Women's suffrage: a short history of a great movement/Chapter 1
We suffragists have no cause to be ashamed of the founders of our movement—
"In everything we're sprung
Of earth's first blood, have titles manifold."
Mary Wollstonecraft started the demand of women for political liberty in England, Condorcet in France, and the heroic group of anti-slavery agitators in the United States. It is true that Horace Walpole called Mary Wollstonecraft "a hyena in petticoats." But this proves nothing except his profound ignorance of her character and aims. Have we not in our own time heard the ladies who first joined the Primrose League described by an excited politician as "filthy witches"? The epithet of course was as totally removed from any relation to the facts as that which Horace Walpole applied to Mary Wollstonecraft. William Godwin's touching memoir of his wife, Mr. Kegan Paul's William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries, and Mrs. Pennell's Biography show Mary Wollstonecraft as a woman of exceptionally pure and exalted character. Her sharp wits had been sharpened by every sort of personal misfortune; they enabled her to pierce through all shams and pretences, but they never caused her to lower her high sense of duty; they never embittered her or caused her to waver in her allegiance to the pieties of domestic life. Her husband wrote of her soon after her death, "She was a worshipper of domestic life." If there is anything in appearance, her face in the picture in the National Portrait Gallery speaks for her. Southey wrote of her, that of all the lions of the day whom he had seen "her face was the best, infinitely the best."
The torch which was lighted by Mary Wollstonecraft was never afterwards extinguished; there are glimpses of its light in the poems of her son-in-law Shelley. The frequent references to the principle of equality between men and women in the "Revolt of Islam" will occur to every reader.
In 1810 Sydney Smith, in the Edinburgh Review, wrote one of the most brilliant and witty articles which even he ever penned in defence of an extension of the means of a sound education to women.
In 1813 Mrs. Elizabeth Fry began to visit prisoners in Newgate, and shocked those who, citing the parrot cry "woman's place is home," thought a good woman had no duties outside its walls. She had children of her own, but this did not shut her heart to the wretched waifs for whom she founded a school in prison. A little after this England began to be stirred by the agitation which resulted in the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832. It is one of life's little ironies that James Mill, the founder of the Philosophical Radicals, and the father of John Stuart Mill, who laid the foundation of the modern suffrage movement, was among those who, in the early nineteenth century, justified the exclusion of women from all political rights. In an Essay on "Government" published in 1823 as an appendix to the fifth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, he dismissed in a sentence all claim of women to share in the benefits and protection of representative government, stating that their interests were sufficiently protected by the enfranchisement of their husbands and fathers. It is true that this did not pass unchallenged; a book in reply was published (1825) by William Thomson. This book had a preface by Mrs. Wheeler, at whose instigation it was written.
The Reform Movement was agitating the whole country at this period, and political excitement led to political riots, burning of buildings, and general orgies of massacre and destruction. The Government of the day had their share in the blunders and stupidities which led to these crimes, and in none were these qualities more conspicuous than in the riot at Manchester, which came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre in August 1819, in which six people were killed and about thirty seriously injured.
What connects it with the subject of these pages has already been hinted at. Women as well as men had been ridden down by the cavalry; they were present at the meeting not merely as spectators, but as taking an active part in the Reform Movement. A picture of the Peterloo Massacre, now in the Manchester Reform Club, is dedicated to "Henry Hunt, Esq., the chairman of the meeting and to the Female Reformers of Manchester and the adjacent towns who were exposed to and suffered from the wanton and furious attack made on them by that brutal armed force, the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry." The picture represents women in every part of the fray, and certainly taking their share in its horrors. In the many descriptions of the event, no word of reprobation has come to my notice of the women who were taking part in the meeting; they were neither "hyenas" nor "witches," but patriotic women helping their husbands and brothers to obtain political liberty; in a word, they were working for men and not for themselves, and this made an immense difference in the judgment meted out to them. However, it is quite clear that even as long ago as 1819 the notion that women have nothing to do with politics was in practice rejected by the political common-sense of Englishmen. No one doubted that women were, and ought to be, deeply interested in what concerned the political well-being of their country.
Some political antiquarians in this country have expressed their conviction that in early times when the institution of feudalism was the strongest political force in England, women exercised electoral rights in those cases where they were entitled as landowners or as freewomen of certain towns to do so. This view has been combated by other authorities, and has not been accepted in the law courts, where special emphasis has been laid on the fact that no authentic case of a woman having actually cast a vote, as of right, in a Parliamentary election can be produced. The claim that in ancient times women did exercise the franchise, whether capable of being established or not, certainly does not deserve to be dismissed as in itself absurd and incredible. I believe it has been called by some anti-suffragists "an impudent imposture," in the most approved style of the "what-I-know-not-is-not-knowledge" pedant. Whatever it may be, it is not this. In a book published in 1911, there is a passage which goes far to prove that even as late as 1807 the right of women possessing the necessary legal qualification to vote in Parliamentary elections was recognised as being in existence. One of the Spencer Stanhopes was a candidate during the general election of 1807, and Mrs. Spencer Stanhope writes to her son, John, that her husband's party was so certain of success that they had announced that their women folk need not vote. "Your father was at Wakefield canvassing yesterday. . . . They determined not to admit the ladies to vote, which is extraordinary and very hard, considering how few privileges we poor females have. Should it come to a very close struggle, I daresay they will then call upon the ladies, and in that case every self-respecting woman should most certainly refuse her assistance."
The contention is that the Reform Act of 1832, by substituting the words "male person" in lieu of the word "man" in the earlier Acts, first placed upon the women of this country the burden of a statutory disability. This process, it is argued, was repeated in the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835, and is the reason why the admission of women to the municipal franchise in 1870 is spoken of in many of our suffrage publications as the "Restoration" of the municipal suffrage to women. The point appears more of antiquarian than of practical interest. If substantiated, it only illustrates anew the fact that under feudalism, and as long as feudalism survived, property rather than human beings had a special claim to representation, but it assumed a larger degree of importance from what followed in 1850 and 1868.
In 1850 Lord Brougham's Act was passed, which enacted that in all Acts of Parliament "words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed to include females unless the contrary is expressly provided." In the Reform Bill of 1867 the words "male person" were abandoned, and the word "man" was substituted, and many lawyers and others believed that under Lord Brougham's Act of 1850 women were thereby enfranchised. Under this belief, the reasons for which were set forth by Mr. Chisholm Anstey, barrister and ex-M.P., in two legal pamphlets published, one just before and one just after the passing of the Reform Bill of 1867, a large number of women rate-payers claimed before the revising barristers in 1868 to be placed upon the Parliamentary register. Under the able leadership of Miss Lydia Becker 5346 women householders of Manchester made this claim, 1341 in Salford, 857 in Broughton and Pendleton, 1 lady in S.E. Lancashire, a county constituency, 239 in Edinburgh, and a few in other parts of Scotland. The revising barristers in most of these cases declined to place the women's names on the register; and in order to get a legal decision, four cases were selected and argued before the Court of Common Pleas on November 7, 1868. The judges were the Lord Chief Justice Bovill, with the Justices Willes, Keating, and Byles. Sir John (afterwards Lord) Coleridge, and Dr. Pankhurst were counsel for the appellants. The case (technically known as Chorlton v. Lings) was given against the women, on the express ground that although the word "man" in an Act of Parliament must be held to include women, "this did not apply to the privileges granted by the State." This judgment, therefore, established as law that "the same words in the same Act of Parliament shall for the purpose of voting apply to men only, but for the purpose of taxation shall include women."
Some women's names had been accepted by revising barristers, and were already upon the register. A question was raised whether they could remain there. The barrister in charge of this case, Mr. A. Russell, Q.C., argued that when once the names were upon the register, if they had not been objected to they must remain; one of the judges thereupon remarked that if this were so there would be no power to remove the name of a dog or a horse from the register if once it had been inscribed upon it. This was eloquent of the political status of women, identifying it by implication with that of the domestic animals. The Times, in anticipation of the Chorlton v. Lings case coming on for hearing, had an article on November 3, 1868, in which it said: "If one supposes it ever was the intention of the legislature to give women a vote, and if they do get it, it will be by a sort of accident, in itself objectionable, though, in its practical consequences, perhaps harmless enough. On the other hand, if they are refused, the nation will, no doubt, be formally and in the light of day committing itself, through its judicial tribunal, to the dangerous doctrine that representation need not go along with taxation." With the decision in Chorlton v. Lings, the last chance of women getting the suffrage by "a sort of accident" vanishes, and very few of us can now regret it, for the long struggle to obtain suffrage has been a great education for women, not only politically, but also in courage, perseverance, endurance, and comradeship with each other.
If the nineteenth century was a time of education for women, it was no less a time of education for men. We have not yet arrived at an equal moral standard for men and women, but we have travelled a long way on the road leading to it. A George I. openly surrounding himself with mistresses, and shutting up his wife for life in a fortress for levity of behaviour; a George IV. who measured with similar inequality his own and his wife's connubial transgressions, would not be tolerated in the England of the twentieth century. The awakening of women to a sense of their wrongs before the law was a leading feature of the women's movement in the early nineteenth century. The Hon. Mrs. Norton, the beautiful and gifted daughter of Tom Sheridan, a reigning toast, a society beauty, and with literary accomplishments sufficient to secure her an independent income from her pen, was subjected to every sort of humiliation and anguish as a wife and mother which the mean and cruel nature of her husband could devise. Mr. Norton brought an action against Lord Melbourne for the seduction of his wife, and the jury decided without leaving the box that Lord Melbourne was wholly innocent. This did not prevent the petty malice of her husband from depriving Mrs. Norton entirely of her three infant children, one of whom died from an accident which ought never to have happened if the child had been duly cared for. To read her life is comparable to being present at a vivisection. Mrs. Norton had one weapon. She could make herself heard; she wrote a pamphlet in 1836 called "The Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Right of the Father." One result which followed from Mrs. Norton's sufferings, coupled with her power of giving public expression to them, was the passing of Serjeant Talfourd's Act in 1839, called the Infants' Custody Act, giving a mother the right of access to her children until they are seven years old. This is the first inroad on the monopoly on the part of the father of absolute control over his children created by the English law. The division of legal rights over their children between fathers and mothers has been described by a lawyer as extremely simple—the fathers have all and the mothers none. Serjeant Talfourd's Act did not do much to redress this gross injustice; but it did something, and marks the beginning of a new epoch.
Little by little things began to change. Mrs. Somerville and Miss Caroline Herschell were elected members of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. Mrs. Browning wrote "Aurora Leigh," and thereby touched the whole woman's question with an artist's hand. Thackeray, in Esmond, pointed the finger of scorn at the "politicians and coffee-house wiseacres," who are full of oratorical indignation against the tyrannies of the Emperor or the French King, and wonders how they, who are tyrants too in their way, govern their own little dominions at home, where each man reigns absolute. "When the annals of each little reign are shown to the Supreme Master, under whom we hold sovereignty, histories will be laid bare of household tyrants as cruel as Amurath, and as savage as Nero, and as reckless and dissolute as Charles." This was a new note in literature. Mrs. Jameson and the Brontë sisters contributed much in the same key. Anne Knight, a Quaker lady of Quiet House, Chelmsford, issued about 1847 a small leaflet boldly claiming a share for women in political freedom. There can be little doubt that the presence of a pure and virtuous young woman upon the throne had its influence in leading people to question seriously whether there was any real advantage to the nation at large in shutting out from direct political power all women who were not queens. In 1848 Mr. Disraeli, in the House of Commons, had said, "In a country governed by a woman—where you allow women to form part of the other estate of the realm—peeresses in their own right, for example—where you allow women not only to hold land but to be ladies of the manor and hold legal courts—where a woman by law may be a churchwarden and overseer of the poor—I do not see, where she has so much to do with the State and Church, on what reasons, if you come to right, she has not a right to vote."
Other influences were operating to open political activity to women. Their help and co-operation were warmly welcomed by the Anti-Corn Law League. Cobden, at one of the great meetings of the League held in Covent Garden Theatre in 1845, said that he wished women could vote. A few years later than this the Sheffield Female Political Association passed a resolution in favour of women's suffrage, and presented a petition in this sense to the House of Lords. The refusal to allow women who had been duly appointed as delegates in the United States to take their places in the Anti-Slavery Congress held in London in 1840 roused a great deal of controversy, especially as William Lloyd Garrison, the leader of the Anti-Slavery Movement in America, declared that if the ladies were excluded he would share their exclusion with them; he did this, and sat with them in a side gallery, taking no part in the discussion. The opponents of the women took refuge, as they have so often done before and since, in an affirmation that they were the special repositories of the Divine Will on the subject, and declared that it was contrary to the ordinances of the Almighty that women should take part in the Congress. The treatment they had received in London naturally caused great indignation on the part of the American ladies, among whom were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. When they returned to their own country they immediately began to work for the political enfranchisement of women, and the first Women's Rights Convention was held in the United States at Seneca Falls in 1848. This was the beginning of definite work for women's suffrage in the United States.
In England in the 'fifties came the Crimean War, with the deep stirring of national feeling which accompanied it, and the passion of gratitude and admiration which was poured forth on Miss Florence Nightingale for her work on behalf of our wounded soldiers. It was universally felt that there was work for women, even in war—the work of cleansing, setting in order, breaking down red tape, and soothing the vast sum of human suffering which every war is bound to cause. Miss Nightingale's work in war was work that never had been done until women came forward to do it, and her message to her countrywomen was educate yourselves, prepare, make ready; never imagine that your task can be done by instinct, without training and preparation. Painstaking study, she insisted, was just as necessary as a preparation for women's work as for men's work; and she bestowed the whole of the monetary gift offered her by the gratitude of the nation to form training-schools for nurses at St. Thomas's and King's College Hospitals.
When a fire is once kindled many things will serve as fuel which to a superficial glance would seem to have no connection with it. The sufferings and torture of women during the Indian Mutiny heroically borne helped people to see that Empire is built on the lives of women as well as on the lives of men."
"On the bones of the English
The English flag is stayed,"
means that women as well as men have laid down their lives for their country.
In 1857 the movement among women for political recognition was stimulated in quite a different way. In that year the Divorce Act was passed, and, as is well known, set up by law a different moral standard for men and women. Under this Act, which is still in force (1911), a man can obtain the dissolution of his marriage if he can prove one act of infidelity on the part of his wife; but a woman cannot get her marriage dissolved unless she can prove that her husband has been guilty both of infidelity and cruelty. Mr. Gladstone vehemently opposed this Bill. It is said that "in a ten hours' debate on a single clause he made no less than twenty-nine speeches, some of them of considerable length." All these things prepared the way for the movement which took definite shape in the next decade.
- Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792.
- See Le vote des Femmes, pp. 16-22, par Ferdinand Buisson, Député de la Seine et Président de la Commission du Suffrage Universelle. Condorcet had a predecessor in Mademoiselle Jars de Gournay, the friend of Montaigne. See Miss E. Sichel's Michel de Montaigne, p. 137.
- Helen Blackburn's Record of Women's Suffrage, also Women in English Life, by Miss . Mrs. Wheeler's daughter Rosina, married Mr. HillLytton Bulwer, afterwards the first Lord Lytton. The present Earl of Lytton is thus the great-grandson of the lady who prompted the reply to James Mill's article referred to in the text.
- This view has also been supported in France, see Le vote des Femmes, by Ferdinand Buisson, for evidence of women having in ancient times voted and sat in the Parlements of France. Taine also mentions the Countess of Perigord sitting in the États of her province prior to the Revolution (Les Origines de la France Contemporaire, par H. Taine, vol. i. p. 104).
- Annals of a Yorkshire House, vol. ii. p. 319.
- Report of the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage, 1869.
- The Life of Mrs. Norton, by Miss Jane Gray Perkins (John Murray).
- The date of this speech is given in Miss Blackburn's Record of Woman's Suffrage as 1866, the only mistake I have found in her careful and faithful history.
- See the interesting picture in the staircase of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
- Morley's Life of Gladstone, vol. i. p. 571.