Researching Anti-Suffragism in Britain

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When Emily McCormack (BA History) found out that the first organised league opposing women’s suffrage in Britain was started by women, it inspired her to make anti-suffragism the topic of her final year dissertation.

Just a little over a year ago, I was panicking down the phone to my parents, explaining that I couldn’t think of a single thing I could write about for my dissertation, that I didn’t know how to begin, that I was going to fail. I wish I could go back, tap myself on the shoulder and say, “Calm down. It’s going to be fine.”

I’m now well into the editing process of my dissertation, which is on a topic I am genuinely interested in and excited about: organised anti-suffragism in Britain. The whole thing happened so gradually that it has always felt easily manageable to achieve the next step, and now here I am, nearly done. When I started this, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to write something to do with women’s history, and I had a vague idea that women’s suffrage might be interesting. I narrowed this down very slowly last year, and eventually I had a topic, an argument, some sources.

This started with a discussion with my dissertation tutor (Dr Zoë Thomas), in which we discussed different ways the broad topic of women’s suffrage could be narrowed down. I suggested that I might be interested in the opposition to it, the ways in which people tried to stop women getting the vote. She mentioned, almost in passing, that there had been an organised league actively working against the suffrage societies. This seemed interesting, so I started some research in to it with a quick google search. This revealed something that astonished me, that the first organised league opposing women’s suffrage was started and run by women. Immediately I was hooked, and there was the basis for my dissertation.

Emily McCormack discussing her research at the School of History and Cultures Dissertation Poster Showcase in January 2018

At this point I still had no idea exactly what my dissertation would argue, or what sources might be useful. My tutor pointed me to a few books on the topic and I spent some time just reading everything I could on it. I was working for my literature review at this point, and this was helpful in focusing my research on the historiographical debates around the topic. By the time I’d written this, I had a clear idea of what had been said on the topic, what the debates where and where there were gaps. I decided to focus on the league’s public campaign and its reach outside of London – which is not exactly where my dissertation ended up but was a good starting point. Then I went looking for sources. The university has access to some online newspaper databases, and I was extremely lucky in that a simple key word search into one of these revealed numerous articles from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette which, a quick google search revealed, had only been digitised in the last ten years. This meant that none of the major works on anti-suffragism had been able to use this source. I did also go to the women’s library in London, to look at some letters between anti-suffragist women, but my focus was on the Exeter source, because this one allowed me to see whether a new source fits with the historical consensus.

As I actually came to write the dissertation this year, my argument changed all the time. I changed my ideas about the topics for chapters several times, and I only really knew what my conclusion would be when I came to write it in February. Yet I had so much time to work on it that I’ve never really felt too stressed, and now it’s all come together.

Emily McCormack, BA History