The Case for Women's Suffrage/Talked Out!
WHEN, some weeks ago, the Women's Social and Political Union fixed a demonstration for the date of the second reading of the Women's Enfranchisement Bill, I could not help feeling that the unhappy speakers would be in the position of the coster in Mr. Sims's admirable melodrama of "The Lights of London." Some of you may remember the street-vendor in that play who sells ice-cream or hot potatoes according to the state of the weather, but who, in the deplorable uncertainty of the English climate, has frequently to go out equipped with both, so that he has constructed a barrow fitted up with a freezer at one end, and a burning stove at the other. We had to arrange our oratorical wares in complete ignorance of the political atmosphere, whether we should have to congratulate ourselves upon the second reading, or condole with you over the freezing of our hopes.
But I cannot agree with some of the speakers that these hopes have really been frozen; on the contrary, I think we have gained a great victory. Look at that poster of the Pall Mall Gazette suspended from our platform, and wholly devoted to the announcement that our Bill has been talked out. Look at all the papers, full of the same subject. It was only the other day that the Times declared that by your noisy methods you had proved your unfitness for public life. I pride myself on having been the first man to maintain that, on the contrary, only now had you proved you understood how to make British politics. And very wonderfully and rapidly you have made them. A Women's Suffrage debate is far from novel in Parliament: it has often enough held its languid course, feebly rippled by the witticisms of Mr. Labouchere. But when has a Women's Suffrage debate proceeded in a Parliament guarded by policemen? Why, we read that when the police saw half a dozen girls come out of an A.B.C. shop, they began to think of sending for reinforcements! When has a Women's Suffrage debate had the ear of Europe—nay, of the world? The Bill has been talked out. And Woman is called the talking sex. The Bill has been talked out! Very well, we are here to talk it in again. They may talk it out, but your processions can walk it in. They may arrest you, but they cannot arrest your movement.
You should be feeling victorious, I say, not defeated. Patience! Your movement dates precisely from the day on which the Times said you had proved your unfitness for politics. The B.P. period—the Before Prison period—doesn't count. And the A. P. period—the After Prison period—is yet young. John Bull must have time for digestion. But I cannot agree with the Westminster "Wobbler" as to the form this digestion must take—that Women's Suffrage must be first made a clear and definite issue at a General Election. How can it be? Both parties are for it. How can either obtain a clear, definite and exclusive mandate from the country? Balfour and Campbell-Bannerman both declare that the measure is right and just. Woman between the Conservatives and the Liberals is like the donkey who starves between two bundles of straw.
But she must cease being a donkey. She must learn to unite. She is divided against herself. (Cries of "No.") Yes; look at Mrs. Humphry Ward's letter in to-day's Times. Sad as I was to see that letter, I yet was pleased to think some new arguments would be forthcoming from such an intellectual source; for the case against Women's Suffrage is so feeble that we speakers in its favour have to make our bricks without straw. The opposition is indeed in a pitiable position. Women already may vote for poor-law guardians, for municipal committees, for members of the school-board, for the county council—and all this the opposition has suffered more or less patiently—but some mysterious magic attaches to the M.P. This fearful and wonderful being is too holy for the touch of woman. But Mrs. Ward has found an argument, which the Times applauds as that of a female Daniel come to judgment, to which the Pall Mall devotes an ecstatic leader, to which even the Westminster draws reverential attention. It is that if women had votes they would have Power without Responsibility for action. I may be deficient in intelligence, but I am absolutely unable to understand what this wonderful argument means. I have had a vote all these years, and never have I felt this mysterious responsibility, or been called on to take the faintest action. It would seem that Mrs. Humphry Ward can only refer to War. But she explicitly denies that. She says that War is only one of the many fields of action into which women cannot enter, and on which the existence of the State depends, and that we all know what they are. As I neither know what they are nor understand what they have to do with the question, I looked into the Times leader for enlightenment. But it only repeats, parrot-like, that there are many kinds of action. I consulted the Pall Mall oracle—there are many kinds of action, it echoes oracularly.
Mrs. Ward reminds me of the little girl who cried out: "Oh, mother, there are a million cats in the garden." "Oh, my child," said the mother, "you mustn't exaggerate." "Well, there are six cats." "No, no; where do you see six cats?" "Well, there is a cat." There is only one cat—War. But if there is a war, women have to pay the war-taxes. And if they do not go to war themselves, they have to see their sons go—which is worse. The joke about Mrs. Ward's great discovery is that the soldiers and sailors who do fight have no vote! And if women are to be debarred from Imperial affairs, as Mrs. Ward claims, how about the Primrose League, which is nothing if not Imperial? Does the distinguished authoress realise that the vote denied to her may be exercised by a convicted felon after he has served his sentence? Is she satisfied to be classed legally with infants, paupers, lunatics, idiots and peers? This catchword of "Power without Responsibility" is Mrs. Humphry Ward's best contribution to fiction.
But if women as a whole are divided against themselves still sadder is it that there should be divisions even among the Women Suffragists. We need, above all, unity of temper and of programme. When I last had the privilege of speaking upon this platform, some of our oldest workers took umbrage at a portion of my remarks. What was my offence? Merely that in the innocence of my heart, in my ignorance that these ladies were not first and before anything else devoted to the cause of Women's Suffrage, I had said that Women's Suffrage must be run as an end in itself, quite regardless of Party lines. And it appeared that they were Liberals. They put Liberalism first and Woman only second. As if any cause could be safely left to the whim and mercy of a single Party! I am only an amateur politician, but I was very pleased to find Mr. Keir Hardie afterwards telling them the very same thing. If any Liberal is shocked at the idea of damaging a Liberal Government, she must remember that ministries are here to-day and gone to-morrow, and to-morrow it might be the Conservative Government that came in for our attacks. I am not a woman, I need scarcely observe, but I am prepared to sacrifice my own politics to woman and womanhood, because the question seems to me far bigger than any other at present on the horizon of either party. Still more, then, should a woman say to herself, "The first political question for me is that I should be recognised as a political unit. If I am not worthy to be a voter, then at least I will not be made use of as a tool." Mr. Birrell has never come out boldly for Women's Suffrage, yet the other day he utilised a meeting presided over by his wife, to send a partisan message. But either woman is fitted to play a part in politics or she is not.
Of course, should either Party definitely affix the recognition of Women's Rights to its programme, I could understand our whole movement pinning itself pro tem, to that Party. But when has Liberalism done this? Never—not even with its present huge majority. The ladies who cling on so desperately to the Liberal Party afford a pathetic picture of unrequited affection. They will never desert Mr. Micawber, who for his part continues to assure them that something will turn up, but who takes no steps whatever to turn it up; indeed, rather, as our American friends say, turns it down. Did "Mr. Micawber," when he wrote the King's Speech, in his accustomed grand style, say a single word about Women's Suffrage? And what about the Liberal Conference at Newcastle? Was not the success of Women's Suffrage there by such a small majority almost worse than a defeat? The fact is that both Parties are glad enough to have women's work—the Tories through the Primrose League, the Liberals through the Women's Liberal Federation. But when it comes to paying them for their work—ah, that is another matter. Their labour has been taken, as woman's labour is always taken, at the cheapest possible rate. Woman has been sweated by both Parties; it is time she tried to drive a better bargain.
It is true that Campbell-Bannerman is ready to vote for the Bill, and we must be thankful for small mercies. But it is not my notion of a leader that he should follow a follower. If Campbell-Bannerman had any true sense of the significance, the historical importance, of this measure, he would hasten to immortalise himself by fathering it. A lady said to President Roosevelt the other day, "If you can bring about Women's Suffrage you will be greater than Lincoln. He emancipated the black man, but you can emancipate the white woman." What an opportunity Campbell-Bannerman has missed! I am sure that unless he gets this reform through, the Tories will jump at it. After all, they have a much better chance of passing Liberal measures than the Liberals. They have the support of the House of Lords. That is, perhaps, why all the real Radicals are found on the Tory benches. By whom was the last great Suffrage Act passed the Household Suffrage? Why, by Mr. Disraeli, in 1867.
When that Bill was passing through the House, John Stuart Mill moved as an amendment almost the very measure that the House has considered to-day. That great apostle of our cause demanded that in the grant of Household Suffrage the occupier should have the vote regardless of sex. You can imagine the hullabaloo it evoked, what godsend it was to all the comic papers; you have only to read them to-day to see how well a joke wears! A woman who wanted to vote was supposed to be a sort of lower creature who chewed the quid and divided the skirt. But nevertheless there was a very grave and memorable debate, and with John Stuart Mill were found no less than 73 other righteous men who voted for this amendment. 196 voted against. Where were the other 400? As usual, neglecting their duty.
This epoch-making debate took place in 1867—exactly forty years ago. Forty years of Wandering in the Wilderness; it is high time we entered the Promised Land.
Four years later—in 1871—when the Ballot Act was passed, Mr. Gladstone said in the House of Commons that there could be no harm now in woman's voting. Mr. Gladstone meant that, now that the old rowdiness and publicity attaching to elections had been abolished, the last excuse for refusing to enfranchise woman had been equally swept away. Thirty-six years ago, then, there was not a vestige of a reason left for refusing woman the vote. Yet the logical animal, man, has gone on thirty-six years as a passive resister. Women unborn in 1871 have now got girls of their own, and if the women we see on this platform had not begun to wake things up, their granddaughters and great-granddaughters would probably be doomed to go on passing annual resolutions and awaiting the chivalry of their lords and masters. It is a strange thing that English ladies should have to go to prison to-day to bring home to Englishmen the words of the last four Prime Ministers in succession—Gladstone, Salisbury, Balfour, and Campbell-Bannerman.
But what other way is open to them? "Ah, if you had only been moderate and reasonable, we should have listened to you," lots of men will tell you to-day. Well, I have consulted the pages of history. Writing of a Women's Suffrage campaign carried on nearly twenty years ago, an impartial "The agitation for Woman's Rights was conducted with great sobriety, steadiness and moderation." And you see the result. Twenty fruitless years. Surely it was time to try insobriety, unsteadiness, and immoderation. It is true the Times will then seize upon your behaviour to prove the utter unfitness of woman for political life. If you act moderately no one will ever trouble to give you a vote, and if you act violently you are not fit to have it. "Them as asks shan't have, and them as don't ask don't want."
Even if you go to prison—what does that prove? Mr. Punch told you the other day that if any woman went to historian says: prison, that did not prove that the women of this country wanted the suffrage. Far from it. It only proved at most that this particular woman wanted the suffrage. And, however many ladies went to gaol, it only proved that precisely this number of ladies desired the suffrage. Now this argument, like so many things in Punch, is no joke. It is a serious argument, and, what is more, a sound one. The only way of answering it would be that each prisoner should be elected by a constituency of "Suffragettes," to represent them in gaol. Thus, a House of Ladies would be sitting in Holloway. The only question, however, is—whether Holloway is large enough to hold all the representatives of all our feminine constituencies. The same difficulty, we know, attaches to the House of Commons, which is likewise quite inadequate to the number of its members. But then, the House of Commons relies, as we have seen, upon its members neglecting their duty. You could never rely upon that with the women.
But if, pending the establishment of this representative assembly in Holloway, we admit that every prisoned "Suffragette" represents nobody but herself, then how can any argument against women at large be drawn from her behaviour? How can the Times say that the behaviour of this or that individual Amazon in hurling herself upon our police proves the unfitness of all other women for public life? Either the women in gaol do represent womanhood at large or they do not. If they do, how dare you deny women the vote? If they do not, how dare you say their behaviour proves women are unfit to have it? The cause of Female Suffrage stands quite apart from the merits or demerits of the new tactics. They are merely the town crier's bell, the "Oyez, oyez," to draw your attention. But the actual matter is one of logic and justice, and those men who argue that the cause of woman has been damaged by the noisy demonstrations of our goal-birds are merely finding a new reason for their old antagonism. The wolf in Æsop had always a pretext for eating the lamb. The only reasonable thing to do on this argument would be to refuse the vote to those noisy, unwomanly females who went to gaol, and give it to all the women who didn't* and I am sure there is not one of the prisoners who would not be content on these terms to have secured the vote for her sisters and for all future generations of her suffering sex.
If, however, the womanliness which these females have failed in has been displayed by the ladies of the Women's Anti-Suffrage movement, then the sooner such womanliness is emancipated away the better for all of us. The worst that you can say about our police-pummelers, after all, is that they are too manly. But these "Anti-Suffragettes," alas! are not manly enough. Their action is redolent of all that sneaking mutual hatred of woman by woman which was unhappily engendered by woman's old over-dependence upon man. These women are guilty of treason to their sex. They are trying to set back the current of Evolution. It is ridiculous to suppose that what woman once was she must always remain. Eve might as well have remained a rib. Did Evolution say its last word when woman came out of the harem, when she dropped the Oriental head-veil from her face, and looked eye to eye upon life? Who knows what further heights she has to scale? Why do we always hear of Man and Superman, and never of Woman and Superwoman?
If you want to see the weakness of the "Anti-Suffragettes" you have only to imagine one of them going to prison for her ideal. The thing cannot be imagined; she has no ideal, no living fire flowing in her veins, nothing but a barren negative, nothing but a sluggish satisfaction in old superstitions. That is the saddest feature of a state of slavery: the slaves actually come to prefer their condition. It is well known that when the American slaves were emancipated, many petitioned their masters to be kept on as before—just as these women are petitioning men.
But if some of woman's worst foes are found in her own sex, some of her best friends are found in mine. This is no duel of sex, Heaven be praised. This is only a duel between prejudice and reason. And no sex has the monopoly of either the one or the other. And so I have the pleasure of informing you that some of us have established, this last week—as a counterblast to the Women's Anti-Suffrage Movement—a Men's League for Women's Suffrage. But the sympathy of this body is not meant to be merely platonic. We propose to be an active political force. For, unlike the "Anti-Suffragettes," we shall consist mainly of voters—our guns will be loaded. Our organisation will be divided into several classes—like the Times' Library. In Class A are those voters who put Female Suffrage before every other question; who, whatever their personal politics, will vote against, or at least refrain from voting for, the candidates of any Government that refuses to grant it. To this superior class I belong. And under the present iniquitous system of plural voting I have no less than four votes. In Class B are those who will not vote against their own party, but will support Female Suffrage in all other ways. By this means we hope to circulate our views all over the country, and to defeat the publishers of the Anti-Suffrage petition. The subscription is only one shilling—net. By this organisation our fighting strength will be increased by a new battalion—nay, by a Territorial Army spread all over England.
But I do not believe the organisation will live long. It will be swallowed up in the earthquake of its own success. But, be the fight long, or be the fight short, the issue is not for a moment in doubt. If it is dispiriting to fight a hopeless fight, it is heartening to know that we cannot possibly be defeated, because we are in harmony with all the upward forces of human life. Woman is bound to be emancipated; even woman herself cannot prevent it. She can only delay the great moment. No country is free while a single class is governed without representation. What, then, shall we say of a country in which half the population is legislated for like dumb, driven cattle? We shall not rest till this barbarous handicap of sex is wiped out from the statute books of civilisation.
- Being a verbatim report of the speech at Exeter Hall, March 8, 1907.