The Case for Women's Suffrage/The Women's Suffrage Movement in the Nineteenth Century

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IN education, social freedom, and opportunity, most satisfactory progress has been made by women during the last century.

But our political standing is still as it was in 1790, when a learned writer explained that people unfit for the county franchise were those who "lie under natural incapacities, and therefore cannot exercise a sound discretion, or (who are) so much under the influence of others that they cannot have a will of their own in the choice of candidates. Of the former description are women, infants, idiots, lunatics; of the latter, persons receiving alms and revenue offices." Men do not now speak of women as being in the same category as "idiots and lunatics," but for political purposes they place them there. Even in the eighteenth century such sentiments were resented by some women, and outraged feelings found vent in 1792 in that classic of the suffrage movement, Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women."

In 1810 another champion arose, Sydney Smith, and published his witty essay on the claims of women to a sound education.

The really practical inception of our movement is due to the philosopher Bentham, founder of modern Radicalism. His most distinguished disciple, James Mill, was invited to write an article on Government in the "Encyclopædia Britannica," in 1824. Its novel and lucid argument caused much comment. In it he contended that the safeguard of the elective franchise is necessary to protect our liberties from encroachment, but he added "all those individuals whose interests are included in those of other individuals may be struck off the electoral roll." "In this light women may be regarded, the interest of almost all of whom is involved in that of their fathers, or in that of their husbands."

Upon the publication of this article William Thompson, another disciple of Bentham, called upon Mill to amend his logical inaccuracy. This he refused to do, whereupon Thompson and Mrs. Wheeler published, in 1825, "The Appeal of Women," showing that Mill by his own argument had proved that at least "some women" should be enfranchised. The attack upon the logician was delivered in scathing terms. The controversy evidently made a deep impression upon James Mill's constant companion, his learned little son, John Stuart Mill, for thirty years later "The Subjection of Women" was published. In it he follows very much the lines laid down by his father's opponents, but does so with calmness and dignity, in pleasant contrast to the fervid rhetoric of the "Appeal."

The unanswerable arguments sown broadcast throughout the pages of "The Subjection of Women" have not yet blossomed into fruitage in Great Britain, but the harvest has been almost completely garnered in our self-governing Australian and New Zealand colonies. Enquiries made in these colonies elicited the interesting admission that early settlers were influenced by the writings of John Stuart Mill when founding their new states, and with their wives, the pioneer comrades of their years of hardship, by their side, the cold arguments of the philosopher were illuminated by living witnesses to the fact that the civilisation of new communities depends upon the presence and co-operation of women.

The Anglo-Saxons of the Southern hemisphere are doing what Tacitus tells us the Saxons did of old, for "in all grave matters they consulted their women."

During the early decades of the nineteenth century, while the Benthamites were engaged in controversy, political events were making, as is the wont of our country, a slow and laboured march.

It was not until 1832 that the Reform Act was carried which extended the right to vote from the freeholders and freeman to the middle-class male householder. This enabling law for men was a disabling law for women. In the previous statutes carried during the reigns of Henry IV., William III., and George III. the electors might have been women. No bar stayed them—in law. But the one word "male," introduced into 19 and 20 of 2 W. IV. c. 45 (1832), threw a legal barrier across the electoral path of women. The late Miss Helen Blackburn, historian of the movement, truly observes, "The seed of the Women's Suffrage agitation lay in that one short word 'male.'" The twentieth-century woman wonders why women made no protest. Let her spend a few weeks in the British Museum Library pondering over some of the myriad volumes catalogued under the word "Women," and she will realise that years of discouragement and denial of educational privileges had as surely deprived her of the sense of civic freedom as the Oriental woman of to-day still lacks the sense of personal freedom.

Yet even in those dark days it is said that a petition from women of Yorkshire was presented to the House of Commons while the Reform Act of 1832 was under consideration, asking for the enfranchisement of their sex.

"The disabling process thus set up soon spread further; the first Parliament elected under the Reform Act showed its representative character by introducing the same restrictive word 'male' into the enfranchising clauses of the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835, by which the various local charters, with their various generic franchises, were reduced to one uniform male franchise." Two years earlier the right of English widows to a share of one-third their husbands' estates was barred, so that they only became entitled thereto if so expressed by will (Aug. 29, 1833). Sex prejudice culminated in 1840 when duly accredited women from the United States were refused as delegates at the Anti-Slavery Convention in London. This was the proverbial "darkest hour." It ushered in the dawn by giving the impetus to the first Convention of Women's Suffrage in the United States.

Meantime, in Great Britain, the spirit of reform was in the air. Great principles of human freedom and justice were at stake. The Anti-Corn Law, as well as the Anti-Slavery agitation claimed women for their own. Richard Cobden, at the great meeting held in Covent Garden in 1845, pointed out the anomaly of women being able to confer votes upon their sons while yet unable to vote themselves. In later years the vote of the Leader of the Anti-Corn Law Bill, Mr. C. P. Villiers, was always recorded in favour of the Suffrage for Women. He had, in the turmoil of fight, tried women and not found them wanting, for the Anti-Corn Law circular of December 30, 1 841, says, "The women of Manchester have set a noble example to their sisters throughout the country. They have already obtained more than 50,000 signatures to the memorial adopted at the Corn Exchange. The ladies of Bolton, Wigan, and Stockport are engaged in canvassing their respective towns."

The earliest leaflet on the Suffrage was issued in 1847 by an aged Quaker lady called Anne Knight, of Quiet House, Chelmsford. She subsequently assisted in founding the "Sheffield Female Political Association," which, at a meeting held February 26, 185 1, adopted the first address on Suffrage formulated by women in England. Their petition was presented to the House of Lords by the Earl of Carlisle that same year.

Meanwhile Mrs. John Stuart Mill, Mrs. H. D. Pochin, and others kept the question alive in pamphlets and articles, and groups of women, including among them Miss Emily Davies, Miss Beale, Miss Buss, and Miss Garrett (now Dr. Garrett Anderson) were founded.

Thus officered, the scratch army grew, and its general, John StuaSrt Mill, boldly throwing down the gauntlet in favour of Women's Suffrage in 1865, entered Parliament. Then began the guerilla warfare which has lasted until now, reinforced year by year with ever larger battalions.

On the one side are the hosts of the mighty entrenched behind the ancient fortifications of sex domination, prejudice, and self-satisfaction; on the other is the gradually growing force of sex equality, democracy, justice, and common-sense. At its best in those early days it was but a timorous little band. Humility and subjection to man had for centuries been inculcated to such a degree upon women that the sex appeared to have lost the power of initiative. It took a second man to rouse them to sufficient energy to collect the hundred signatures which Mr. Mill said would be necessary if he were to present the first petition to the House of Commons. This man was none other than Mr. Disraeli, who on April 28, 1866, had made a powerful statement in favour of women's right to vote. The petition exceeded all expectation, 1,499 signatures were collected in a fortnight, including the names of Frances Power Cobbe, Harriet Martineau, Mary Somerville, Anna Swanwick, Josephine Butler, Priscilla Bright McLaren, Margaret Lucas (President of the British Women's Temperance Association), Florence Davenport Hill, Mrs. P. A. Taylor, and Eliza Wigham.

Miss Blackburn gives the following account, half humorous, half pathetic, of the presentation of the epoch-making appeal to the House of Commons:

"Mrs. Bodichon asked Miss Davies to go instead. She set forth, not a little nervous at such a mission; Miss Garrett offered to accompany her, and they took a cab with the portentous roll to Westminster Hall. There, to their relief, they met Mr. Fawcett, who went at once in search of Mr. Mill. Meantime they felt ill at ease with their big roll in that great Hall, thronged as it was in those days with many going to and fro in the old law courts. They made friends with the applewoman whose stall was near the entrance, and she hid the roll beneath her table. Presently Mr. Mill arrived. 'Where is the petition?' he asked. Then they had to confess it was hidden away beneath the applewoman's stall. But it was quickly produced thence, and Mr. Mill, on seeing it, exclaimed, 'Ah, this I can brandish with effect.'"

Thus worked the sappers and miners of the advance guard in "the brave days of old."

Two years later petitioning began in good earnest, and up to 1879 the signatures presented averaged 200,000 in each year, while in 1896 in that same Westminster Hall an appeal was presented from 257,000 women.

On May 20, 1867, Mr. Mill moved his amendment to the Representation of the People Bill (Clause 4) "to leave out the word 'men' in order to insert the word 'person' instead thereof." Mr. Mill opened by saying that the extension he was about to propose could excite no party feeling or class feeling. He dwelt on its justice, its constitutional character. "Allow me to ask, what is the meaning of political freedom? Is it anything but the control of those who do make politics their business by those who do not? Is it not the very essence of constitutional liberty that men come from their looms and their forges to decide, and decide well, whether they are properly governed, and whom they will be governed by?" He showed that the question was in truth a development of the greater sense of mutual interest and companionship that was arising between men and women, and the evil for the character of each which an unequal level must entail.

Amongst others, Mr. Fawcett supported him. On a division there were Ayes, 73; Noes, 196. Majority against the amendment, 123. Pairs and tellers brought the total votes in favour to 81.

But a further amendment substituting the words "male persons" for men was also rejected, and Mr. Chisholm Anstey ("the champion of the Suffrage cause in law, even as Mr. Mill was in Parliament") now drew further attention to the fact that women had ancient legal rights to the franchise, and the Manchester Committee, backed by the London, Bristol, and Birmingham Societies, which had by now started into existence, resolved to take its stand on the existing law.

Fortune was in their favour, for the name of Mrs. Lily Maxwell, a small shopkeeper in Manchester, was accidentally placed upon the register. When informed of the circumstance she expressed great delight, and on the following day polled for Mr. Jacob Bright. The returning officer had no choice in the matter, and the other voters in the room marked their approval by three hearty cheers.

In Manchester 5,347 and in Salford about 1,500 women sent in their claims as voters. Many women freeholders in the counties did the same. Most of the revising barristers threw the names out. The Manchester women consolidated their claims and appealed against the decision in the case Charlton v. Lings, which was heard in the Court of Common Pleas, November 7 and 10, 1867. Lord Chief Justice Bovill having conceded that in a few instances women had "been parties to the return of members to Parliament," proceeded to argue "that the non-user of the right for so long a period raised a strong presumption against its having legally existed, that the legislature in 1867 used the word 'man' in order to designate expressly the male sex, as distinct from women, and that therefore Lord Brougham's Act did not apply. The other judges concurred, and refused to hear further cases raising different points."

In 1870 Dr. Pankhurst, on behalf of the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage, drafted "The Women's Electoral Disabilities Removal Bill," which was introduced into the House of Commons by Mr. Jacob Bright. Thirty-four years later, on the last day of the session, Mr. Will Crooks introduced a Bill in identical terms:—

"That in all Acts relating to the qualification and registration of voters or persons entitled to or claiming to be registered and to vote in the election of members of Parliament, wherever words occur which import the male gender, the same shall be held to include women for all purposes connected with and having reference to the right to be registered as voters, and to vote in such election, any law or usage to the contrary notwithstanding." The second reading of Mr. Bright's Bill was carried on May 4, 1870, by a majority of 33, in spite of Mr. Secretary Bruce rising on behalf of the Government to ask the House to delay consideration of the matter. A week later the Bill went into Committee, and after the Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone, had made a statement expressing disappointment at the previous vote, and concluding with the words, "I for one strongly entertain—in common with all those now sitting near me—that it would be a very great mistake to carry this Bill into law," the Bill was rejected by 220 to 94.

Dr. Arnold in one of his letters speaks of his love of democracy and his hatred of the aristocratic spirit, whether evinced in an aristocracy of race, skin, wealth, priesthood, or landed interest. He might have added there is no aristocracy so all dominant as that of sex. If proof is needed it is in this attitude of so noble a mind as that of Mr. Gladstone's.

Strange that one whose golden words, "The essence of Liberalism is trust in the people, qualified by prudence; the essence of Toryism is distrust of the people, qualified by fear," should, in the question of women's enfranchisement, have shown himself to be an ultra-Tory.

During the twenty-seven years between 1870 and 1897 twelve divisions were taken on the Women's Suffrage question, with varying adverse fortunes. When the Reform Bill of 1884 was before the "House" six or seven divisions were taken on the point whether a felon should continue his disfranchisement for a year after he had served his sentence. But only one division was taken to decide against the claims of women.

In spite of humiliations and defeats the movement grew. Amongst the many honourable names which figure during the long, weary years of struggle are those of Dean Alford, Lord Amberley, Mrs. Jacob Bright, Miss Lydia Becker, Miss Helen Blackburn, Mr. Leonard Courtney, Mrs. Fawcett, Mr. George Grote, Mr. and Mrs. Haslam (Dublin), the Misses Flora and Louisa Stevenson (Edinburgh), Miss I. Tod (Belfast), the Misses Davenport Hill, Mr. C. H. Hopwood, Q.C., Miss Emily Davies, Mrs. McLaren (Edinburgh), Dr. James Martineau, Professor Masson, Mrs. Oliver Scatcherd, Miss Florence Nightingale, Mr. F. W. H. Myers, Professor Lyon Playfair, the Misses Priestman (Bristol), Mr. and Mrs. J.P. Thomasson, Mrs. F. Pennington, Sir David Wedderburn, Dr. Agnes McLaren, Miss Jane Taylour, the Rev. Charles Kingsley, Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy, Lady Anna Gore Langton, Sir James Stansfeld, Mr. Hugh Mason, and in later years the indefatigable Parliamentary leader, Mr. William Woodall, Lady Carlisle, Lady Frances Balfour, Lady Aberdeen, Miss J. C. Methven (Edinburgh), and Mrs. Creighton. The Women's Suffrage Journal, edited by Miss Becker from 1870 to the day of her death, chronicled the movement with exactness before the days of sensational journalism, and at a time when there was but small and dubious access to the general Press. In 1881 a curious side issue was won largely through the energy of the Manchester Society, when a Bill for Household Suffrage to male persons came up for discussion in the Isle of Man "House of Keys." It was, however, extended merely to "women owners," but there was much rejoicing at this concession to the principle of Women's Suffrage.

Through the awakening of women, and mainly through the energies of those identified with the Suffrage movement, other steps in the line of progress may be chronicled. Amongst them are the extension of all local franchises to some women. It has been done in the inconclusive fashion which characterises all franchise legislation in our islands. Women in Ireland and Scotland, whether married or unmarried, vote on precisely the same terms as men, but throughout England and Wales do not possess the owner, lodger, or service franchises, whilst married women may not vote for borough or county councils, unless they are fortunate enough to live within the County of London, where they are empowered to vote for the county council and the borough councils.

In 1906 a number of Scottish University women brought an action against the University Courts of the Universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh on the ground that their names being on the register of the University they were entitled to have been served with voting papers at the General Election. The case caused a great degree of interest in Scotland, large funds were subscribed, but the judgment of Lord Salveson was adverse to the pursuers. In 1897 Mr. Faithfull Begg's Bill was carried at its second reading by a majority of 71, but owing to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations the motion to go into Committee was adjourned until July 7th.

The Conservatives were in office, the National and other Unions of Conservative Associations had already on several occasions given enthusiastic votes in favour of extending "an ownership and occupation" vote to women, the Women's Liberal Unionist Association, backed by the Women's Liberal Federation and the Women's Co-operative Guild and the British Women's Temperance Associations petitioned in its favour, and yet the Government would not lend any facilities.

This is the more remarkable as Lord Salisbury and Mr. Balfour had both publicly expressed themselves in favour of the principle of the measure in 1891. Had the Party in power (with one brief interval) for twenty years done what we now demand that the Liberal Government shall do, grant special facilities for discussion of the Bill, Mr. Labouchere would not have been successful in barring our path by his eloquent flights on "The Verminous Persons" Bill.

Then followed seven years of even more heartening barrenness. Bills and resolutions were either crowded out, or days for which they had been set down were taken by a relentless Government.

It was not until towards the end of the expiring Conservative Ministry that Sir Charles McLaren on March 16, 1904 to the surprise even of the friends of the movement, carried his Women's Suffrage Resolution by a majority of 114. The debate on Sir John Bamford Slack's Bill did not reach a division. Meantime, in view of the dissolution which came with dramatic suddenness in the autumn of the following year, the Suffragist Committees and the Women's Liberal Federation, cheered by the success of Sir Charles McLaren, redoubled their efforts to influence and educate Parliamentary candidates. The result of the General Election of January, 1906, was to give us upwards of 400 avowed supporters amongst all parties within the House of Commons. It gave us, however, another divided Cabinet, and although the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, has by speeches, the reception of deputations, and the absence of every form of coercion upon his followers proved himself personally our friend, it does not appear to be either in his will or in his power to lead us to victory. The fortunes of the ballot made the leader of the Independent Labour Party, Mr. Keir Hardie, responsible for our resolution in the first session of Parliament. It was talked out, the reason alleged being that a disturbance in the Ladies' Gallery had hardened the hearts of the more lukewarm supporters. When a similar fate befell the Bill on March 8, 1907, after a first place on the orders of the day and a five hours' discussion with no demonstration of any kind in the Gallery, the reason given in the Lobby and by the Press was that the question having got beyond the academic stage and into the region of practical politics, the Speaker felt it to be impossible to allow the closure to be moved on such an important change in the British Constitution.

Mr. Dickenson, who was in charge of the Bill, made a profound impression, upon a very full House, and it was universally admitted that the tone of the debate was higher than on any previous occasion. The scornful flippancy which had marred so many discussions was kept well in abeyance, thanks to the high standard set by the many genuine supporters whom we fully trust and who merit our deep gratitude for their untiring efforts to muster a friendly House.

But the failure to reach a division has come as a bolt from the blue upon veteran and novice alike. Every one had counted upon a division and a huge favourable majority. A defeat would have been preferable to no division. It would have enabled us to gauge our friends, but by this device friend and foe have alike eluded us.

After forty years in the wilderness of agitation, under many successive leaderships, after the question has been nearly a score of times discussed in the House, after two amendments on the question have been moved in Committees on Reform Bills, we are practically told that up to the present session Parliament has merely toyed with the measure.

Such a consideration may well cause "an arrest of thought" and a serious inquiry into the why and wherefore of this humiliation.

It is only fair to be as frank in discussing ourselves as in discussing our opponents.

If this brief outline of the story has revealed one point more than any other it is this—that the inception of the movement was due to the intellectuals rather than to working women.

Necessarily non-party in their basis, the committees formed in different parts of the country acted as centres for propaganda rather than for organisation of large bodies of women. They sowed the seed which others garnered. The British woman, like the British man, is keenly partisan in politics. Paradoxical although it may appear, it is undoubtedly a fact that the depth of interest in the Party amongst which she has been reared, loyalty to its principles and its leaders, her very eagerness for the solution of problems to which her forbears have given the best years of their lives, while doing much to qualify her for using the vote, have acted as a drag upon her march towards the goal of its attainment

She has been a Primrose dame, a Unionist, or a Liberal woman first and a Suffragist second. The rank and file of Conservative women still come under this category, as well as a small seceding body of Liberal women. But the members of the Women's Liberal Federation, which has ramified into nearly every constituency in the United Kingdom, have evolved and made suffrage a plank in their Liberal programme. A perusal of the pamphlet by Mrs. Eva McLaren entitled "The History of the Women's Suffrage Movement in the Women's Liberal Federation," furnishes an illustration of one of our most strongly-marked national characteristics, our inability to comprehend an argument until it receives practical application in our daily life.

The Federation was organised in 1887, twenty years after the first Suffrage society was founded. Thus for nearly a generation women had enjoyed opportunities for reading reports of debates in Parliament, books, pamphlets, and some of them of attending meetings on the subject. But to none save the few had it become a vital issue. Suffrage societies in great centres of population such as London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol, &c, had endured in spite of all reverses, but planted in smaller places they had as a rule withered away.

There was no driving force to create a great national organisation for Women's Suffrage, and not even enough to make it a fundamental in either a Conservative or a Liberal Woman's organisation. Hence in 1887, when the Women's Liberal Federation was formed, the original promoters did not intend to give any prominence to Women's Suffrage, the reason alleged being that it had always been treated as a non-party question. As soon, however, as women outside the inner Party circle were invited to join, it became evident that the legitimate demands of women for political justice could not be ignored. The contention crystallised itself into a dispute as to what should be the "Objects" of the Federation. The Progressives, as the Women's Suffrage Party were called, only numbered five on the Executive Committee, but they obtained the alteration of "Object" II., and it was decided at the first Council meeting that it should be as follows: "To promote just legislation for women and to protect the interests of children." This was not accepted as more than a temporary compromise, and up to 1892 the contest was carried on with increasing strength on the side of the Progressives. In the year 1890 the election of Lady Carlisle to the Executive Committee gave a great accession of strength to the Progressives, and at the Council meeting of 1893 Object II. was altered to the following:—

"To promote just legislation for women (including the local and Parliamentary Franchise for all women, married, single, or widowed, who possess any of the legal qualifications which entitle men to vote), and the removal of all their legal disabilities as citizens."

This was soon found to be too vague a declaration for practical politicians confronted with the dilemma of being called upon to work and canvass for candidates who were not necessarily in favour of the enfranchisement of women. Many men are only too ready to accept, and even invite, services from women whom they treat and intend to treat as "political Uitlanders."

The Federation, therefore, whilst absolutely agreed as to the justice and necessity of Women's Suffrage, contained individual members and associations divided in opinion as to the best method of attaining their end. The "Practical Suffragists" pointed out the inconsistency of working for Liberal candidates who were not in favour of Women's Suffrage, and they brought forward motions in the Annual Council each year to give effect to their policy. The other party of Constitutionalists, or Non-Practical Suffragists, declared that, while they were equally sincere in their desire for the Suffrage, to adopt the proposed plan would be to transform the Liberal into a Suffragist Federation. Finally, Lady Carlisle, in the name of the Cambridge Association, moved and carried a resolution which, while leaving each individual association free to act as it pleases, instructed the Executive "that the official organiser of the Federation be sent to help those candidates only who support Women's Suffrage in the House of Commons."

This policy, which has been acted upon since 1902, has already borne much fruit. It has been the means of educating many candidates prior to the General Election, and in the present Parliament, out of the 420 members who have pledged themselves to support the question, nearly 300 are Liberals. Had the Conservative and Unionist women acted as the Liberals have done, Women's Suffrage would be in a much better position than it is to-day. The Liberal women have also brought their influence to bear upon the Men's National Liberal Federation, and in considerable numbers have attended their Council meetings as delegates from men's associations. The result has been seen in the overwhelming majorities by which resolutions were carried at Crewe and Newcastle in 1905, on the eve of the General Election, in favour of the removal of sex disabilities "in the matters of the Parliamentary Suffrage and of election to local bodies."

We have traced the movement through the more academic stage to the arena of party politicians, but in 1902 the third and most important stage was ushered in by the presentation of petitions, with more than 37,000 signatures, from women textile workers in Yorkshire and Cheshire. It is now realised that it is upon the self- and often family-supporting women workers that the fate of the movement depends. The energy and enthusiasm of the toilers is growing keener every year.

Utterances, inspired or otherwise, one hears ever and again from high quarters foreshadowing another great Reform Bill on the lines of "Manhood" Suffrage. With working women standing in solid phalanx, the word "adult" must eventually be substituted for "manhood" in any new measure for further enfranchisement

But before that ultimate goal is reached women must attain the same measure of enfranchisement as men now enjoy. Poor and rich, employer and employed, leisured and working classes, stand together in the category of political outcasts. They realise what some wise men fail to comprehend, that to enfranchise even a fraction as a first instalment is to burst the sex barrier which has so long held us in thrall; while to postpone our question until "Manhood" Suffrage has been solved would be to erect a well-nigh unscaleable wall of sex ascendancy.