Labour History Review

‘We Must Stand by our Own Bairns’: Ilp Men and Suffrage Militancy, 1905-14

Labour History Review (2002), 67, (2), 149–169.

Abstract

The Independent Labour Party (ILP) has long enjoyed a reputation as the pre-First World War political party most sympathetic both to feminism in general, and to the suffrage movement in particular. Indeed, it is only recently that such a reputation has been placed under scrutiny. Ironically, considering the amount of attention devoted to it by Edwardian ILPers, the party's relationship with suffrage militancy is also an area that has as yet received little close attention, and it is on this relationship that the present article focuses. More specifically, this article concentrates on male ILP members, in order to shed light both on their attitudes towards women's role in society and in politics, and on their own identities as socialists and as men, providing an important insight into male ILPers' gendered politics.

Suffrage militancy's role in jolting ILP men out of a purely formal advocacy of suffrage, forcing them to question the nature of their socialist beliefs and the place of women's enfranchisement in their practical programme, is explored. Further, the article considers how ideas about women's role in politics had to be re-thought as militancy developed and changed in the decade before the outbreak of the First World War. It questions how far ILP men were able to adapt their ideas of ‘political womanhood’ to accommodate women who not only made an uncompromising entrance into the political arena, but also undertook both illegal and violent activities.

Underlying the whole discussion, finally, is the question of how far the suffrage movement in general and militancy in particular forced ILP men to re-think their own masculine identities, and to make changes to their own personal relationships with women. And perhaps more fundamentally, the article questions how far notions of socialist manliness based on chivalrousness and protectiveness towards women were modified, in the light of militants' growing determination to do without male protection and patronage.

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Ugolini, Laura