The Case for Women's Suffrage/Women and Politics

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WOMEN AND POLITICS


BY J. KEIR HARDIE, M.P.


THE only really remarkable thing about recent developments in the Women's Suffrage agitation is that they should have been so long in coming. For fifty years there has been a Women's Suffrage Party to which John Stuart Mill in his day lent his powerful and whole-hearted support. Whilst the franchise agitation which culminated in the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 was being waged, the Women's Suffrage Movement was fairly vigorous, and for a time there seemed good prospects of its being successful; but with the enfranchisement of the agricultural labourers and the miners in 1884 the whole agitation connected with the franchise subsided, as did also the Women's Movement, which ceased to be a force in politics. The satisfying of the men's demands in 1884 left the women's claims unrecognised, and many of them foolishly deserted their own movement and became mere party politicians. The Primrose League on the one other, absorbed many of the active women politicians and, as a consequence, their claim for enfranchisement disappeared almost entirely from the political arena. The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies struggled as best it could against the prevailing inertia, but its methods were of the sedate and non-exciting order. A circular to candidates at election times, a formal meeting of a dispiriting kind once a year with a few Members of Parliament, a very occasional public meeting, were the beginning and ending of its efforts. Recently, however, a number of women who had received their political training in the Independent Labour Party adopted the militant tactics of that body and applied them to their own particular object. The times were ripe for such a move, and almost immediate success attended their efforts. As a consequence, Woman's Suffrage is again a leading question in practical politics. On this occasion it is not complicated by any demand for an extension of the franchise to men, but is raised as a clear and distinct issue which will have to be dealt with on its own merits. As I have frequently pointed out, the women's movement may eventuate in a demand for Adult Suffrage which would be the logical settlement of the question, but for the moment almost every woman who is active in the sphere of politics limits wisely her demand to the one question of the enfranchisement of her sex on the same terms as men.

In politics it is the strong who receive attention. To be out of sight, is to be out of mind. There are always a few politicians who are moved by a sense of justice or a feeling of pity, and with these the claims of the weak are not overlooked. As a rule, however, such men are practically helpless in the terrific struggle which continually goes on in Parliament to obtain priority for this, that, or the other reform, or to prevent reforms being made.

Hitherto, measures affecting industrial women which have passed Parliament have classed them with children as being too helpless to look after their own interests and therefore requiring special legislation. The Factory Acts are a case in point. No one, in any way, disputes the advantage which these Acts have been to the women workers of the great textile industries, but women have all along resented the idea of being classed with children for this purpose. Recently the Trade Union movement has spread amongst the women workers with a rapidity for which I know of no recent parallel amongst men, and with the growth of trade unionism there is bound to be a growing demand for fresh protective legislation. So far as the industrial woman is concerned it is a fact that in those spheres of women's industry where legislation has had the most influence the wages and conditions generally are the best, and trade unionism the strongest. This goes to show that legislation which limits the working hours, fixes a standard of sanitation, &c, increases the self-reliance of the women affected and does not, as some affirm, sap their independence. This apart, my general contention is that since legislation or the want of it plays such an important part in the lives of the industrial women, those affected are entitled to have a voice in determining what legislation is wise and necessary

The increasing number of women who are entering the industrial as distinguished from the domestic spheres of employment, and the disabilities under which they labour, make it certain that legislation affecting women's employment will become more general. There are at present about 5½ millions of women engaged in outside employment, only about one-third of whom are engaged in domestic service, where the number of these is practically stationary. It is in the other spheres, those spheres where woman enters into competition with man, and where she has need of more self-reliance and self-protection, where the number of women engaged is increasing. It is obvious that if legislation affecting women workers is to be decided by men voters only that there is grave danger of the law being loaded against the non-voter.

Since, then, women are more and more taking part in the world's work, it surely follows that they ought also to enjoy the chief right of citizenship. Otherwise they will suffer from sex legislation quite as much as men have hitherto suffered from class legislation.

And if the industrial woman should have this chief right conferred upon her, so also should the wife and mother. The single woman engaged in outside employment for wages has a measure of economic freedom—she is as economically free as man under the present system—but when she gets married and becomes a housewife she is equally industrious in the work of the country and gets no wages, the result being that she loses what little independence she formerly possessed. If the single woman engaged in outside employment needs the protection of the vote, then for equally cogent reasons her married sister needs the vote. By conferring the vote upon married women their condition would be materially improved although still economically dependent upon their husbands.

It is undeniable that women need the protection given by the vote, but in how many branches of legislation is their advice not only the best to be had but absolutely essential in drafting beneficent measures? Education and all that pertains to child life is one of these. Who can say better than a mother what age a child should have attained before it is compelled to attend school? Who can read the child mind like a mother? And who can say better at what age a child is fit to enter a factory, and when a factory is fit to receive a child? I mention this merely as illustrating one particular sphere in which the woman has a special claim to be heard.

But the woman's claim to enfranchisement rests on no one particular qualification. She is a human being, subject to the laws of the State, and as such has a claim upon the State to be put upon terms of political equality with the male. In those countries where rights of citizenship have been conferred on women, there has been no great and sweeping change either in policy or legislation. Women, like men, only feel responsibility when it comes home to them, and hitherto that of citizenship has not done so. The first effect of the Reform Act of 1832 was the defeat of those Members of Parliament who were working for the rescue of children from the terrible conditions of employment which then obtained in mills and factories. The working classes for a quarter of a century after their enfranchisement used their new-found power to return their masters to Parliament. In like manner it is probable that women would, for a time at least, vote pretty much after the fashion of their men folk. But in the end their influence would begin to assert itself in an ever-increasing degree, and that influence would be, I believe, wholly on the side of good. We witness on every hand the effect of unchallenged male dominance, arrogant armaments, harsh and unfeeling administration of law, industrial conditions which are proving fatal to the race. With the incoming of the mother element into politics this would be gradually changed. Those who confuse women's character with effeminacy are strangely blind to facts. Strength and courage are by no means synonymous terms, and no one who knows anything of woman's qualities will dispute her possession of the very highest powers of courage and endurance. Whilst her influence in politics will be humanising it will also be strengthening, and much of the chicanery and knavery of political life will go down before her direct march upon the actual.