The Case for Women's Suffrage/Co-operator and Citizen

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IT is only of late that the voice of married working women has been heard in the suffrage movement. The older school of suffragists did not ask for the enfranchisement of married women. Some of the party, indeed, cared little about it; and even now, many men who would willingly allow single women to vote abhor the notion that their own wives could possibly have independent political opinions which ought to be expressed at the poll. The pioneers appealed to a thoroughly established constitutional principle, that representation should go with taxation, but did not carry this principle to its full logical length. Married women, to be sure, seem in effect to pay taxes as well as single, and poor as well as rich. But then it has long been doubtful whether a married woman is altogether a person; and we always think of a taxpayer as a dignified householder on whom the collector calls, and not as a mere drinker of cheap tea or eater of sultana pudding, who pays his or her too heavy share of the house tax in the rent of a single room.

The trade unionists of the north of England were the first working women among whom an active suffrage movement began. Most of them were unmarried wage-earners, and their leaders, carrying on the traditions of the elder Suffragists, saw no reason for a change of policy. But when the new spirit touched the Women's Co-operative Guild, the demand had to take another shape. An organisation of married working women cannot so stifle its individuality as to abstain from asking the vote for its own members. A demand for liberty cannot be self-denying. Unless they want the vote themselves, co-operative housewives can only bring an academic support to the suffrage movement. Why should they stand back? Let them at least ask for what they want.

No women could be better prepared for enfranchisement than the Guild members. The cooperative movement, with two and a quarter millions of members and a yearly trade of sixty million pounds, has been called, after another select people, "a State within a State." In this State women have votes. Thousands of women hold shares in their own names, and before the passing of the Married Women's Property Act co-operators used honourably and illegally to let married women assert the right to their own investments and dividends. In some societies women outnumber men. They attend the quarterly business meeting, the legal governing body of the co-operative society, and vote there side by side with men, deciding questions of trade, employment, and the common use of funds. Women are elected occasionally as directors of societies, and frequently as members of the "educational" committees which manage local propagandist work and lectures, and they have done some of the best work on the elective Board of the Co-operative Union, to which the societies throughout the country affiliate for spreading the co-operative idea, for promoting a good common policy, for joint action with other bodies, and for influencing Parliament.

The special work of the Guild is, in many directions, the same as that of the Co-operative Union, which subscribes £300 a year to the Women's Central Fund for England and Wales. The local work of the Guild "branch" generally is helped by its own cooperative society, but depends mainly on the yearly shilling which is all that can be expected of a married working woman, for no other human creature above compulsory school age has less pocket money. Though a society of women only, the Guild has become so closely identified with the forward policy of the co-operative movement, with all that is soundest and most courageous in the application of the co-operative idea to new and old uses, that nobody would now question its right to official recognition. Its work for co-operation comes very close to the sorest places of poverty. It initiated last year, and has been carrying out conjointly with the Co-operative Union, a scheme to enable co-operative societies to avoid giving credit. In theory ready money is the rule, but in practice most societies allow their members a dangerous latitude, and after years of resolution-passing, it has fallen to the women to begin in earnest the establishment of practical ready-money systems closely fitted to varying local needs and customs. Out of this work the desire for the Parliamentary vote has arisen naturally. Co-operation has never been merely a plan for making a little extra money for co-operators, and if it is not- now as idealist as in the hungry years, it has got to the more modest and elderly stage of knowing its own limitations and holding out hands to trades unionism and politics.

Women co-operators have naturally turned their thoughts to the Factory Acts, and amendments have repeatedly been urged in all the ways open to the voteless. The Public Health Acts, the land question, and housing are studied, and persevering attempts are made to support reform. It would amaze the educated people who are bored with almost everything to see with what eagerness hardworked housewives of Lancashire, the West Riding, and scores of towns, great and small, will fasten on these economic and social questions, so dull and meaningless to women whose easy lives they do not touch. The "branches" take part in local elections, and co-operative women have done excellent work as guardians. In opposing Protection they have been fully as active as their husbands. They showed the effect of the sugar tax in a series of domestic budgets, and at their meeting of three thousand women in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, a resolution was passed strongly condemning Protection and regretting that without votes they could not make their protest effective.

Co-operative women did not first concern themselves about the suffrage. Their minds are not encouraged to reach out towards the vague, and abstract ideas are foreign to them. How could it be otherwise? Lady Bell says of the iron-workers' wives (who are Yorkshire women, too), that the majority have not the health and the capacity to bear successfully the immense burden laid on married working women by the conditions of their lives. Co-operative women belong to the number of wives who in thrift at least have not failed. They have worked and said nothing. Highly educated people sum up their class as having "no vocabulary." They have their own strong prepossessions, grown out of fundamental experience, and any new idea must suit itself with these, or be rejected. When such women desire the vote, it is not for nothing. The first sign of interest was in 1893, when Guild members obtained 2,200 signatures to a suffrage petition. In 1897 papers on "Why working women need the Vote" were written by four Guild members, and discussed at conferences throughout the country. One of these was written by a labourer's wife, a well-known official of the Guild, who, as she relates in the paper, "never attended a public school except for three or four months as a child," and has had to work to earn her living "ever since she was able."

In the same year the Annual Congress passed a resolution regretting that facilities were not given for the further progress of the Women's Enfranchisement Bill, which passed its second reading. Nothing further was done for some years. There was still much prejudice against the official adoption, or even the consideration, of a subject which was thought to be outside the objects of the Guild, and as late as 1902 the Central Committee decided not to bring it forward at the Annual Congress. But a rapid change of opinion took place. Much interest was aroused by the petition of the women textile workers of Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire; several Branches, and many members working unofficially, helped to collect signatures. The Education Act, which deprived women of their right of election to education authorities, the imposition of the corn and sugar taxes, the Fiscal controversy, all helped to make women feel the effect of legislation on everyday life.

Since 1904 the agitation has been continuous. A special fund of £100 was scraped together. Many hundreds of meetings have been held, and when the Women's Enfranchisement Bill was discussed and "talked out," in 1905, 185 Guild members attended at the House of Commons, and joined in the protest made by the women.

In the same year the Guild took a useful new step in inviting Guild organisations with women members to join in asking votes for women. This was first done at a crowded demonstration at the Annual Congress at Sheffield, where the speakers represented the National British Women's Temperance Association, the Women Textile Workers' Labour Representation Committee, the Independent Labour Party, the Women's Liberal Federation, and the English and Scottish Women's Co-operative Guilds. As soon as the General Election was announced, a united statement was issued and eventually signed by 36 societies, including 14 trade unions, among which were the Northern Counties' Weavers' Amalgamation, the Yorkshire General Union of Weavers and Textile Workers, the Irish Textile Operatives' Association, the Leicester Hosiery Union, the Bleachers', Dyers' and Finishers' Association.

After this, when the Prime Minister consented to receive a deputation, twenty-four organisations agreed to take part. One of the speakers was the President of the Guild, who pointed out that—"As married working-women we depend, more than any other class, perhaps, on good laws. Our everyday home life is touched by law at every point. Our houses are both our workshops and our homes, so that Housing and Public Health questions are specially important to us. Our incomes are affected by taxation and by laws relating to Trade Unions, Accidents, Old Age Pensions, and all industrial laws that go to secure the health of the workers. We, as a body of working women, appeal to you to do your best to give us this common right—the right of the Citizen." Many Guild members were in the procession to Downing Street.

The resolution passed at the Annual Congress of the Guild in 1904 asked for the franchise on the same terms as men, taking the same position as the old suffragists. But further discussion showed that this demand did not suit the case of Guild members, and in a statement issued in the spring of 1905 the position of the Guild was defined as follows:—"The membership of the Guild being composed mainly of married working-women, the Guild could only be satisfied with a measure which would enfranchise this class of women. But while womanhood (and therefore adult) suffrage is the goal, the Guild leaves itself free to support any measure which would be a step in the direction of this goal."

Later resolutions demanded votes for women without defining the method of enfranchisement, and the united statement and the deputation to the Prime Minister both took this line. This spring the Committees of 246 Branches, with over 14,000 members, or seven-twelfths of the membership, have signed a declaration, circulated in some haste, that "We, the undersigned, desire the right to vote in Parliamentary Elections, and are in favour of the broadest measure possible which will give the vote to married and single working-women."

As it was believed that a Women's Enfranchisement Bill on the old lines would probably be introduced at the earliest opportunity, the General Secretary of the Guild wrote to the newspapers to propose a compromise which would enfranchise Guild members and might be accepted by the supporters both of limited and of adult suffrage. The suggestion was to give the vote to married women whose husbands had the occupier or lodger vote, as well as to women possessing the existing men's qualifications.[1]

When Mr. Dickinson decided to bring in a Women's Enfranchisement Bill, it was announced that he desired to include occupiers' wives, and the Guild issued a memorandum to Members of Parliament explaining and supporting the proposal. It was pointed out that under the Women's Enfranchisement Bill of last session, single women and widows would be qualified to vote as householders and lodgers, while married women, if enfranchised, would, in practice, only obtain votes as owners or joint occupiers (under the £10 franchise), qualifications requiring some degree of wealth, and out of the reach of the great majority of married working women. The Bill would only establish sex equality in the narrowest legal sense. The position of the married working women in the home, where her work was the rearing of children and not the earning of rent, &c, was due to her sex, and if she were forbidden to vote unless she paid the rent, the result would be her exclusion in consequence of sex. A small property qualification inflicted no appreciable hardship on a man. Owing to the economic dependence of married women, it was entirely inapplicable to the majority of women on marriage.

The proposal was very favourably received in some quarters, but those who have supported it on behalf of the Guild much regret that many suffragists regard it as an act of opposition to their movement that the married working woman's claim should be formulated. There would have been no need to put it forward if the less wealthy married women were not excluded from present hope by the formula "on the same terms as men." If the vigorous life of the new movement had at first been poured from all quarters into the wide channel of adult suffrage, there would have been no need for troublesome grubbing to make way for wandering streams. No genuine suffragist wishes to create difficulties, and the Guild deferred to the prejudice against asking for adult suffrage so far as to state the claim in a form suitable to a limited Bill. But it would be a mistake to treat the objections to limited Bills as an invention of the enemy, and at the moment of writing Mr. Levy is giving a striking illustration of the way in which women, by not making adult suffrage their own, are providing the party in power with an excellent excuse for resistance. Liberalism could not long resist a strong demand for adult suffrage. The fear of a women's majority, making common cause against men, is no more than a confused expression of the sex prejudice which prevents even the most persuasive little Bill from taking its short cut home.

Married women are a generation behind the single in this cause, and yet they need the vote at least as much. The physical deterioration scare and the high infant death rate have set going a demand for impossible and one-sided legislation concerning motherhood. In this and everything wives should assert their right to think for themselves. Parents give little thought to their daughters' careers; girls are less well educated than their brothers; they are paid less; they are shut out from trades and professions. But after youth single women have much personal independence. Married women are often, but by no means always, free from the necessity of self-support, and rich married women, for their misfortune, need do no work. But their minds and lives are not free. They are not expected to act or think independently of their husbands. Every one knows the obituary notice of a good political wife. "She entered sympathetically into every phase of her husband's work, and shared all his political aspirations. Her ready tact and brilliant social gifts were of immense service to his career." What more could be expected? But we do not describe a good husband's career in the same way.

In the working class the endless daily labour of a married woman is unrelieved even by the power of escaping into her husband's mental world. To spare an evening for a meeting often means getting up at four in the morning to wash or bake, and the idea only slowly gains ground that she has a right to dispose of any of her time or thoughts outside home. Even a co-operator has said, "My wife? What does she want with meetings? Let her stay at home and wash my moleskin trousers!" The vote will not give married women independence of mind, nor time to themselves, nor the power of self-development. But it will be something of an acknowledgment that they have a right to try for these things.

And as for fitness, it is undeniable that among such working women as the co-operators a consciousness of their own right to political freedom has spread very fast of late years, and that a large number—all those who "count" as leaders of the rest—are already able and eager to use the vote for carrying out their own ideas of social justice.

  1. The proposal was drafted as an amendment to Mr. Keir Hardie's Women's Enfranchisement Bill in the following form:—"Provided that if husband and wife are living together in the same house or lodgings, and either is qualified to vote therefor, the other also shall be deemed to be qualified to vote therefor irrespective of the annual value of such house or lodgings." By this wording the creation of non-residential plural votes would be avoided.