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The skeleton in the RSPB closet

When I started researching Margaretta Lemon, the woman who built the all-female RSPB, I assumed that she would be in favour of women's suffrage. Of course she would!

Etta Lemon, Mayoress of Reigate and co-founder of the RSPB

This was a woman not afraid to swim against the current. As a girl, Etta was notorious for her budding militancy, writing stern letters to any women spotted wearing birds or feathers in church in Blackheath. By the late 1890s, by now the driving force behind the Society for the Protection of Birds, she was renowned for her public speaking and 'masculine' dominance of the field.

Etta Lemon took on the mighty plumage trade; she lobbied for legislation to protect wild birds from what she called 'murderous millinery'. How could she not get behind the ultimate battle for equality?

But then I discovered a letter in the Surrey Mirror. On 27 June 1908, Mrs Lemon encouraged those 'desirous of combatting the Women's Suffrage movement' to contact her at Redhill Common. 'I have joined the Central Organising Committee of the Women's Anti-Suffrage Association,' she wrote, 'and shall be glad if "anti-suffrages" women in the neighbourhood will communicate with me.'

She was, she said, of the opinion that to extend the franchise to her sex would 'work irrevocable mischief to human progress, to the British Empire, and to women themselves.'

What was this organisation that Etta Lemon had joined, and why have we not heard of it today? The Women's National Anti-Suffrage League was founded in 1908 in response to a petition signed by 37,000 women who believed that the vote would 'destroy, rather than add to' their special sphere of womanly influence in local government.

Mrs Lemon’s stern appeal in the Surrey Mirror, June 1908
The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League badge: the image implied that well-adjusted mothers did not need the vote

You might think that this would be a toxic invitation, something so counter-zeitgeist that no woman would be willing to put her name to it. And if you read the suffragists' literature – both the magazines, such as Votes For Women, and the rose-tinted histories produced after WWI – you'd be forgiven for thinking that their movement was inexorable and irresistible. But in truth it had minority appeal.

The vast majority of British women had no interest in politics, in the franchise and in Westminster. Their interest lay at home. And those women who resisted the vote (the Antis, as they became known) were, on the whole, intelligent, resourceful ? and feminist. Strange as that sounds to us today, it was not an incompatible position.

MaryWard, feminist, popular novelist – and ringleader of the Antis

Eighteen women of influence, education, breeding and energy stepped forward to serve on the Anti Suffrage executive committee, including the novelist and champion of women's education, Mrs Humphry (Mary Augusta) Ward and the adventurer and archaeologist Miss Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary woman by any standards (she had just published a book on her journeys through Syria, and was between expeditions to the Ottoman Empire and Mesopotamia).

Gertrude Bell: intrepid explorer, anthropologist and anti-suffragist

Another influential executive was Violet Markham, a wealthy social reformer passionate about women's training and education, held by a pro-suffrage friend to be 'a real feminist?'

And there was Etta Lemon: a woman with a proven track record in growing a society, lobbying Parliament and effective public speaking. Not having the franchise had not held her back in any way.

The Times leader on 22 July 1908 celebrated the founding of the Antis, and exhorted the ladies on: They must fight the suffragists, male and female, with their own weapons. They must meet organisation by organisation, agitation by counter-agitation, and argument by argument.

Violet Markham, brilliant speaker against the Vote. Shelater became a passionate convert to the suffrage cause during WWI

At a later Anti rally that packed the Royal Albert Hall (in direct imitation of the suffragettes), Violet Markham summed up their position: 'We believe that men and women are different, not similar beings, with talents that are complementary, not identical, and that they therefore ought to have different shares in the management of the State.'

What happened next, is a riveting saga full of black comedy and painful ironies. The more these women agitated publically against the vote, the more they equipped themselves with political skills. And the more successful their League became (26 branches by the end of 1908; 104 by July 1910), the more the ineffective Men's Committee for Opposing Female Suffrage plotted to take them over. This happened in 1910, masterminded by Lord Curzon (ex Viceroy of India, Vice-President of the RSPB, and tenant of Reigate Priory). He stripped the women of their power, while hanging on to their legwork and their networks ? and they were not happy.

Lord Curzon of Kedleston: staged a takeover of the highly successful women’s Anti Suffrage League. He wanted their contacts, and their legwork

Mary Ward, speaking in Croydon about her dynamic 'Forward Policy' for women in local government, warned that she did not always agree with the arguments commonly used against women's suffrage. She wasn’t one of those who thought that 'the suffrage question was settled when the women who asked for the vote were bidden to go home and mind their domestic duties.'

Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS, despaired that so many strong, articulate women were campaigning against the vote

Meanwhile, Millicent Fawcett, suffragist leader of the NUWSS, felt great frustration about the Antis. So many were impressive women who might otherwise be pro-suffrage – but here they were, offering a 'splendid field for chaff' with their ill-conceived arguments about separate spheres and God-ordained roles. Mrs Ward had, she felt, somehow wandered into the wrong camp.

Fawcett went on to predict, correctly, that future generations will probably mete out no very kindly judgment to the women who petitioned against women.

This alternative women's movement has indeed been forgotten, its story now suppressed because it does not chime with the times. Yet in researching my book about the neglected female founders of the RSPB - a hunt that took me to many unexpected nooks and crannies of society - the untold story of the Anti Suffrage movement was one of the most fascinating and paradoxical narratives of all.

by Tessa Boase is available from Amazon and Audible.

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