LSE’sLibrary, the British Library of Political and Economic Science, opened in November 1896. In a series of posts celebrating LSE Library’s 120th anniversary in 2016, Gillian Murphy explores the story behind the 1866 women’s suffrage petition

On 7 June 1866 a petition from 1,499 women calling for women’s suffrage was presented to Parliament. Although this petition was unsuccessful, the Fawcett Society marks this moment as its foundation and the start of the organised campaign for the vote.

What is the story behind the 1866 women’s suffrage petition?

Only a month earlier, on 9 May 1866, Barbara Bodichon had written to Helen Taylor  about the possibility of doing something immediately towards getting women votes. She wanted to know what Helen and her step-father, John Stuart Mill, thought about this idea. Helen wrote back saying that as the Reform Bill was under discussion then it was clear that women who wanted the vote should speak up.  She just wondered whether they would get enough signatures. If they did, then John Stuart Mill would willingly present the petition to Parliament. In the previous year, he had endorsed women’s suffrage during his successful election campaign.

Bertha Newcombe's painting of petition

Bertha Newcombe’s painting depicting Elizabeth Garrett, Emily Davies and John Stuart Mill in Westminster Hall

Helen and Barbara formed an informal committee with Elizabeth Garrett, Emily Davies, Bessie Rayner Parkes, Jessie Boucherett and Jane Crow to finalise the wording of the petition. They decided that the petition should be short and state as ‘few reasons as possible for what we want, everyone has something to say against the reasons.’ The women were not asking for universal suffrage but for all householders, regardless of sex, to have the right to vote.

The petition was printed and sent out across Britain which at the time included the whole of Ireland. Further meetings were held in Elizabeth Garrett’s house and between meetings a great flurry of letter-writing took place between the women. Many of those letters are held in the Mill-Taylor collection and Barbara Bodichon’s archive in LSE Library. The letters convey a clear sense of urgency about the task they were undertaking.

The returned petitions were gathered together in Aubrey House, the home of Clementia Taylor. In less than a month, 1,499 signatures had been collected. The women pasted the signatures with their addresses onto a long scroll which was then presented to Parliament by John Stuart Mill on 7 June 1866. Before he did this, Emily Davies had the petition printed into a pamphlet copy (one of only two known copies is currently on display in LSE Library’s Endless Endeavours exhibition) which was sent to weekly newspapers and MPs during July. Luckily, Emily had the foresight to do this, as the original petition does not exist.

pamphlet copy of 1866 petition

First page of the pamphlet copy of the 1866 petition

The members of the first Women’s Suffrage Committee knew that campaigning for the vote should be pursued. However, they could not have anticipated that the campaign would take 62 years, and about 16,000 suffrage petitions later, before women would achieve electoral parity with men in the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.

Come and find out more about early suffragist history in LSE Library’s exhibition Endless Endeavours: from 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition to the Fawcett Society at the entrance to the Library.

Contributed by Gillian Murphy (Curator, LSE Library)

Read more

Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide 1866-1928, 1999

Jane Grant, In the steps of exceptional women, 2016

Endless Endeavours: from the 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition to the Fawcett Society

Interested in women’s history? See Women at LSE

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