Somerville’s Parliament, in its debates, endeavoured to examine the issues under consideration by the national Parliament, although limited to just two meetings per term and with far fewer members in attendance. The meeting held in November 1916 produced a fierce debate on ‘a measure for the introduction of Universal Suffrage in Great Britain’. The choice of subject was no doubt inspired by the Conference on Electoral Reform, then in session and chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons. It was reviewing changes to the franchise for male voters, the residence requirements denying the vote to many of the men away on active service, and considering the introduction of limited voting rights for women.
Somervillians had long supported the cause of women’s suffrage – with a few notable exceptions such as Mrs. Humphry Ward, one of the college’s founding members. Eighty per cent of the students were members of the Somerville Women’s Suffrage Society in 1910; in 1911 the women’s colleges combined to form the Oxford Women Student’s Society for Women’s Suffrage (OWSSWS) and their campaigning drew national attention. Even Emily Penrose, usually so cautious over any actions which could derail the progress towards degrees for women, permitted the Suffrage Society to hold their meetings in Somerville in the years immediately preceding the war (losing scholarship funding and college supporters in the process).
During the war, the activities of the Suffrage Society extended beyond rolling bandages on a Sunday evening. Most notable, perhaps, was Shenberrow Camp, the survival training camp for Belgian relief workers (see August 1915 blog). The OWSSWS also participated in the relief work and fundraising organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies across the country.
At the University of Oxford, the war had resulted in a greater reliance on the contribution of women, both academically and financially. Nationally, the inclusion of women in the workforce and their vital war work had a similarly positive effect, persuading people of their fitness to vote. It therefore seems somewhat ironic that, at a time when public opinion was changing to support the extension of the franchise, Somerville’s Parliament voted against universal suffrage, by a small majority!