Gwladys S’s story

Understanding where someone else is coming from in political matters is hard enough at the best of times, but Gwladys’ position – against the background of a militant fight from women to gain the vote at the beginning of the 20th century – is particularly boggling. She was an active anti-suffragist at the point where the WSPU were at their height.

Today, with 100 years of women having the vote behind us, the idea that an educated woman could somehow oppose the idea of enfranchising herself and her sisters beggars belief. However, this is exactly what Gwladys did. Often vociferously.

Her background appears to have been somewhat small-C conservative. She was the second daughter of a congregational minister and his Welsh wife, born in Wales towards the end of the 1870s. The family had enough money to afford a couple of servants, and spent time in South Wales, London and Kent – as Gwladys’ father’s job moved. Both Gwladys and her elder sister were educated at boarding school, while her brothers appear to have gone to school closer to home.

After school Gwladys became a teacher, holding a position at a school for daughters of the clergy in Bristol. The school building no longer stands, but the school still exists.

In the mid-1900s, she married a South African artist who was living in the UK after the death of his father. A son followed, but the couple separated only after a few years together.

In some cases, after separation in an era when divorce was hard and costly to obtain, and carried considerable social stigma, the estranged husband would often maintain his wife. However, this was not the full case for Gwladys. The 1911 census sees her in London, supporting herself and her son with a job – as organising secretary for the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage – and she states on the form that she is estranged from him.

At this point, the National League had recently amalgamated from the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League and the Men’s League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, and its president was Lord Cromer. The 1911 census is the first readily-available document linking Gwladys to the League, but newspapers have her as honourable secretary of the Hampstead branch of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League from at least 1909.

However long she had been involved, Gwladys came to more prominence under the leadership of Lord Curzon and Lord Weardale, who took over in early 1912. An educated, articulate woman actively opposing something that others of her sex were prepared to fight and be imprisoned for must have been extremely useful for their cause.

She had been an Anti-Suffragist correspondent to a publication called The World, and is mentioned as such in a letter to that publication by Emily Wilding Davison in 1911. She writes:

“To turn to (Gwladys’) second point, which is ‘that all the reforms women might bring about with the vote they can certainly bring about without it.’ No doubt they can do so, but only by an iniquitous waste of energy and time. Here is an anti who probably believes ardently in woman keeping to woman’s sphere, telling us to choose the longer, the more cumbrous, the more nerve-wearing, the more doubtful, method of working, by means of stirring public opinion (which, of course, can be stirred, but it is often a killing process), instead of using the obviously practical, effective, and easy way of the vote.”

Gwladys would often write into publications at the time, stating the anti-suffrage point of view and refuting anything that pro-suffrage supporters said about her activities that she felt was inaccurate.

In 1912, Gwladys wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, later Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, at least twice. Her letters give a further clue to her reasoning:

“As a typical women householder and rate and tax payer I beg you – a typical man – to take upon your stronger shoulders the burden of responsibility for the safety of the Empire, the Army, Navy, Trade, Shipping, Mining, Railways etc. I am too thankful to pay my taxes in return for your protection, if only you will leave me to look after my home and my child. It is true that I am in the unfortunate position of having to earn a livelihood as well as perform the duties of a mother, but why, why on that account do you want to add still more to my responsibilities and duties?”

The second letter elaborates further:

“The great difficulty in my work has been that people think it is so preposterous to suggest giving women control of Imperial affairs which they do not administer, that there is no danger of “votes for women” becoming law. If woman suffrage is put into the Reform bill the Liberal Government will be wrecked. Are we to lose the Insurance Bill, Home Rule, Welsh Disestablishment, and Land Reform, for the sake of a mere quarter of a million of misguided women who most of them only want to enfranchise the women of property for the sake of the Conservative Party? Are the other 12 ¾ millions of women to be utterly ignored?”

On the back of this growing notoriety, Gwladys embarked on visits to many towns and cities in the UK during 1912-14, setting up and speaking at anti-suffrage meetings. Sometimes she was invited to speak, and at other times she would turn up in a town, advertise a meeting via men with sandwich boards, pitch up in the market place and speak for an hour.

This took place at a time when the suffragette campaign was at its height, and the suffragettes were often targets for her ire, newspaper reports of her speeches indicate.

““We are not asking for votes,” declared the speaker. “we are asking that you will save us from the suffragettes.” Women had their own work, and could not, even those who called themselves sportsmen, afford to take over the risks of men. Women knew nothing of the laws – many suffragettes had never read a single law – and thought they could make them better. Why did they not come forward with some of their ideas on legislation? As to the economic argument, women were not worth as much as men, and so long as men were obliged to support their wives and children they ought to be paid more. Then they said they would bring purity into politics. They had made a good start, hadn’t they? Their methods were the most degrading and debasing the world had ever known. They said they would not take human life – no, because they might get hanged. We were supposed to be a nation of sportsmen, and a sportsman could not hit in the dark, stab in the back, or hit anyone who could not hit back, and the suffragettes did all these things, and what was so disgraceful, they did it in the name of the women of England. The suffrage was a retrogressive movement (Loud applause). The suffragettes were trying to shift the women’s movement on to the wrong lines, just when women were beginning to take their right place. But women were going to advance, and in spite of the suffragettes. They now had the municipal vote, leading them to a useful field. It was so awful to think how the world, whole world was laughing at women. They all knew what was thought of the hen-pecked husband? Then they must not let their glorious nation do down to posterity as the hen-peck nation.”

The Cambridge Independent, March 7 1913

Other arguments she used included that women’s interests would result in too many insignificant and cluttering bills being brought into parliament – like the dangers of flannelette clothing – and that giving women the vote might adversely affect the birth rate at a time when there was a great deal of rhetoric about breeding a strong nation. She felt that women could be more effective in – and improve – society if they were given more control over domestic affairs, and brought up better people by focusing on their children, and that having the vote would distract from this.

The way in which Gwladys appears to argue – from the newspaper reports of her speeches – shows her to be intelligent and articulate, and she states on several occasions that she doesn’t see women’s intelligence to be inferior to men. It is therefore hard, from a modern perspective, to see how she can have arrived at these conclusions about the role of women in society. Her background may have had some bearing on it. So also may have been the fact that her ex-mother-in-law and ex-sister-in-law were prominent suffragettes – the former being jailed for breaking Black Rod’s windows at the Houses of Parliament, and the latter mailing herself to 10 Downing Street – and it is always possible that this, combined with the fact that she was estranged from her husband and former family, added fuel to her fire.

The First World War midway through 1914 brought an effective end to the suffragette campaign, with activists devoting themselves to the fight for the country. As the war went on, women filled many jobs that men off fighting had previously undertaken, and proved that they were perfectly capable of undertaking this work, and public opinion started to change. Many prominent female anti-suffrage speakers drifted away, but Gwladys – perhaps due to economic necessity – stayed loyal and continued to campaign and speak. An article from a suffrage supporter to a publication called The Vote in 1917 makes mention to her still being active in the campaign, at a point where the bill to give women the vote, which came in early February 1918, was being drafted.

With the right to vote in general elections given to certain groups of women – and virtually all men over 21 – in 1918, the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage had lost their impetus and gradually disbanded, taking Gwladys’ job with it. Her son would now have been in his early teens, and still in need of support and care.

She turned to writing educational books – although her 1939 register entry also calls her a public speaker, so it appears that she still addressed meetings – on language teaching to children. Her books included three on early French teaching, one on German, one on Spanish, and one on Esperanto. Some of these remained in publication until at least 1970.

Just before the Second World War, she changed her surname by deed poll. She resigned the married name she had used during her anti-suffrage days – she does not appear to have ever divorced, so this would have been the next best thing – and instead became known by part of her former maiden name. Around the same time, she appears on the electoral registers – so perhaps had mellowed on her previous stance.

Her son fought in the war, and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. In later life Gwladys moved to Cheshire, close to where her son was employed, and also spent some time in some African counties – possibly accompanying her son, who conducted research into tropical medicine. She died in a nursing home in the mid-1960s.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

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3 thoughts on “Gwladys S’s story

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