Dr. Carolyn Harris is a historian, author and royal commentator who teaches history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. She released two books last year, one commemorating Magna Carta and It’s Gifts To Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights, as well as Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette. Dr. Harris is an expert in the history of the European monarchy, and recently discussed the royal attitudes towards the women's suffrage movement in Britain with Ms. Suffragette. Read below for part one of the interview, and check back at noon for part two, wherein Dr. Harris discusses the consequences Queens Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette faced for transgressing gender norms!
1. In Canada, activists in the women’s suffrage movement were called “suffragists”, whereas in the United Kingdom they were often referred to as “suffragettes”. Can you explain the difference in titles, and the different tactics used by these groups to attain the vote?
The term suffragist was used in both the United Kingdom and Canada to refer to a person who supported women’s suffrage. The words suffragist and suffragette come from the same root wood – suffragium, the latin for the vote and political support. Suffragist was the more respectable term and came to be associated with advocates of women’s suffrage who made use of peaceful tactics to advance their aims such as writing to their member of parliament.
The term suffragette emerged as a derogatory term for women who engaged in violent tactics – such as breaking windows – in support of women’s suffrage. Since these militant activities became the most well-known aspect of the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain, the term suffragette continues to be associated with the British women’s suffrage movement, most notably the title of the recent film, “Suffragette.”
2. Regarding the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom, Queen Victoria stated 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.” Is this quotation reflective of her stance, or did she ultimately come to appreciate the importance of women’s democratic equality?
Queen Victoria was a female head of state who was in close contact with other female leaders. She maintained a regular correspondence with the reigning Queen Maria of Portugal and five of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters became queens or empresses consort in Europe. Nevertheless, Queen Victoria viewed female leaders as exceptional figures rather than an example for other women to follow. She held the same views concerning distinct roles for men and women that were widespread in the nineteenth century English speaking world. According to the Queen and many of her contemporaries, the domestic sphere was feminine and the public sphere was masculine. The political arena was therefore a masculine realm.
During her twenty-year marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Queen Victoria included her husband in her political and domestic roles, deferring to his advice on a variety of topics from the education of their children to the importance of promoting British trade and industry through such initiatives as the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Despite Queen Victoria’s opposition to women’s suffrage, the fact that she was a woman in a prominent leadership role was inspirational to suffragists. In Canada, Nellie McClung wrote “Queen Victoria, in her palace of marble and gold, was able to retain her virility of thought and independence of action as clearly as any pioneer woman.”
3. Was Queen Victoria’s view of the women’s suffrage representative of royal attitudes generally in the United Kingdom?
There was a generational divide between Queen Victoria and her daughters concerning women’s suffrage. Queen Victoria’s daughters had a strong interest in improving the lives of ordinary women. Princess Alice, who became Grand Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt in Germany, was concerned with maternal mortality rates and established the Heidenreich Home for Pregnant Women in 1864 to ensure they received proper medical care. Princess Helena was admirer of the work of Florence Nightingale and advocated the growth of nursing as a profession for women at a time when there were few accepted employment opportunities for middle and upper class women. Helena became President of the British Nurses' Association (RBNA). Princess Louise, a talented sculptor, supported women’s education and opportunities for female artists both in Britain and in Canada, where she lived for long periods during the time when her husband, John Campbell, Lord Lorne was Governor General of Canada (1878-1883).
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. Louise’s sister-in-law, Lady Frances Balfour was a prominent suffragist. The press made the connection between the two prominent women and was careful to emphasize that Lady Balfour was not involved in militant activities.
“The Lady Frances Balfour, who is coming to Devonshire to address four meetings in support of the cause of Women’s Suffrage, is the daughter of the late Duke of Argyll… She is consequently, the sister-in-law of Princess Louise…For many years she has been a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which has dissociated itself wholly from the militant section.” – Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, February 19, 1909.