second reading, the supporters of the women’s cause were optimistic that their cause had the support to succeed.

But the devil was in the detail of their proposal. Unlike today, the franchise of 1907 was absurdly complicated, not only did it disenfranchise all women, but a large number of men too. Voter eligibility was determined by the registration process for the local government register, for which there were seven different methods of qualifications: Household, Lodger, Tenant, Occupier, Freehold, Business Owner, and University Graduate. The value of a property and the amount of tax or rent paid on it were also crucial determinants. Some wealthy citizens were even entitled to vote twice if they ticked more than one of these boxes – known as plural voting. 

There was a groundswell of support for women’s suffrage among MPs and the most contentious issue of the Parliamentary campaign was not whether women should be able vote, but how many. The Conservatives opposed universal suffrage because they were convinced an influx of working-class votes would count against them. The Labour Party naturally supported universal suffrage but also committed itself to any measure which would enfranchise women, thereby winning the support of the women’s suffrage movements. The ruling Liberal Party was divided by tactical concerns: enfranchising too many women might benefit the Labour party, too few the Conservatives. The Liberals’ leadership would only countenance women’s suffrage if were to be included in some form of grander electoral reform to compensate for any party advantage passed elsewhere. One such Liberal desire was the elimination of plural voting, which predominantly favoured the Conservatives. Unfortunately for the women’s cause, nobody could resolve this complex balancing act until World War One broke out.

The war changed popular attitudes. It was felt that disenfranchised men and women had earned their right to vote. The parties were still divided on how to legislate for it and so in 1917 a Speaker’s Conference was called to consider electoral reform; a cross-party group of MPs were invited to find a solution. Again there was general support for women’s suffrage but the sticking point remained the number of women to be enfranchised: due to war deaths women outnumbered men and the idea of women voters being the majority was considered too risky!

Through his years of Parliamentary campaigning, Dickinson had the franchise knowledge, the cross-party contacts and the experience of suffrage debates to produce a solution. He emerged as the conference’s deal-breaker and suggested that age be used as the discriminatory barrier: only women above the age of 30 would be enfranchised. His suggestion passed by one vote and with that the conference passed a proposal for women’s suffrage to the House of Commons, who duly voted it into law in the Representation of the People Act. The age-restriction was grossly unfair on the women younger than 30, many of whom had undertaken wartime service, but it made it easier to expand the franchise to all women in 1928. 

When women finally won the right to vote in 1918 they were effusive in their praise for one male politician: the Liberal MP Willoughby Dickinson. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett, thanked Dickinson profusely:  “We all know that a very large part of the great triumph of this week was due to your personal efforts…we always felt that you were our true champion in the House of Commons.”

The NUWSS’ official newspaper, The Common Cause, showered Dickinson with praise: “It is owing to him, more than to any other individual or member of parliament, that the local government clause was widened to include the married women.” Other women’s societies agreed. The Women’s Temperance Society wrote to say: “Our association greatly rejoices at the success which has followed your efforts.”

Nonetheless, Dickinson’s name has disappeared from the historical record.

If history is written by the winners, Dickinson is missing because he became a loser. When women voted for the first time in the general election of December 1918, Dickinson lost his seat. He had made many enemies during the women’s suffrage campaign, not least within his own party. Liberal party agents had warned that enfranchising women would be the death-knell for his party but he campaigned for it anyway, much to the chagrin of Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill. Come election day, Prime Minister Lloyd George ditched him, as did Millicent Fawcett and the other leaders of the women’s movements, who – fearful of upsetting Lloyd George – refused to help Willoughby win re-election. Abandoned by his party and the women he had fought to enfranchise, Dickinson sank to a narrow defeat.

Following his exit from parliament, he threw himself into the world of international diplomacy. In an attempt to prevent another war he founded organisations such as the Ecumenical League of Friendship and the League of Nations Unions. He stood for re-election in 1922 but lost again. By the time he was awarded a peerage in 1930 the Liberal Party had descended into the abyss and Dickinson decided to sit with the Labour party. 

Why would a man dedicate his parliamentary career to enfranchising women? Dickinson had intertwined motivations for entering politics and promoting the women’s cause: family and Church. The Dickinson family were Evangelical Christians, committed to public service and driven by a pervading sense of moral justice. They were part of the Gloucestershire gentry; Willoughby’s father had been the Liberal MP for Stroud and was supposedly driven to an early death by allegations of electoral corruption from his Conservative opponents.

It was Dickinson’s sister, May, who led Willoughby to put his shoulder to the suffrage campaign’s wheel. She was a doctor and he simply couldn’t fathom why, with all her qualifications and commitment to public service, she should be prevented from voting when he could. There were other keen supporters of women’s suffrage in his household; one of Dickinson’s daughters, Frances Joan Davidson, appears on a list of suffragettes arrested for militancy and her involvement with the militant side of the campaign surely made for spectacular household politics. She later became one of the first women MPs, elected in 1937 as the Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead. Dickinson’s great-granddaughter is Baroness [Anne] Jenkin, who founded Women2Win with Theresa May in 2005.

Dickinson was a principled politician, motivated by morals rather than political tactics; he fought for years against his own party. He threw himself into a progressive cause and led a group of determined men who did the parliamentary slogging necessary to push the legislation for women’s suffrage through the House of Commons. Without his contribution at the Speaker’s Conference it is unlikely a compromise could have been found. He was willing to sacrifice his party and his career to secure women’s suffrage and deserves to be remembered as a selfless hero.   

David Chadwick works in Digital Political Communications for Burson-Marsteller.