Open main menu

CHAPTER IV


WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE IN GREATER BRITAIN

"Wake up, Mother Country."—Speech by King George V. when Prince of Wales.

The debate on Sir Albert Rollit's Bill in 1892 brought out a full display of oratorical power from all quarters of the House, both for and against women's suffrage. Mr. James Bryce, Mr. Asquith, and Sir Henry James (afterwards Lord James) spoke against the Bill. Mr. Balfour, Mr. (now Lord) Courtney, and Mr. Wyndham supported it. When Mr. Bryce spoke he used the timid argument that women's suffrage was an untried experiment. "It is a very bold experiment," he said; "our colonies are democratic in the highest degree; why do they not try it?" and again, "This is an experiment so large and bold that it ought to be tried by some other country first." Mr. Asquith, in the course of his speech, said much the same thing: "We have no experience to guide us one way or the other." Mr. Goldwin Smith, an extra-Parliamentary opponent of women's suffrage, pointed, in an article, to its solitary example in the State of Wyoming, where it had been adopted in 1869, and asked why, if suffrage had been a success in Wyoming, its example had not been followed by other states immediately abutting on its borders.

Now it has frequently been noticed that when this line of argument is adopted it seems to be a sort of "mascot" for women's suffrage. When Mr. Bryce inquired in 1892 "why our great democratic colonies had not tried women's suffrage," his speech was followed in 1893 by the adoption of women's suffrage in New Zealand and in South Australia. When Mr. Goldwin Smith asked why the States which were in nearest neighbourhood to Wyoming had not followed her example, three States in this position, namely Colorado in 1893, Utah in 1895, and Idaho in 1896, very rapidly did so. When Sir F. S. Powell, in 1907, said in the House of Commons that no country in Europe had ever ventured on the dangerous experiment of enfranchising its women, women's suffrage was granted in Finland the same year, and in Norway the year following. When Mrs. Humphry Ward wrote in 1908 that our cause in the United States was "in process of defeat and extinction," this was followed by the most important suffrage victories ever won in America—the States of Washington in 1910, and California in 1911.

The question arises why so well informed and careful a political controversalist as Mr. James Bryce spoke as he did in 1892 of the fact that none of our great democratic colonies had adopted women's suffrage, in evident ignorance of the fact that two at any rate were on the point of doing so. The answer is probably to be found in the attitude of the anti-suffrage press. No body of political controversialists are so badly served by their own press as the anti-suffragists. The anti-suffrage press appears to act on the assumption that if they say nothing about a political event it is the same as if it had not happened. Therefore, while they give prominence to any circumstances which they imagine likely to be injurious to suffrage, they either say nothing about those facts which indicate its growing force and volume, or record them in such a manner that they escape the observation of the general reader. The result is that only the suffragists, who are in constant communication with their comrades in various parts of the world and also have their own papers, are kept duly informed, not only of what has happened, but of what is likely to happen. Mr. Bryce cannot have known of the imminence of the success of women's suffrage in New Zealand and South Australia in 1892. Mrs. Humphry Ward did not know in February 1909 that women's suffrage had actually been carried in Victoria, and had received the royal assent in 1908. She could have known very little of the real strength of the suffrage movement in the United States, when she said it was virtually dead, just at the moment when it was about to give the most unmistakable proofs of energy and vigour. For all this ignorance the anti-suffrage press of London is mainly responsible. "Things are what they are and their consequences will be what they will be," whether the newspapers print them or not, and to leave the controversialists on your own side in ignorance of facts of capital importance is a strange way of showing political allegiance.[1]

It is a mistake to represent that women's suffrage was brought about in New Zealand suddenly or, as it were, by accident. The women of New Zealand did not, as has sometimes been said, wake up one fine morning in 1893 and find themselves enfranchised. Sustained, self-sacrificing, painstaking, and well-organised work for women's suffrage had been going on in the Colony for many years.[2] The germ of it may be traced even as early as 1843, and many of the most distinguished men whose names are connected with New Zealand history as true empire-builders have been identified with the movement, including Mr. John Ballance, Sir Julias Vogel, Sir R. Stout, Sir John Hall, and Sir George Grey. It is curious that Mr. Richard Seddon, under whose Premiership women's suffrage was finally carried, was not at that time (1893) a believer in it. He was a Thomas who had to see before he could believe, but when he had once had experience of women's suffrage, he was unwearied in proclaiming his confidence in it. When he was in England in 1902 for King Edward's Coronation he hardly ever spoke in public without bearing his testimony to the success of women's suffrage. Much good seed had been sown in New Zealand by Mrs. Müller, an English lady, who landed in Nelson in 1850. One of her articles, signed "Femina" (she was obliged to preserve her anonymity for reasons of domestic tranquillity), won the attention of John Stuart Mill, and drew from him a most encouraging letter, and the gift of his book The Subjection of Women. Mrs. Müller died in 1902, and thus had the opportunity of seeing in operation for nearly ten years the successful operation of the reform for which she had been one of the earliest workers. An American lady, Mrs. Mary Clement Leavitt, visited New Zealand in 1885 on behalf of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Mrs. Leavitt was a great organiser and arranged the whole of the work of the Temperance Union in definite "Departments," and a general superintendent was appointed to each. There was a Franchise Department, the general superintendent of which was Mrs. Sheppard, who, from 1887, became an indefatigable and, at the same time, a cautious and sensible worker for the extension of the Parliamentary franchise to women. She was in communication with Sir John Hall and other Parliamentary leaders, and kept in close touch with the whole movement until it was successful.

Just as it is now in England with us, differences arose among New Zealand suffragists as to how much suffrage women ought to have, or at any rate for how much would it be wise to ask, and the parties were called the "half loafers" and the "whole loafers." The "no bread" party watched these differences just as they do in England, and tried unsuccessfully to profit by them. In the debate on Sir John Hall's Women's Suffrage resolution in 1890, Mr. W. P. Reeves, so long known in England as the Agent-General for New Zealand, and later as the Director of the London School of Economics, and also as an excellent friend of women's suffrage, announced himself to be a "half loafer"; indeed he advocated the restriction of the franchise to such women, over twenty-one years of age, who had passed the matriculation examination of the university. There is an Arabic proverb to the effect that the world is divided into three classes—"the immovable, the movable, and those who actually move." It is unwise to despair of the conversion of any anti-suffragist unless he has proved himself to belong to the "immovables." In 1890 Mr. Reeves, now so good a suffragist, had only advanced to the point of advocating the enfranchisement of university women. His proposal for a high educational suffrage test for women did not meet with support. It was rejected by more robust suffragists as "not even half a loaf, only a ginger nut." The anti-suffragists used the same arguments which they use with us. They professed themselves to be intimately acquainted with the views of the Almighty on the question of women voting. "It was contrary to the ordinance of God"; women politicians were represented as driving a man from his home because it would be infested "with noisy and declamatory women." After the Bill had passed both Houses a solemn petition was presented by anti-suffragists, who were members of the Legislative Council, asking the Governor to withhold his assent on the ground that "it would seriously affect the rights of property and embarrass the finances of the colony, thereby injuriously affecting the public creditor." Others protested that it was self-evident, that women's suffrage must lead to domestic discord and the neglect of home life. Of course all the anti-suffragists were certain that women did not want the vote, and would not use it even if it were granted to them.

The French gentleman who called himself Max O'Rell was touring New Zealand at the time, and deplored that one of the fairest spots on God's earth was going to be turned into a howling wilderness by women's suffrage. Mr. Goldwin Smith wrote that he gave women's suffrage ten years in New Zealand, and by that time it would have wrought such havoc with the home and domestic life that the best minds in the country would be devising means of getting rid of it. A New Zealand gentleman, named Bakewell, wrote an article in The Nineteenth Century for February 1894, containing a terrible jeremiad about the melancholy results to be expected in the Dominion from women's suffrage. The last words of his article were, "We shall probably for some years to come be a dreadful object lesson to the rest of the British Empire." This was the prophecy. What have the facts been? New Zealand has become an object-lesson—an object-lesson of faithful membership of the Imperial group, a daughter State of which the mother country is intensely proud. Does not everybody know that New Zealand is prosperous and happy and loyal to the throne and race to which she owes her origin.[3] New Zealand was the first British Colony to enfranchise her women, and was also the first British Colony to send her sons to stand side by side with the sons of Great Britain in the battlefields of South Africa; she was also the first British Colony to cable the offer of a battleship to the mother country in the spring of 1909. She, with Australia, was the first part of the British Empire to devise and carry out a truly national system of defence, seeking the advice of the first military expert of the mother country, Lord Kitchener, to help them to do it on efficient lines. The women are demanding that they should do their share in the great national work of defence by undergoing universal ambulance training.[4]

New Zealand and Australia have, since they adopted women's suffrage, inaugurated many important social and economic reforms, among which may be mentioned wages boards—the principle of the minimum wage applied to women as well as to men—and the establishment of children's courts for juvenile offenders. They have also purged their laws of some of the worst of the enactments injurious to women. If it were needed to rebut the preposterous nonsense urged by anti-suffragists against women's suffrage in New Zealand eighteen years ago, it is sufficient to quote the unemotional terms of the cable which appeared from New Zealand in The Times of July 28, 1911:—

"Parliament was opened today. Lord Islington, the Governor, in his speech, congratulated the Dominion on its continued prosperity. The increase in the material well-being of the people, was, he said, encouraging, and there was every reason to expect a continuance and even an augmentation of the prosperity of the trade and industry of the Dominion. . . . The results of registration under the universal defence training scheme were satisfactory. The spirit in which this call for patriotism had been met was highly commendable."

The testimony concerning the practical working of women's suffrage in Australia and New Zealand is all of one kind. It may be summarised in a single sentence, "Not one of the evils so confidently predicted of it has actually happened." The effect on home life is universally said to have been good. The birth-rate in New Zealand has steadily increased since 1899, and it has now, next to Australia, the lowest infantile mortality in the world. In South Australia, where women have been enfranchised since 1893, the infantile death-rate has also been reduced from 130 in the 1000 to half that number. Our own anti-suffragists are quite capable of representing that this argument means that we are so foolish as to suppose that if a mother drops a paper into a ballot-box every few years she thereby prolongs the life of her infant. Of course we do nothing of the kind; but we do say that to give full citizenship to women deepens in them the sense of responsibility, and they will be more likely to apply to their duties a quickened intelligence and a higher sense of the importance of the work entrusted to them as women. The free woman makes the best wife and the most careful mother.

The confident prediction that women when enfranchised would not take the trouble to record their votes has been falsified. The figures given in the official publication, The New Zealand Year Book; are as follows:—

Date. Men. Women.
Electoral
Roll.
Actually
Voted.
Electoral
Roll.
Actually
Voted.
1893 193,536 129,792 109,461  90,290
1896 196,925 149,471 142,305 108,783
1899 210,529 159,780 163,215 119,550
1902 229,845 180,294 185,944 138,565
1905 263,597 221,611 212,876 175,046
1908 294,073 238,538 242,930 190,114

This table shows that men and women who are on the electoral roll vote in almost the same proportion. The number of votes actually polled compared with the number on the register is, of course, to some extent affected by the number of constituencies in which there is no contest, or in which the result is regarded as a foregone conclusion; but this consideration affects both sexes alike. It is impossible for reasons of space to enter in detail in this little book upon the history in each of the Australian States of the adoption of women's suffrage. But it is well known that every one of the States forming the Commonwealth of Australia has now enfranchised its women, and that one of the first acts of the Commonwealth Parliament in 1902 was to grant the suffrage to women. The complete list of dates of women's enfranchisement in New Zealand and Australia will be found in The Brief Review of the Women's Suffrage Movement, which concludes this little book.

When the Premiers and other political leaders from the overseas Dominions of Great Britain were in London for the Coronation and Imperial Conference of 1911, the representatives of Australia and New Zealand frequently expressed both in public and in private their entire satisfaction with the results of women's suffrage. Mr. Fisher, the Premier of the Commonwealth, constantly spoke in this sense: "There is no Australian politician who would nowadays dare to get up at a meeting and declare himself an enemy. . . . It has had most beneficial results. . . . He had not the slightest doubt that women's votes had had a good effect on social legislation. . . . The Federal Parliament took a strong stand upon the remuneration of women, and the minimum wage which was laid down applied equally to women and men for the same work" (Manchester Guardian, June 3, 1911). On another occasion Mr. Fisher said that so far from women's suffrage causing any disunion between men and women, "the interest which men took in women's affairs when women had got the vote was wonderful" (Manchester Guardian, June 10, 1911). Sir William Lyne, Premier of New South Wales, said: "When the women were enfranchised in Australia they proceeded at each election to purify their Parliament, and they had gone on doing so, and now he was proud to say their Parliament was one of the model Parliaments of the world" (Manchester Guardian, August 1, 1911). The Hon. John Murray of Victoria and the Hon. A. A. Kirkpatrick spoke in the same sense. Indeed the evidence favourable to the working of women's suffrage is overwhelming, and is given not only by men who have always supported it, but by those who formerly opposed it, and have had the courage to acknowledge that as the result of experience they have changed their views. Among these may be mentioned Sir Edmund Barton, the first Premier of the Commonwealth, and the late Sir Thomas Bent, the Premier of Victoria, under whose administration women were enfranchised in that State. Why appeal to other witnesses when both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament in November 1910 unanimously adopted the following resolution:—

"(i.) That this House
Senate
is of opinion that the extension of the Suffrage to the women of Australia for States and Commonwealth Parliaments, on the same terms as men, has had the most beneficial results. It has led to the more orderly conduct of Elections, and at the last Federal Elections the women's vote in the majority of the States showed a greater proportionate increase than that cast by men. It has given a greater prominence to legislation particularly affecting women and children, although the women have not taken up such questions to the exclusion of others of wider significance. In matters of Defence and Imperial concern, they have proved themselves as far-seeing and discriminating as men. Because the reform has brought nothing but good, though disaster was freely prophesied, we respectfully urge that all Nations enjoying Representative Government would be well advised in granting votes to women."

With all this wealth of testimony rebutting from practical experience almost every objection urged against women's suffrage, it is impossible to exaggerate the value to the movement here of the example of Australia and New Zealand. There are few families in the United Kingdom that have not ties of kindred or of friendship with Australasia. The men and women there are of our own race and traditions, starting from the same stock, owning the same allegiance, acknowledging the same laws, speaking the same language, nourished mentally, morally, and spiritually from the same sources. We visit them and they visit us; and when their women return to what they fondly term "home," although they may have been born and brought up under the Southern Cross, they naturally ask why they should be put into a lower political status in Great Britain than in the land of their birth? What have they done to lose one of the most elementary guarantees of liberty and citizenship? As the ties of a sane and healthy imperialism draw us closer together the difference in the political status of women in Great Britain and her daughter States will become increasingly indefensible and cannot be long maintained.


  1. An important new departure in journalism was taken by The Standard in October 1911. This paper now devotes more than a page daily to a full statement both of events and arguments bearing on all sides of the suffrage and other women's questions.
  2. See Outlines of the Women's Franchise Movement in New Zealand, by W. Sydney Smith. Whitecombe & Tombs, Ltd., Christchurch, N.Z. 1905.
  3. See Report by Sir Charles Lucas, who visited New Zealand on behalf of the Colonial Office in 1907.
  4. See Colonial Statesmen and Votes for Women, published by The Freedom League, p. 6.