The 1866 women's suffrage petition

LSE Library

Discover why a petition presented to Parliament by MP John Stuart Mill, in 1866, was a pivotal moment in the early suffrage campaign.

19th century
While the early suffrage campaigners of the late 19th century are often forgotten, their work was pivotal in laying the groundwork for women's suffrage.

In 1865, Barbara Bodichon, Isa Craig, Emily Davies and Bessie Rayner Parkes enthusiastically supported John Stuart Mill’s campaign to become an MP.

They were members of the Kensington Society, a group that discussed subjects on the position of women.

The idea of votes for women was now an issue worthy of attention.

However, pamphlets on women’s suffrage had been written a decade earlier – including one by Harriet Taylor, shortly after her marriage to John Stuart Mill. ‘The enfranchisement of women’ was published anonymously in Westminster Review in 1851.

When Parliament was discussing a Reform Bill in 1866, Barbara Bodichon wrote to Helen Taylor, step-daughter of John Stuart Mill, on 9 May 1866:

“I am anxious to have some conversation with you about the possibility of doing something immediately towards getting women votes. I should not like to start a petition or make any movement without knowing what you and Mr JS Mill thought expedient at this time….”

Barbara Bodichon

Helen Taylor wrote back the same day:

“It seems to me that while a Reform bill is under discussion and petitions are being presented to Parliament from various classes… it is very desirable that women who wish for political enfranchisement should say so.’

Helen continued that she would draft a petition, adding: “If a tolerably numerously signed petition can be got up my father will gladly undertake to present it.”

Helen Taylor with three others.

Barbara Bodichon replied on 11 May: “As soon as you send us the petition, which I have no doubt we shall all approve of, we can begin to collect signatures.”

Barbara Bodichon told Helen Taylor:

“We received your letter and petition at 19 Langham Place yesterday. Miss Parkes, Miss Davies, Miss Boucherett and I myself, later we saw Miss Garrett and Miss Crow.

We carefully considered the petition, and came to the conclusion that it would be better to make it as short as possible and to state as few reasons as possible for what we want; everyone has something to say against the reasons.”

Organisation was necessary, and a small committee was formed. Barbara Bodichon reluctantly became a secretary, and Elizabeth Garrett provided her drawing room at 20 Upper Berkeley Square for meetings.

The petition was sent out to their networks of friends and family. Signed petitions were returned to Elizabeth Garrett’s home.

Within three weeks, the names of 1,499 women were collected from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England.

The women’s names and addresses were attached in a long scroll at Aubrey House, near Holland Park in west London, the home of Clementia Taylor.

Emily Davis and Elizabeth Garrett presented the petition to John Stuart Mill in Westminster Hall on 7 June 1866.

This painting was created by Bertha Newcombe, member of the Fabian Society and suffragist, in 1910.

This signed petition arrived on 8 June 1866, too late to be included.

The original petition no longer exists.

Emily Davis had the foresight to have the petition printed into a pamphlet copy before it was presented. The pamphlet was sent to newspapers and MPs in July 1866.

Although the 1866 petition was unsuccessful, it is regarded as the formal beginning of the campaign for women’s suffrage.

In the following year, John Stuart Mill proposed an amendment to the Second Reform Act to replace the word ‘man’ with the word ‘person’, which would allow women to vote.

This also failed, but women interested in suffrage organised their efforts and created suffrage societies in that year.

In 1867, a number of suffrage societies were founded. The National Society for Women’s Suffrage in Manchester was set up by Lydia Becker.

The London National Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett joined the executive committee aged 19.

Priscilla McLaren Bright became the first President of the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

The Bristol and West of England Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed by Florence Davenport Hill in 1868.

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