88 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
have been given into custodyâ€™, while the people acted â€“ so he insisted â€“
â€˜with perfect legality and propriety, and in the defence of law and
orderâ€™.196 The arrest of eminent English Home Rulers, including Sir
Wilfrid and Lady Anne Blunt and the Radical MP Charles Conybeare,
was a godsend for Liberal propaganda, which predicted that coercionist
methods would corrupt the English constitution and that England itself
would soon be consigned to â€˜Cossackâ€™-style discipline.197 The theme of
government brutality and arbitrary repression was shared across the
board by the opposition, from the Liberals and the Lib-labs to social
radicals such as R. B. Cunninghame-Graham, and the popular press and
the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
The meeting at Mitchelstown had been called to protest against the
imprisonment of William Oâ€™Brien, MP. He was denied the status of
â€˜political prisonerâ€™ despite his bad health, a treatment which was per-
ceived as being unnecessarily severe and exposing an elected representa-
tive of the people to indignities comparable to those suffered by the
Neapolitan prisoners of â€˜Bombaâ€™ (the King of Naples who bombarded
his own rebellious subjects into submission) and famously denounced by
Gladstone in 1851.198 In London, on Sunday 13 November a further
large demonstration, demanding his release, clashed with the police and
army. The episode was taken as evidence of the impending collapse of
English liberty: â€˜Coercion in London: a Radical meeting proclaimedâ€™,
headed one handbill. â€˜We want free speech,â€™ the demonstrators were
reported to have shouted. â€˜We are all true Englishmen, Irishmen and
Scotchmen, and we only want our legal rights as citizens of London.â€™199
The â€˜feminizationâ€™ of Gladstonianism
In July 1887 the Lady Mayoress of Dublin received a deputation led by
Miss Cobden and Mrs W. McLaren, who presented her with a document
Gladstone, Coercion in Ireland. Speech delivered by the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, MP, in
the House of Commons, on Friday, Feb. 17th, 1888, Liberal Publications Department
(1888), 12â€“13 (Gladstone Library, Bristol Univ. Library).
W. E. Gladstone, The Treatment of the Irish Members and the Irish Political Prisoners, a speech
by the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, MP, to the Staffordshire Liberals, penny pamphlet of the
Liberal Publications Department (1888), 1 (Gladstone Library, Bristol Univ. Library);
l.a., â€˜The unemployed and Warrenâ€™s ukaseâ€™, RN, 13 Nov. 1887, 1; cf. l.a., â€˜Toryism and
tyrannyâ€™, RN, 9 Oct. 1887, 4; W. T. Stead, â€˜Memo. of a conversation with Cardinal
Manningâ€™, 4 Oct. 1890, in W. T. Stead Papers. Cf. L. M. Geary, â€˜John Mandeville and the
Irish Crimes Act of 1887â€™, Irish Historical Studies, 25, 100 (1987), 364.
L.a., â€˜Balfourâ€™s brutalityâ€™, RN, 15 Nov. 1887, 4; rep., â€˜National Liberal Federationâ€™,
annual meeting of the Council (Birmingham), FJ, 7 Nov. 1887, 6.
Rep., â€˜Serious riots in London: monster procession to Trafalgar-squareâ€™, RN, 20 Nov.
Home Rule in context 89
signed by more than forty thousand British women, expressing â€˜sympa-
thyâ€™ with their sisters in Ireland â€˜in their sorrow over the troubles of their
countryâ€™.200 Despite the almost non-partisan wording of their speech,
both Cobden and McLaren were active Gladstonian campaigners and
were effectively using Home Rule to bridge the gap between the â€˜separate
spheresâ€™ â€“ namely the male preserve of constitutional affairs and the
female sphere of family and moral concerns. To them Ireland was
a cause with social and humanitarian implications and therefore could
be construed as â€˜a womanâ€™s issueâ€™. For Josephine Butler the consequen-
ces of the Coercion and Crimes Acts were â€˜inhumanâ€™ â€“ causing the
eviction of thousands of families and exposing women and children to
police brutality â€“ and â€˜touched closely upon their hearts, their maternal
feelings, their deepest emotions [and] their most profound convic-
tionsâ€™.201 She compared coercion to the forcible medical examination of
women suspected of prostitution under the Contagious Diseases Acts,
repealed in 1886 after a long campaign in which Butler herself had played
a leading role.202
Like Margaret Thatcher a century later, Butler argued that national
affairs were best understood through the prism of domesticity: thus the
Unionist contention that Home Rule would undermine imperial unity
was similar to arguing that judicial separation in an unhappy marriage,
â€˜brought about by a mixture of force and guileâ€™, should not be allowed,
because doing so might encourage happily married couples to divorce.
She insisted that imperial politics was like relationships between partners:
each marriage depended on the will of the partners. In the same way it was
â€˜clearâ€™ to her that â€˜it is the will of the nation which must decide in each
case its form of Governmentâ€™, for â€˜the Government of a nation against the
will of the people is the very definition of slaveryâ€™.203 The â€˜householdâ€™
metaphor was taken up by other campaigners, including Hannah
Cheetham, who told the Southport Womenâ€™s Liberal Association in
1886 that â€˜the same sympathy, the same refinement, the same emotional
insightâ€™ which sustained a well-run household â€˜are needed to purify and
ennoble the government of the larger home â€“ our countryâ€™.204 Party
â€˜London correspondeceâ€™, Cork Examiner, 6 July 1887, 2.
â€˜L. Walker, â€˜Party political women: a comparative study of Liberal women and the
Primrose Leagueâ€™, in J. Rendall (ed.), Equal or different: Womenâ€™s politics, 1800â€“1914
(1987), 175, and Josephine Butler speaking at the Portsmouth Womenâ€™s Liberal
Association, cited in ibid.
P. McHugh, Prostitution and Victorian social reform (1980); J. Walkowitz, Prostitution and
Victorian society (1990).
J. E. Butler, Our Christianity tested by the Irish question, (n.d. ), 57.
Cited in Walker, â€˜Party political womenâ€™, 176.
90 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
politics became akin in character to the philanthropic work in which
many women found it natural to be involved: as one Wyndford Phillips
put it in her Appeal to Women (c.1890), â€˜Women: your duty is your home!
Yes, but you have a double duty. First of all to your family, and secondly
to the wider family, the world of human beings outside.â€™205 It seemed that
â€˜[t]he Irish question has done more in the last two or three years to settle
definitely the contested question of womenâ€™s mission and womenâ€™s place
in politics than the patient and laborious efforts of twenty years past had
doneâ€™.206 One area in which this was most obvious was public speaking on
issues of national relevance â€“ that is, pertaining to the male â€˜public
sphereâ€™. While women had been active in local politics, particularly
from 1870 (when some of them were given the vote and became eligible
for school boards),207 constitutional reform or foreign policy was not
something about which they were expected to have anything â€˜sensibleâ€™
to say. Although a number of them had been involved in Chartism and
had spoken at Chartist camp meetings in the 1830s, their expertise in
addressing popular demonstrations was largely limited to Nonconformist
revival gatherings.208 To the chagrin of some traditionalists,209 the Home
Rule agitation was to change that from the 1880s.
Exploiting the newly blurred divide between public policy and the
private sphere, women started to address with confidence and authority
predominantly male political meetings. At the London agitation of
April 1887 one of the main orators was Mrs Ashton Dilke, of the
Womenâ€™s Suffrage Society. She claimed to be speaking â€˜for thousands
and millions of the women of England who were on the side of liberty, and
who, like Mr Gladstone, desired home rule and justice for all alikeâ€™.210
Like other Liberal women, she developed a distinctive agenda, which was
formally consistent with contemporary expectations about womenâ€™s
duties in society, and yet subversive of such roles and tasks.
Allegedly, the â€˜subversionâ€™ was only temporary and was justified by the
emergency which the nation was facing. But, as we shall see (chapter 4),
Cited in ibid., 174. 206 Cited in Walker, â€˜Party political womenâ€™, 175â€“6.
P. Hollis, Ladies elect: women in English local government, 1865â€“1914 (1987).
For example, Alice Cambridge (1762â€“1829) and Anne Lutton (1791â€“1881), coinci-
dentally both Irish: C. H. Crookshank, Memorable women of Irish Methodism in the last
century (1882); C. Murphy, â€˜The religious context of the womenâ€™s suffrage campaign in
Irelandâ€™, Womenâ€™s History Review, 6, 4 (1997), 549â€“62. The other important exceptions
were the Parnell sisters and the Ladiesâ€™ Land League in 1881.
Such as Lady Londonderry, who preferred to exert her influence in less direct ways:
M. Pugh, The Tories and the people, 1880â€“1935 (1985), 58.
Rep., â€˜The anti-coercion meeting in Londonâ€™, RN, 17 Apr. 1887, 1. For other examples
of women addressing political meetings see â€˜Loughborough Reform Clubâ€™, LW, 28 Aug.
1887, 1, and â€˜Political meeting in Regentâ€™s Parkâ€™, LW, 4 Sep. 1887, 1.
Home Rule in context 91
the establishment of a party â€˜machineâ€™ turned this â€˜exceptionâ€™ into some-
thing permanent. This process was further encouraged by what Margot
Asquith called â€˜Gladstone worshipâ€™,211 in which women were prominent.
â€˜[N]urtured under the shadow of [his] high idealism, [women] were at
one in believing . . . that those who take service under [Liberalismâ€™s]
banner must apply its principles to all relations of life, both public and
Their leaders exploited the ever closer link between politics, morality
and religion to expand their sphere of social action. Morality and religion
had long been perceived as the twin pillars of their â€˜duty to societyâ€™, and
the association between these concepts acquired a more political and
institutional prominence in the aftermath of the 1870â€“1 Franco-
Prussian War, as Gill has demonstrated.213 However, from 1886, under
the combined pressure of Gladstoneâ€™s haunting rhetoric and the dictates
of the â€˜Nonconformist conscienceâ€™, they also became central to politics.
As one leaflet proclaimed, â€˜religion is not more important to our spiritual
wants than politics to our material wants . . . Religion tells us we should be
helpful to one another, and politics shows us how to be helpful, wisely and
effectively.â€™214 This line of argument was effectively summarized by Lady
Aberdeen when she declared that â€˜Liberalism was the Christianity of
politics.â€™215 There was no longer any legitimate room for the selfish pur-
suit of naked national interest, because politics had become the arena in
which moral standards were upheld and religious imperatives applied to
the solution of social and constitutional problems. By the same token,
humanitarianism, both at home and overseas, emerged as the defining
feature of the Gladstonian faith. It appealed both to the politically aware
section of the population â€“ irrespective of class and gender differences â€“
and to those who lacked political training and sophistication.
As politics became more religious and religion more political, some of
the traditional arguments against the extension of political rights to
women, that is, that they were â€˜emotionalâ€™ or â€˜priest riddenâ€™, lost much
of their rhetorical power: as May Dilke pointed out, â€˜[the] influence of the
priest is at least as respectable as . . . [that] of the publicanâ€™ to which many
M. Asquith (Lady Oxford), More Memoirs (1933), 148.
Lady Aberdeen, â€˜We Twaâ€™. Reminiscences of Lord and Lady Aberdeen, vol. I (1925), 272.
Biagini, â€˜The Anglican ethic and the spirit of citizenshipâ€™; (1995) Gill, â€˜Calculating
compassion in warâ€™, 13; B. Taithe, Defeated flesh: welfare, warfare and the makings of
modern France (Manchester, 1999).
From a leaflet of the Warwick and Leamington Womenâ€™s Liberal Association, 1890,
cited in Walker, â€˜Party political womenâ€™, 177.
Lady Aberdeen, â€˜We Twaâ€™, 278.
92 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
male electors were supposedly highly susceptible.216 To the horror of
many intellectuals217 and some of the more conventionally â€˜masculineâ€™
parliamentary Liberals, such as Hartington and Chamberlain, the role of
emotions in Liberal politics had steadily grown since the Bulgarian agi-
tation of 1876. In fact, Gladstoneâ€™s own style of revivalist politics created
among Liberal women a new pride in their supposedly innate emotion-
alism. If the ideology of â€˜separate spheresâ€™ included the notion of womenâ€™s
moral superiority based on their â€˜freedom from debasing habitsâ€™ and
preference for virtue and uprightness over expediency, now their â€˜higher
moral enthusiasmâ€™ was trumpeted as one of the reasons why they should
be listened to in the public sphere. In 1879, Gladstone had famously
called on women to â€˜open [their] feelings and bear [their] own part in a
political crisis like thisâ€™. He stressed that this was â€˜no inappropriate
demandâ€™ but rather a duty fully consistent with their character as
women.218 As Eliza Orme noted, â€˜many people, women as well as men,
who had been accustomed to hold themselves aloof from party politicsâ€™,
now felt that they should â€˜[take] an active part in the struggleâ€™.219
Progress, in politics as much as in missionary or temperance work,
demanded women to act as â€˜a combined bodyâ€™ with crusading zeal.
Thus, as Linda Walker has pointed out, â€˜[a]ll the arguments for womenâ€™s
involvement in politics â€“ moral, religious, educational, maternal, legisla-
tive â€“ rested on a powerful new notion that . . . [w]omen who wanted to
work for the Liberal cause could do so . . . using direct rather than back-
This upsurge in female participation corresponded to the Liberal
partyâ€™s apparent eagerness to enlist their support. Local womenâ€™s
Liberal associations began to appear from 1880, but the nation-wide
Womenâ€™s Liberal Federation (WLF) was founded only in 1887, largely
in response to the Home Rule crisis. Despite its upper-class leadership,
the WLFâ€™s original membership was socially mixed and included school-
teachers, wives and daughters of tradespeople and artisans, and even
factory workers â€“ reflecting both the broad social appeal of Gladstoneâ€™s
rhetoric and the lack of competition from other left-wing organizations
before the foundation of the ILP in 1893. These groups were targeted by
Liberal propaganda on the assumption that wives played a special role in
the shaping of their husbandsâ€™ political views, especially over Home
May Dilke, unfinished manuscript on â€˜Womenâ€™s suffrageâ€™, n.d. , 25, in C. Dilke
Papers, Churchill Archives.
C. Harvie, â€˜Ideology and Home Rule: James Bryce, A. V. Dicey and Ireland,
1880â€“1887â€™, English Historical Review, 91, 359 (1976), 298â€“314.
Midlothian Speeches, Second speech, 89â€“90.
Walker, â€˜Party political womenâ€™, 167. 220 Ibid., 177.
Home Rule in context 93
Rule.221 In numerical terms the WLF rose rapidly from 16,500 members
and 63 branches in 1887, to 82,000 and 448 branches in 1895.222 This
was not as impressive as the contemporaneous development of the
Primrose Leagueâ€™s female membership, but, in contrast to the latter,
the women in the WLF â€˜enjoyed effective control of their own organiza-
tion from the outset, with their own council, executive [and] annual
conferenceâ€™.223 Even more important was that each local association
was able to deliberate and put forward its own political programme, a
fact which further contributed to making such associations â€˜more decen-
tralized and less socially hierarchical than the Primrose League
Thus, while ostensibly the WLFâ€™s role was simply to inspire and
organize canvassers, â€˜it also provided a convenient means of bringing
wives, mothers and sisters into regular contact with feminist ideas and
recruiting activists for suffragismâ€™.225 Mrs Gladstone was not keen on the