A partial victory: Catherine Osler and Votes for Women

The Representation of the People Act finally received Royal Assent on 6 February 1918. This meant that women over thirty who were householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property of £5 or more annual value, or University graduates, could now vote. In March 1918 the Women Workers, Quarterly Magazine of the Birmingham Branch of the National Union of Women Workers included an article by Catherine Osler, President of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society (BWSS).[1] Titled ‘At Last!’, Catherine reflected on the campaign to secure votes for women, something she had been closely involved with since her parents formed the BWSS in 1868. Catherine became President of the organisation in 1901. While it was certainly an achievement to be celebrated, the conditions of qualifying were ‘not all that could be desired – far from it! They do not fulfil the original and unaltered demand of suffragists for “the vote on the same terms as it is or may be granted to men”. It leaves still unrepresented classes of women who are among the worthiest, most indispensable workers for their country and for their fellows’.

Catherine Courtauld Osler (1854–1924) by Edward Steel Harper II, 1917-18 © Birmingham Museums Trust

Catherine also considered the wider campaign and the sacrifices that many women had made; ‘some, indeed, have dared infinitely more than this – have courted and endured gross insult, maltreatment, torture, death itself, in the determination to draw the world’s attention to women’s wrongs… the startling campaign of the militant section… has now become as a nightmare memory, but one which will survive in history’.

Birmingham had seen some very serious militant incidents carried out by suffragettes from 1909 onwards, including arson (most notably the destruction of Northfield Library), church disturbances, window smashing and the slashing of a painting. It was also where the first cases of forcible feeding of suffragettes took place, at Winson Green Gaol in September 1909 after a number of women were arrested for their protest during a visit to the city by Prime Minister Asquith. In the article, Catherine also acknowledged the campaign’s well-established roots, going back to the 1860s, stating that ‘it was not because on grounds of reason and common sense suffrage was “bound to come” but because the nation had for 50 years been patiently and unceasingly educated to the conviction of its justice and righteousness, that the conditions of war enabled its advocates to make the final effort which brought victory… a great dividing barrier has disappeared from the ranks of women themselves, and that henceforth we may go forward shoulder to shoulder’.[2]

Force feeding of a Suffragette

Women who had been involved in the campaign for women’s votes now began to be recognised for their contribution to social, civic and political causes. In July 1919 the University of Birmingham presented an honorary degree to ten citizens, including Catherine Osler. In presenting her for the Master’s Degree, Sir Oliver Lodge, Principal of the University and a long-time supporter of women’s suffrage, said: ‘All those who have worked for the public service of women must rejoice at the vital help they have afforded to the country in its need, and at the universal recognition now given to their labours. As a great modern University, in which women take equal rank with men, we delight to associate with us one who has devoted her life to furthering the moral, intellectual, and social welfare of her sex’.[3]

In further recognition of her contribution, a portrait of Osler by Edward Harper was funded by a testimonial presented to her by the NUWSS (the painting is now in the collection of Birmingham City Council). The money left over, along with a donation from the Osler family, was used to help women BA students obtain their MA.[4] Osler announced her retirement from the Society the following year. In the BWSS report for 1919-20, her outstanding work on behalf of the Society was acknowledged: ‘words are inadequate to express all that the Society owes to its President for twenty years, Mrs Alfred C. Osler. Only those who have worked with and under her can justly appreciate the patience, wisdom, courage, and unselfish devotion she has put into the work for the cause of the enfranchisement of women, and for the general raising of the standard and welfare of all womanhood. It has been a great life work, and one moreover which has been triumphantly crowned with success’.[5]

In 1924 Catherine Osler died at the age of 70 after a short illness. Her impact on the movement was widely recognised and she was remembered by the Birmingham Gazette: ‘Mrs. Osler threw herself into the movement for women’s enfranchisement… For many years she was also engaged in educational and philanthropic work in Birmingham. She was one of a number of women social reformers who for years delivered free lectures on hygiene and sanitation in the poorer parts of the city’.[6]

The Banbury Guardian also included an obituary (Osler’s daughter was married to a local doctor): ‘she will, perhaps, be chiefly remembered as a protagonist of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She lived fortunately to see her aspirations acknowledged by the nation and the franchise extended to women, but it should be remembered that she was fighting the battle of political equality for her sex long before the rapid conversion of the community which was one of the effects of the late war. She steadfastly espoused the cause during the long years in which the movement was either bitterly opposed or treated with amused tolerance’. The progress of women’s suffrage ‘was due to a very large extent to the dauntless spirit which was displayed by a comparatively small but influential band of Birmingham women, of which Mrs Osler and her mother must be accounted the foremost, and to whose sane and inspiring leadership a great deal of the force of the movement was due’.[7]

Nicola Gauld

Nicola Gauld’s book about the Birmingham suffrage campaign will be published by History West Midlands later in the year: https://historywm.com/



[1] In light of the new political landscape, in 1918, after 50 years of campaigning, the BWSS ceased to exist and merged with the local branch of the National Union of Women Workers, resulting in the formation of the Birmingham Society for Equal Citizenship, with Catherine Osler as its President.

[2] Osler, Catherine, ‘At Last!’, Women Workers, Quarterly Magazine of the Birmingham Branch of the National Union of Women Workers, March 1918, pp. 95-99

[3] Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society Report, 1918-1919

[4] Crawford, E., The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (London, 1999), p. 481

[5] Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society Report, 1919-1920

[6] 18 December 1924

[7] 25 December 1924


One response to “A partial victory: Catherine Osler and Votes for Women

  1. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    It was ONLY 100 years ago when women achieved the vote….WHY?

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