Records of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The archive consists of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) Minutes: Executive committee 1899-1918; combined subcommittees 1986-1909; organisation (1905-1913), election fighting fund (1912-1915), Friends of Women's Suffrage (1912-1915), women's interests (1913-1915), professional women's patriotic service fund (1915) and magazine (1908-1909) subcommittees; Council meetings reports (1907-1918), annual reports (1907, 1917), rule books (1910-1914); circular letters (1897-1917); leaflets; broad-sheets; pamphlets; scrapbook; posters; emblem blotting paper; photographs.

Administrative / Biographical History

he National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (1898-1919) was established out of collaborative efforts by the various suffrage societies. In the 1890s, after the death of Lydia Becker, the suffrage movement suffered from a lack of unified leadership and divisions developed between groups. However, in 1895, with a general election imminent, the two main London societies and the other provincial organisations agreed to co-ordinate their activities. This temporary alliance worked well so that in Jun 1896 the London and Manchester groups formed a joint parliamentary lobbying committee, the Combined Sub-Committee, which representatives of Edinburgh and Bristol soon joined. At a conference in Brighton in Oct 1897 at which the country was divided up into administrative areas, it was recognised that there was a need for a national body and twelve months later a system of federation was agreed and the Combined Committee was reconstituted as the executive committee of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. The new body's overall aim was to co-ordinate the various existing groups, act as a form of liaison committee between these groups and parliamentary supporters and thereby help obtain parliamentary franchise for women. These included the North of England Society (formerly the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage), the Central & Western Society (formerly the Central National Society for Women's Suffrage), the Central & East of England Society (formerly the Central Committee for Women's Suffrage) which the previous administrative division of the country had created as well as the provincial groups which existed throughout the country. Each of these independent organisations was represented by members on the NUWSS Executive Committee while the overall structure remained decentralised, with each local body autonomously responsible for work in their area. The constitution strictly forbade party political activity or affiliation on part of the parent or constituent bodies and this political neutrality was mirrored in the diversity of opinion within its leadership which included Millicent Fawcett, Lady Frances Balfour, Helen Blackburn, Priscilla Bright McLaren, Eleanor Rathbone and Eva Gore-Booth. Despite the formation of the new NUWSS, there was a marked decline in suffrage activity around the turn of the century as interests became focused on individual issues such as licensing and education while the Boer War overshadowed politics. A remedy for this inertia was sought through the National Convention in Defence of Civic Rights for Women, and in its wake the NUWSS's role changed as it began to implement a policy of creating local pressure committees financed and supported by the central body, creating more centralised planning. However, until 1906 their approach remained focused on supporting Private Members Bills in the House of Commons. The lack of success led some members to envisage a more radical method and in 1903 Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst founded the Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU) in affiliation with the Independent Labour Party. Two years later, they left the North of England Society, and with it the NUWSS, to concentrate on the militant strand of the movement. The NUWSS continued alongside and subsequently in public opposition to the civil disobedience of the WSPU, preferring to persist in using constitutional means although they began to also undertake public activities such as marches, demonstrations, rallies and pageants in addition to their parliamentary work. By 1907, it was necessary to reorganise the system of regional federations due to their increasing numbers and which rose to nearly 500 by 1913. In addition, changes in the makeup of membership had an effect on the nature of the organisation. Increasing working-class participation, particularly in the Northwest, combined with disillusionment regarding the Liberal Party, which for decades had been their main parliamentary support, led to closer collaboration with the Labour Party. In 1912, the Labour Party made support for female suffrage part of its policy for the first time. When, that same year the NUWSS launched the Election Fighting Fund policy, which promised support to any party officially supporting suffrage in an election where the candidate was challenging an anti-suffrage Liberal, the effect was to effectively support the Labour Party. In 1914, dissension occurred in the NUWSS due to the groups' official stance of subordinating campaigning to support for war work. Many members, including a majority of the executive, left the group and many joined the Women's International League in 1915. However, political activity did not end: a National Union of Women's Interest committee was established to watch over the social, economic interests of women. Suffrage agitation was resumed in earnest in 1916, when the Consultative Committee of Constitutional Women's Suffrage Societies was established in Mar 1916 in response to the government proposed changes to the national electoral register, to take effect at the end of the First World War with the aim of petitioning the government for the inclusion of women's suffrage in the franchise Reform Bill. Consequently the NUWSS was key in the final creation of the women's franchise section of the Representation of the People Act of 1918. However, from Apr 1919, they redesigned their aims to promoting equality of franchise between men and women and allowing the affiliation of societies with this object, becoming the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship in the process.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit.

Acquisition Information

Unknown, but probably deposited in the early years of the Library, c.1930. The Fawcett Library Accession Registers need to be checked.

Other Finding Aids

Fawcett Library Catalogue.

Related Material

The Women's Library also holds the papers of several constituent member organisations of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies:

The Artists' Suffrage League (2ASL); the Actress' Franchise League (2AFL); National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies: Portsmouth Branch (2PWS); Oldham Women's Suffrage Society (2OWS).

It also holds papers of related groups:

Consultative Committee of Constitutional Women's Suffrage Societies (2CSS); National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (2NSE); Scottish Women's Hospitals (2SWH); etc.

It also holds the papers of the leader of the NUWSS, Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett (7MGF; 10/: Autograph Letter Collection 9/).

For records after 1919 see National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC)

Pamphlets and annual reports issued by the NUWSS can be found in TWL Printed Collections, e.g. class number 324.62306041 NAT, but also in TWL Printed Collections UDC Collection.

The TWL Visual Resource Collection contains additional material on the NUWSS and some of the Scottish societies e.g. photographs.

NUWSS papers are also held by: Manchester Archives and Local Studies 1889-1918: minutes, correspondence and papers (ref M50); Manchester University: John Rylands Library 1910-1914: press cuttings (30 vols) (ref. NUWS) 1917-1920: correspondence with International Woman Suffrage Alliance (ref IWSA/2/23 ); Cumbria Record Office, Carlisle Headquarters, 1909-1918: papers, (ref D/Mar ).