Open main menu

CHAPTER II


WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE QUESTION IN PARLIAMENT—FIRST STAGE

"All who live in a country should take an interest in that country, love that country, and the vote gives that sense of interest, fosters that love."—Rt. Hon. W. E. Gladstone.

The women's suffrage question in 1860 was on the point of entering a new phase—the phase of practical politics. Parliamentary Reform was again before the country; the principles of representation were constantly discussed in newspapers, and in every social circle where intelligent men and women met.

James Mill's article on "Government," referred to in Chapter I., has been described as being "out of sight the most important in the series of events which culminated in the passing of the Reform Act of 1832."[1] The works of his son, John Stuart Mill, had a similar influence on the series of events which led up to the passing of the Reform Act of 1867. But whereas James Mill had specifically excluded women from his argument, John Mill as specifically and with great force and vigour included them.

In his Political Economy, and in his collected essays, and, of course, in his Liberty, it was easy to perceive that he strongly condemned the condition of subordination to which the mass of women had been from time immemorial condemned. But in his Representative Government, published in 1861, he put forward in a few eloquent pages of powerful argument the case for the extension of the suffrage to women, showing that all the arguments by which the principles of representative government were supported were equally applicable to woman.[2]

The volumes of his correspondence, published in 1908, show how constantly his mind dwelt on the grave injustice to women involved by their exclusion from political rights, and also how deeply he was convinced that the whole of society loses by treating them as if they had no responsibility for the right conduct of national affairs. It was an enormous advantage to the whole women's movement, not only in England, but all over the world, that it had for its leader and champion a man in the front rank of political philosophers and thinkers. He formed a school at the universities, and in all centres of intellectual activity, and from that school a large number of the chief leaders and supporters of the women's movement have been derived.

As early as 1851 an essay on the "Enfranchisement of Women" had appeared in the Westminster Review. It had been written by Mrs. J. S. Mill, and took the form of a review of the proceedings of a Convention of Women held in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the previous year to promote the cause of the political enfranchisement of women.

The essay is a complete and masterly statement of the case for the emancipation of women. The terminology is a little out of date, but the state of mind which she exposes is perennial. We can all, for instance, recognise the applicability of the following sentences to the present time:—

"For with what truth or rationality could the suffrage be termed universal while half the human species remain excluded from it? To declare that a voice in the government is the right of all, and demand it only for a part—the part, namely, to which the claimant belongs—is to renounce even the appearance of principle. The Chartist, who denies the suffrage to women, is a Chartist only because he is not a lord; he is one of those levellers who would level only down to themselves."[3]

This essay, with its clear, pointed, and epigrammatic style, produced a great effect on the more cultivated section of public opinion. If Mrs. Mill had lived longer she would probably have inaugurated the practical organisation of a women's enfranchisement movement, but she died in the autumn of 1858. What her death meant to her husband he has left on record in glowing and touching words, and in his loneliness he endeavoured "because she would have wished it, to make the best of what life was left to him," to work on for her purposes with such diminished strength as could be derived from thoughts of her and communion with her memory."[4]

Shortly before the general election of 1865 Mr. Mill was invited by a considerable body of electors of the Borough of Westminster to offer himself as a candidate. In reply he made the plainest possible statement of his political views, including his conviction that women were entitled to representation in Parliament. It was the first time that women's suffrage had ever been brought before English electors, and the fact that after having announced himself as strongly in favour of it Mr. Mill was elected, gave a place to women's suffrage in practical politics.

The situation in Parliament, as regards Parliamentary Reform, at the time of Mr. Mill's election was very like what it is now in respect of women's suffrage. Parliament had been playing with the subject for a great many years. Reform Bills had been introduced, voted for, and abandoned again and again. The real reformers were growing impatient. I, myself, heard John Bright say about this time or a little later that he began to think the best way of carrying a Reform Bill was to tell working men that "a good rifle could be bought for £2." Candidates who stood for election pledged themselves to Parliamentary Reform, but year after year went by and nothing was done. Each party brought forward Reform Bills, but neither party really wished to enfranchise the working classes. Before 1867 the total electorate only numbered a little over one million voters. The Reform Bill of 1867 more than doubled this number. It is not in human nature for members of Parliament really to like a very large increase in the number of their constituents. Besides the extra trouble and expense involved, there was in 1865 another deterrent—terror. Those who held power feared the working classes. Working men were supposed to be the enemies of property, and working men were in an enormous numerical majority over all other classes combined. "You must not have the vote because there are so many of you" was a much more effective argument when used against working men than it is when used against women; because the working classes are fifteen or sixteen times more numerous than all other classes combined, whereas women are only slightly in excess of men.[5] On one excuse or another the Reform Bills constantly brought before Parliament were dropped or burked in one of the thousand ways open to the experienced Parliamentarian for getting rid of measures which he has to appear to support, but to which he is in reality opposed. The time had come, however, after 1865, when it became apparent that the game was up, and that a Reform Bill would have to be passed. It was to this Parliament that Mill was elected, and in which in 1867, as an amendment to the Reform Bill, he raised the question of the enfranchisement of women. His motion was to omit the word "man" and insert the word "person" in the enfranchising clause. Of this he says himself that it was by far the most important public service that he was able to perform as a member of Parliament. Seventy-three members voted with him and 196 against him; with the addition of pairs and tellers the total number supporting women's suffrage was over 80. This amount of support surpassed all expectations. Before the debate and division it was uncertain whether women's suffrage would command more than a few stray votes in the House. Mr. Mill's masterly speech, grave and high-toned, made a deep impression. Perhaps the thing that pleased him most was the fact that John Bright voted with him. He was known to be an opponent of women's suffrage, but he was fairly won over by the force of Mill's speech. Those who watched him sitting in the corner seat of the front row on the left-hand side of the Speaker, just below Mr. Mill, saw his whole expression and demeanour change as the speech proceeded. His defiant, mocking expression changed to one that was serious and thoughtful; no one but Mill ever had the moral and mental strength to wrestle with him again successfully. It was the first and last time he ever gave a vote for women's suffrage.

It is an oft-told tale how in the previous year a little committee of workers had been formed to promote a Parliamentary petition from women in favour of women's suffrage. It met in the house of Miss Garrett, (now Mrs. Garrett Anderson, M.D.), and included Mrs. Bodichon, Miss Emily Davies, Mrs. Peter Taylor, Miss Rosamond Davenport Hill, and other well-known women. They consulted Mr. Mill about the petition, and he promised to present it if they could collect as many as a hundred names. After a fortnight's work they secured 1499, including many of the most distinguished women of the day, such as Mrs. Somerville, Frances Power Cobbe, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Miss Swanwick, Mrs. Josephine Butler, Lady Anna Gore Langton, Mrs. Willian Grey. In June 1866 Miss Garrett and Miss Emily Davies took the petition down to the House, entering by way of Westminster Hall. They were a little embarrassed by the size of the roll in their charge, and deposited it with the old apple-woman, who hid it under her stall. The ladies did not know how to find Mr. Mill, when at that moment Mr. Fawcett passed through Westminster Hall and at once offered to go in search of him. Mr. Mill was much amused on his arrival when he found the petition was hidden away under the apple-woman's stall; but he was greatly delighted by the large number of names which had been obtained, and exclaimed, "Ah, this I can brandish with great effect."[6]

It was in 1867 that the Reform Bill was carried, and Mr. Mill's Women's Suffrage Amendment defeated on May 20th. The testing of the actual legal effect of the passing of the Bill upon the political status of women (already described in Chapter I.) took place in 1868. These events caused a great deal of thought and discussion with regard to women's position in relation to the State and public duties in general; and it is as certain as anything which is insusceptible of absolute proof can be, that to the interest excited by the claim of women to the Parliamentary vote was due the granting to them of the Municipal Franchise in 1869; and also that in 1870, when the first great Education Act was passed, they were not only given the right to vote for members of School Boards, but also the right to be elected upon them. At the first School Board election, which took place in London in November 1870, Miss Elizabeth Garrett, M.D., and Miss Emily Davies were returned as members. Miss Garrett was at the head of the poll in her constituency—Marylebone. She polled more than 47,000 votes, the largest number, it was said at the time, which had ever been bestowed upon any candidate in any election in England. In Manchester Miss Becker was elected a member of the first School Board, and was continuously re-elected for twenty years, until her death in 1890. In Edinburgh Miss Flora Stevenson was elected to the first School Board, and was continuously re-elected for thirty-three years until her death in 1905. From the date of her election she was appointed by her colleagues to act as convener of some of their most important committees, and in 1900 was unanimously elected the chairman of the board; she retained this most honourable and responsible post until the end of her life.

The connection between the election of the ladies just mentioned—and other instances might be added—with the suffrage movement is strongly indicated by the fact that they were, without exception, the leading personal representatives of the suffrage movement in the various places in which they respectively lived. Miss Garrett and Miss Davies, as just described, helped to organise the suffrage petition, which they handed to Mr. Mill in 1866; Miss Becker was the head and front of the suffrage movement in Manchester, and Miss Flora Stevenson in Edinburgh. These ladies had taken an active part in starting the women's suffrage societies in their own towns. Five important societies came into existence almost simultaneously in London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, and Birmingham, and as they almost immediately devised a plan for combining individual responsibility with united action, they formed the nucleus of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which has become the largest organisation of the kind in the United Kingdom, and in October 1911 numbered 305 societies, a number which is constantly and rapidly increasing.

With the suffrage work carried on by the societies, other work for improving the legal status of women, resisting encroachments upon their constitutional liberties, and improving their means of education went on with vigour, sobriety, and enthusiasm; these qualities were combined in a remarkable degree, and were beyond all praise. It has been remarked that the successful conduct of every great change needs the combination of the spirit of order with the spirit of audacity. It was the good fortune of the women's movement in England to secure both these. The suffrage societies from the first saw the necessity of keeping to suffrage work only; but the same individuals in a different capacity were labouring with heroic persistence and untiring zeal to lift up the conditions of women's lives in other ways; thus to Mrs. Jacob Bright, Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy, Mrs. Duncan M'Laren, and Mrs. Pochin, we owe the first Married Women's Property Act, and also the Guardianship of Children Act; tc Mrs. Bodichon and Miss Davies, Henry Sidgwick and Russell Gurney, the opening of university education to women; to Miss Garrett (now Mrs. Anderson), Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, and Miss Jex Blake, the opening of the medical profession; to Mrs. Josephine Butler, and Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon Amos, Sir James Stanfeld, and Mr. James Stuart, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (passed in 1866 and 1868); to Mrs. William Grey, Miss Sherriff and Miss Gurney, the creation of good secondary schools for girls. I am well aware that in this bald recital I have omitted the names of many noble, conscientious, and self-sacrificing workers for the great causes to which they had devoted themselves; I cannot even attempt to make my list exhaustive; I have but selected from a very large number, all ardent suffragists, a few names that stand out pre-eminently in my memory among the glorious company whose efforts laid the foundations on which we at the present day are still building the superstructure of equal opportunity and equal justice for women and men.

As an illustration of how the tone has changed in regard to the personal and proprietary rights of women I can give a little story which fell within my own experience. In the 'seventies I was staying with my father at a time when he had convened in his house a meeting of Liberal electors of East Suffolk. We were working then for a Married Women's Property Bill. The first Act passed in 1870 gave a married woman the right to possess her earnings, but not any other property. I had petition forms with me, and thought the "Liberal" meeting would afford me a good opportunity of getting signatures to it. So I took it round and explained its aim to the quite average specimens of the Liberal British farmer. "Am I to understand you, ma'am, that if this Bill passes, and my wife have a matter of a hundred pound left to her, I should have to ask her for it?" said one of them. The idea appeared monstrous that a man could not take his wife's £100 without even going through the form of asking her for it.

But we were making way steadily. It is true that Mr. Mill was not re-elected in 1868, but Mr. Jacob Bright succeeded him as the leader in the House of Commons of the women's suffrage movement. The second reading of his, the first Women's Suffrage Bill, was carried on May 4, 1870, by 124 to 91. Further progress was, however, prevented, mainly in consequence of the opposition of the Government, and on the motion to go into committee on May 12, the Bill was defeated by 220 to 94.

From the beginning women's suffrage had never been a party question. In the first division, that on Mr. Mill's Amendment to the Reform Bill, the 73 members who voted for women's suffrage included about 10 Conservatives, and one of them, the Rt. Hon. Russell Gurney, Q.C., Recorder of London, was one of the tellers in the division. The great bulk of the supporters of the principle of women's suffrage were then and still are Liberals and Radicals, but from the outset we have always had an influential group of Conservative supporters. And it is indicative of the general growth of the movement that among the large majority secured for the second reading of Sir George Kemp's Bill in May 5, 1911, 79 were Conservatives, a number in excess of the total of those who supported Mr. Mill's amendment in 1867. Sir Stafford Northcote (afterwards Lord Iddesleigh) was among the friends of women's suffrage, and so was Sir Algernon Borthwick (afterwards Lord Glenesk), the proprietor and editor of The Morning Post. Support from the Conservative side of the house was greatly encouraged in 1873 by a letter written by Mr. Disraeli in reply to a memorial signed by over 11,000 women. The memorial had been forwarded by Mr. William Gore Langton, M.P., and was thus acknowledged:—

"Dear Gore Langton,—I was much honoured by receiving from your hands the memorial signed by 11,000 women of England—among them some illustrious names—thanking me for my services in attempting to abolish the anomaly that the Parliamentary franchise attached to a household or property qualification, when possessed by a woman, should not be exercised, though in all matters of local government when similarly qualified she exercises this right. As I believe this anomaly to be injurious to the best interests of the country, I trust to see it removed by the wisdom of Parliament.—Yours sincerely,

This was written in 1873 in immediate prospect of the dissolution of Parliament, which took place in February 1874, and placed Mr. Disraeli in power for the first time.

These were days of active propaganda for all the suffrage societies. A hundred meetings were held on the first six months of 1873, a large number for that time, though it would be considered nothing now. All the experienced political men who supported women's suffrage told us that when the 1874 Parliament came to an end a change of Government was highly probable, a new Liberal Government would be in power, and would certainly deal with the question of representation—that then would be the great opportunity, the psychological moment, for the enfranchisement of women. The agricultural labourers were about to be enfranchised and the claim of women to share in the benefits of representative government was at least as good, and would certainly be listened to. With these hopes we approached the election of 1880.


  1. James Mill: a Biography, by Alexander Bain, LL.D., p. 215.
  2. Representative Government, by J. S. Mill, pp. 175-180.
  3. Dissertations and Discussions, by J. S. Mill, vol. ii. p. 417.
  4. Autobiography, p. 241.
  5. The census of 1911 shows that the excess of women over men is in the proportion of 1068 women to 1000 men, and that this proportion has changed but little during the last hundred and ten years.
  6. Record of Women's Suffrage, by Helen Blackburn, pp. 53, 54, 55.