The TV show Sherlock prompted an interesting question about the historical role of women during the United Kingdom's road to women's suffrage.

In the episode "The Abominable Bride" (set in Victorian London in 1895), there was a scene where Mrs. Watson says that she is part of a campaign to give women the right to vote:

MRS WATSON: I’m part of a campaign, you know.

LESTRADE: Oh yeah? Campaign?

MRS WATSON: Votes for Women.

LESTRADE: And are you – are you for or against?

MRS WATSON (sternly pointing to the stairs): Get out.

The scene was played for laughs with the joke being that Lestrade should have realized his question was misplaced; being a woman of course she would want the right to vote.

But this made me wonder; were there women in this era who historically were against giving women the right to vote? If so, what were their reasons?

I am interested in either organized campaigns led by women or prominent women who held this view. I'd like to know about UK movements, but similar movements outside of the UK would be interesting supplementary information too.

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    Welcome to the site. An interesting, logical question.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 4:00
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    If you go and spend time on extreme right wing Christian forums based in the US you can find women who still argue that women shouldn't have the vote. Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 10:12
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    it would be safe to think that a woman may choose to have almost any opinion on any topic at any time.
    – user19520
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 10:24
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    In a similar vein, conservative females led by Phyllis Schlafly worked to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the US. So yes, a good question. Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 11:50
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    Just a comment, but Queen Victoria called it "mad, wicked folly " !
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 1:07

10 Answers 10


Strange at it may seem, there was a movement called "anti-suffragism" in the U.S. and U.K. composed mainly of women. Their numbers were small, since this posture would have been "counterintuitive."

The Americans were composed mainly of "conservative" women who liked the division of duties and society between "domestic" (for women), and "outside," for men. On the other side were radicals like Emma Goldman, who favored "anarchism," instead of working within the system, through suffrage.

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    I would expect anarchists to oppose all suffrage, so I'm not sure if that really fits to being against women's suffrage.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 9:28
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    regarding Emma Goldman and temperance... from wikipedia it seems that her objection was the opposite - that giving women the vote would lead to temperance (which presumably she rejected on anarchist grounds): "The anarchist Emma Goldman opposed suffragism on the grounds that women were more inclined toward legal enforcement of morality"
    – Anentropic
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 13:20
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    Actually, I wouldn't remove the temperance reference - if anything, it's an example of a reason a woman might have to reject suffrage, which is something the OP has asked for. Just make sure to make it correct - while she didn't like the idea of voting in the first place (being an anarchist), she opposed woman voting even more, since she thought it would make everything even worse. In other words, just because everyone gets a vote on the power to violently order people around doesn't make the violence justified or moral.
    – Luaan
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 14:31
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    I heard a few such stories. I wouldn't be surprised if it is a rational consideration from a belief that women are unsuitable to govern. I'm discussing history not politics. That belief existed.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 15:11
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    @BCLC I beg to differ. A person takes a political stance regardless of their motivation for it. Also I'm sure lots of people who are against gay marriage would respond falsely that they are not against marriage, and this is due to a logical fallacy in reasoning.
    – user19595
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 4:46

Yes, there were. And at the beginning of the women's suffrage movement, suffragettes were viewed by most women as oddities rather than heroic liberators.

Basically, centuries ago, due to the technological and economical environment, the family as a unit was much more important than how many people view it today. It was close to impossible to survive (and especially to lead a decent life) alone, especially for a woman. There was no male conspiracy to oppress women. It's just how society formed to optimally face the challenges of their own time period. There were many women during history who had important roles in society, leading back to medieval and even ancient times.

Women during the suffragette movement who were against women's suffrage were not just religious fanatics. There were many well-educated and influential women who were against women entering the realm of politics.

Here is an interesting article about it.

Most of the female leaders of the anti-suffrage movement, says Goodier, “were earnest, intelligent, often educated and professional women who sincerely believed that women, and the nation-state, would suffer when women achieved political equality with men.”

Central to the movement was the then-prevalent notion that in order to be functional, prosperous and pleasant, American society required men and women to operate in separate spheres of influence: public life for men, and domestic life for women. These realms aligned with what were regarded as the inherent natural strengths of each sex. Women, who were considered nurturers, moral guardians, and peacekeepers, were expected to guide the moral development of the next generation by presiding over family and the home. (“Women is queen, indeed,” wrote Roman Catholic Cardinal James Gibbons, quoted in an anti-suffrage pamphlet, “but her empire is the domestic kingdom.”)

“Most nineteenth-century commentators saw strict differentiation between the roles of women and men as crucial to the proper functioning of the nation,” writes Goodier in No Votes for Women. “Anti-suffragists subscribed to the belief that women’s power base, the private home, was equivalent to the masculine power base in the public realm.”

When we analyze an earlier time period, we have to take care to also study it from their own perspective, taking into account all the socioeconomic factors and all the constraints of the level of technology they had back then, and its effects on daily life. Judging them solely from a modern, (or even utopian) viewpoint only leads to finding them either bizarre or evil, just like how they would view us if they didn't understand all the context which made our current civilization look like it is.

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    Moreover, I would suggest that many from that time, if they could observe our culture today, would only be strengthened in their convictions.
    – user8493
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 11:59
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    (-1) An alternative between a "male conspiracy to oppress women" and a "formed to optimally face the challenges of their own time period" is way too simplistic. Also, the answer is based on a rather crude technological determinism. You write that we have to study past societies "from their own perspective" but that's not what you are doing, as you leave no space for culture at all in your explanation.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 2:54
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    @Relaxed : the question asked whether they existed, and this answer just says that yes, they existed, with a possible justification for their motivation. Of course, there were and are motivations for women's suffrage, but the question was about against it. I guess listing arguments in favor of women's suffrage would make the answer off-topic.
    – vsz
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 6:10
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    Joke (how old is it?) : I, the man of the house, decide all important decisions on this family: who we vote for, which campaigns or protests we support, which social meetings we attend. My wife only decides about such trifles as where we live, how to decorate the house, how we schedule our daily routine, what we eat, how to educate the children, which car is needed for shopping and travelling, where we go on vacation, where we worship, and how often I must mow the lawn...
    – Luiz
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 18:03

Not only were there women who opposed suffrage, there still are. For instance, here's Central Missisippi Tea Party President Janis Lane in 2012:

I'm really going to set you back here. Probably the biggest turn we ever made was when the women got the right to vote. [...] Our country might have been better off if it was still just men voting. There is nothing worse than a bunch of mean, hateful women. They are diabolical in how than can skewer a person. I do not see that in men. The whole time I worked, I'd much rather have a male boss than a female boss. Double-minded, you never can trust them.

Source: The Jackson [Mississippi] Free Press

And here's self-described polemicist Ann Coulter last year:

Well, as you know, my position is that women should not have the right to vote. [...] No, we can still write books; we can run for office. [Interviewer: You just can't vote.] Exactly.

Source: Unfortunately this isn't easily available from a neutral source, but this article includes an actual audio recording of the interview

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    Splendid but do you have any examples from historical movements for women right to vote in UK or in any other country?
    – NSNoob
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 5:31
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    That seemed to have been covered sufficiently by the other answers, although quickly looking over the page they don't seem to have mentioned Gertrude Bell, Mrs. Humphry Ward, or others in the (British) Women's National Suffrage League. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 6:28
  • anti-Suffrage League, rather. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 9:24
  • Do you have sources for these quotes?
    – ThomasW
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 8:19
  • @ThomasW: Added. Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 12:39

A Spanish example: Victoria Kent. Quote from the link:

Kent was against giving women the right to vote immediately, arguing that, as Spanish women lacked at that moment social and political education enough to vote responsibly, they would be very much influenced by the Catholic priests, damaging left wing parties.
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    It's worth noting that she lost the debate, and women were allowed to vote in the 1933 elections. The right wing won.
    – Oriol
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 18:44
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    It was the same in France. For a long time the revolutionary left wouldn't give women the right to vote because they estimated that women would vote for monarchist parties.
    – Shautieh
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 7:35
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    In France, there was also the fact that voting rights had been linked to military conscription at some point. At the very least, some anti-voting right feared that once women got the right to vote, they would have to join military services like men.
    – MakorDal
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 9:24

So a decade and a half ago, here in Kansas, we had a Senator named Kay O'Connor, a woman, who opposed women's right to vote. You can find all sorts of quotes from this individual around the internet, but this article sums it up pretty well.

Relevant quotes from the article:

"Sen. Kay O'Connor recently told the co-presidents of the Johnson County League of Women Voters that the amendment was the first step in a decades-long erosion of traditional family values."

I guess somewhere along the lines, the definition of "traditional family values" is needed, but from remaining context, she means that men work (and vote) while women tend house (and don't vote).

"'Wasn't it in the best interest of our country to give women the right to vote?' Furtado asked the senator.

'Not necessarily so,' O'Connor said."

and lastly:

Asked if she supports the 19th Amendment, the Republican lawmaker responded: "I'm an old-fashioned woman. Men should take care of women, and if men were taking care of women (today) we wouldn't have to vote.

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    This answer will probably get slightly more upvotes if you quote the most relevant parts from the linked article.
    – Peter
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 9:30
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    And I came to find out, as she passed away recently, that her daughter (who is on the other end of the political spectrum) went to high school with me. Small world. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 14:26

Voting(at least in the US) was originally designed to revolve around land owner(freeholder) families. So the intention was that someone who was pulled together enough(paid taxes-as there was no income tax, had a legitimate interest in the community and most likely wasn't beholden to the very rich) to own property free and clear was the type of person who should vote, and that person's vote would represent their entire family's(and slaves/workers) view point.

So in the US it was more of an argument about the family vs the individual and in fact this discussion is still continuing today revolving around the equal rights amendment (http://www.equalrightsamendment.org/history.htm) - supported by the excellent historical figure Alice Paul. This amendment would (potentially) remove things like tax breaks for married couples among other things, and so has a group of people, especially women, who oppose it. eg http://www.eagleforum.org/era/

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    How would the ERA affect tax breaks for married couples? Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 21:12

Of course there were some women opposed. My mother was one. Her opinion, which I can neither validate nor invalidate, was that women gave up many more intangible rights than they gained in tangible rights. In her view women were the mistress (read "master") of the home prior to the change. Being on "equal footing" with men meant giving up what she perceived as an advantage. Just FYI, she held a master's degree in Special Education and was a single parent head of household after my father died. So it would be an error to assume she was just some ignorant housewife. In truth she was a lot smarter than I ever gave her credit for in life. I had to approach retirement age myself before catching on to that. In this opinion, I just don't have her frame of reference to know if she was right or wrong.

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    Anecdotal but definitely interesting. Can you precise the time frame ?
    – Evargalo
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 7:09

If you follow democracy a bit, you'll know that there were women like that without requiring explicit proof.

  • There are immigrants who advocate a stronger stance on immigration.
  • There are officers who want to spend less money on the military.
  • There are minimum wage workers who are opposed to a higher minimum wage.

I'm wondering if there's a friendly commenter who knows what psychologists call this phenomenon?

Also, it's sometimes easy to forget that people think in a democracy. So when they failed to allow women the right to vote, there must have been some arguments against it which made sense to a majority of the male population - the same arguments will have been known to the female population.

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    The thing is, there's plenty of reasons why each of those is a net benefit to the voter. For example, a higher minimum wage might mean that you're going to be unemployed, rather than a minimum age worker. If you're already an immigrant, you might want to reduce other immigrants from coming in and lowering your value on the market. Officers might want to get rid of potential competition, or just improve the economy of the military - there's certainly a lot of waste that could be cut off. The same way, voting was a huge responsibility - something that required you to take a firm stance.
    – Luaan
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 20:03
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    Of course. You only need to look at men voting for an example - that took a lot longer than a few hundred years to establish :) A 16th century guy from central Europe would tell you you're crazy to allow people, all people, including poor people to vote on the matters of state. That's what the king is for, and his advisers, and perhaps the big land owners. You're not smart enough or motivated enough to lead a country. After all, if you were smart enough to lead a country, how come you're poor and not rich, right?
    – Luaan
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 20:14
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    This is not an answer to the question. Might be an interesting question in its own right.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 11:46
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    @Peter: Regarding a name for the phenomenon; how about Gallino-Christmophilia, or, the Turkey-who-looked-forward-to-Christmas Syndrome. Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 9:32
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    @Peter en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internalization_(sociology) might also be relevant.
    – Jan
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 13:06

There are already several good answers, but it seems that nobody has mentioned the obvious yet: The most famous and most powerful woman in 1895 in UK (and on Earth) was Queen Victoria, aka "Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India."

Her opposition to women's vote and her hatred for suffragettes seem to have been constant during her reign.

She said that if women were to

unsex’ themselves by claiming equality with men they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection.

Most of her daughters were not agreeing with Victoria on that stance, e.g.:

Princess Louise in particular was associated with suffragist circles. She met privately with suffragists and expressed regret that she could not support them publicly because of her mother, Queen Victoria’s opposition to women’s suffrage.

The prestige and the influence of the Queen on British citizens as a whole and conservative circles in particular must have led many women to follow her opinion on this subject.


psychologically speaking, people generally like to feel good about who they are and the choices they have already made. frequently that makes the opponents of social change people who have either resigned to it, or who will lose relative social standing. therefore married women who had relinquished control to their husbands would sometimes oppose the female suffrage movement because it would disproportionately benefit unmarried women upon whom the married women could currently regard with pity and/or contempt. also, these married women might have internalized their husband's political positions simply because they were resigned to not having a right to disagree.

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    That's a very fine perspective but do you have any examples from history in this regard?
    – NSNoob
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 5:29
  • i admit my answer was more about psychology than history, but i felt the perspective was worth noting with an answer-level response rather than a comment. the phenomenon was more obvious in the "bleeding kansas" politics of american slavery. wherein the mostly non-slave owning "border ruffians" were the most vocal supporters of slavery. it is difficult to explain their motivation psychologically without concluding they simply wished to be "above" slaves on the social ladder. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_Ruffian Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 16:46
  • i upvoted it because it is indeed an interesting point.At this point, women were in English Law, pretty much chattels and expected to toe the line. Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 9:13

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