Women's suffrage: a short history of a great movement/Chapter 5
"We enjoy every species of indulgence we can wish for; and as we are content, we pray that others who are not content may meet with no relief."—Burke in House of Commons in 1772 on the Dissenters who petitioned against Dissenters.
The first organised opposition by women to women's suffrage in England dates from 1889, when a number of ladies, led by Mrs. Humphry Ward, Miss Beatrice Potter (now Mrs. Sidney Webb), and Mrs. Creighton appealed in The Nineteenth Century against the proposed extension of the Parliamentary suffrage to women. Looking back now over the years that have passed since this protest was published, the first thing that strikes the reader is some of the most distinguished ladies who then co-operated with Mrs. Humphry Ward have ceased to be anti-suffragists, and have become suffragists. Mrs. Creighton and Mrs. Webb have joined us; they are not only "movable," but they have moved, and have given their reasons for changing their views. Turning from the list of names to the line of argument adopted against women's suffrage, we find, on the contrary, no change, no development. The ladies who signed The Nineteenth Century protest in 1889 were then as now—and this is the essential characteristic of the anti-suffrage movement—completely in favour of every improvement in the personal, proprietary, and political status of women that had already been gained, but against any further extension of it. The Nineteenth Century ladies were in 1889 quite in favour of women taking part in all local government elections, for women's right to do this had been won in 1870. The protesting ladies said in so many words "we believe the emancipating process has now reached the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women." Less wise than Canute, they appeared to think they could order the tide of human progress to stop and that their command would be obeyed. Then, as now, they protested that the normal experience of women "does not, and never can, provide them with such material to form a sound judgment on great political affairs as men possess," or, as Mrs. Humphry Ward has more recently expressed it, "the political ignorance of women is irreparable and is imposed by nature"; then having proclaimed the inherent incapacity of women to form a sound judgment on important political affairs, they proceed to formulate a judgment on one of the most important issues of practical politics. Several of the ladies who signed The Nineteenth Century protest in 1889 were at that moment taking an active part in organising the political work and influence of women for or against the main political issue of the day, the granting of Home Rule to Ireland; and yet they were saying at the same time that women had not the material to form a sound judgment in politics. This is, of course, the inherent absurdity of the whole position of anti-suffrage women. If women are incapable of forming a sound judgment in grave political issues, why invite them and urge them to express an opinion at all? Besides this fundamental absurdity there is another, secondary to it, but none the less real. Anti-suffragists, especially anti-suffrage men, maintain that to take part in the strife and turmoil of practical politics is in its essence degrading to women, and calculated to sully their refinement and purity. If this, indeed, is so, why invite women into the turmoil? Why advertise, as the anti-suffragists do, the holding of classes to train young women to become anti-suffrage speakers, and thus be able to proclaim on public platforms that "woman's place is home?" This second absurdity appears to have occurred to the late editor of The Nineteenth Century, Sir James Knowles, for a note is added to the 1889 protest apologising, as it were, for the inconsistency of asking women to degrade themselves by taking part in a public political controversy:—
"It is submitted," says this note, "that for once and in order to save the quiet of Home Life from total disappearance they should do violence to their natural reticence and signify publicly and unmistakably their condemnation of the scheme now threatened."
If this note was, as it appears, by the editor, how much he, too, needed the lesson which Canute gave to his courtiers. The waves were not to be turned back by a hundred and odd great ladies doing violence to their natural reticence and signifying publicly that they were very well satisfied with things as they were. "Just for once, in order to save the quiet of home life from total disappearance," these milk white lambs, bleating for man's protection, were to cast aside their timidity and come before the public with a protest against a further extension of human liberty. The anti-suffrage protest of 1889 had the effect which similar protests have ever since had of adding to the numbers and the activity of the suffragists.
Women anti-suffragists formed themselves into a society in July 1908 under the leadership of Mrs. Humphry Ward, and a men's society was shortly afterwards formed under the chairmanship of the Earl of Cromer. These two societies were amalgamated in December 1910. Lord Cromer is the President, and exerts himself actively in opposition to women's suffrage, and in obtaining funds for the League of which he is the leader. In the previous spring of 1910 the Anti-Suffrage League had adopted as part of its programme, besides the negative object of opposing women's suffrage, the positive object of encouraging "the principle of the representation of women on municipal and other bodies concerned with the domestic and social affairs of the community." But male anti-suffragists dwell chiefly on the negative part of their programme. As a fairly regular reader of the Anti-Suffrage Review I may say that the advocacy of municipal suffrage and eligibility for women bears about the same proportion to the anti-suffrage part of it as Falstaff's bread did to his sack; it is always one halfpennyworth of bread, and even that is sometimes absent, to an intolerable deal of sack.
The English anti-suffragists' combination of opposing Parliamentary suffrage and supporting municipal suffrage for women has no counterpart in the United States. American anti-suffragists are as bitterly opposed to municipal and school suffrage for women (where it does not exist) as they are to political suffrage. In the State of New York, not many years ago, the Albany Association for Opposing Woman's Suffrage vehemently resisted the appointment of women on School Boards and said, "It threatens the home, threatens the sacredness of the marriage tie, threatens the Church, and undermines the constitution of our great Republic." An American senator, not to be outdone, improved even upon this, and spoke of school suffrage for women in Massachusetts in the following terms: "If we make this experiment we shall destroy the race which will be blasted by the vengeance of Almighty God." These extravagances do not belong entirely to the dark ages of the nineteenth century; only in the summer of 1911 the New York Association opposed to the extension of the suffrage to women successfully opposed a Bill to confer the municipal suffrage on women in Connecticut. This Bill had passed the Senate and was before the House of Representatives, which was immediately besieged by petitions against the Bill urging all the old arguments with which we are so familiar in this country against the Parliamentary suffrage, such as that it was not fair to women that they should have the municipal vote "thrust upon them"; that Governments rest on force, and force is male; that women cannot fight, and therefore should not vote; that to give the municipal vote to women would destroy the home, and undermine the foundations of society.
This opposition was successful, and the Bill was defeated in face of overwhelming evidence derived from the numerous cases which were quoted of women exercising the municipal vote, and sitting as members of local governing bodies without producing any of the disastrous consequences so confidently predicted. Where women have the municipal vote there is no opposition to it in any quarter, because it is overwhelmingly evident, as Mr. Gladstone once said, that "it has been productive of much good and no harm whatever."
English suffragists can only heartily rejoice that English anti-suffragists are so much more intelligent than those of the United States. It shows that they are capable of learning from experience. Women have had the municipal vote in Great Britain since 1870, and they have voted for Poor Law Guardians and School Boards (where such still exist) from the same date. They were rendered eligible for Town and County Councils in 1907 by an Act passed by Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman's Government. Suffragists are far from complaining that anti-suffragists rejoice with them at these extensions of civic liberty to women. Though the battle is over and the victory won, it is very satisfactory to see the good results of women's suffrage, where it exists, recognised and emphasised even by anti-suffragists. Mrs. Humphry Ward has advocated the systematic organisation of the women's vote in London local elections in order to have increased motive power behind some of her excellent schemes for making more use of playgrounds for the benefit of the London children. She has also spoken several times in public in favour of the increased representation of women on local government bodies; and has even gone very near to making a joke on the subject, saying, in justification of her attitude, "That it was not good to allow the devil to have all the best tunes," and not wise for the anti-suffragists to allow the suffragists to claim a monopoly of ideas and enthusiasm.
Still it is rather significant that she comes to the suffrage camp for the ideas and enthusiasms. Her male colleagues have not shown themselves very ardent in the cause of equal rights for women in local government. In 1898, when the London Borough Councils were established in the place of the Vestries, an amendment was moved and carried in the House of Commons rendering women eligible for the newly created bodies as they had been on the old ones. When the Bill came to the House of Lords, this portion of it was vehemently opposed by the late Lord James of Hereford (afterwards one of the vice-presidents of the Anti-Suffrage League), and his opposition was successful, notwithstanding a powerful and eloquent speech by the late Lord Salisbury, then Prime Minister, in support of theof women on the new Borough Councils. Again, when in 1907 the Bill rendering women eligible for Town and County Councils reached the House of Lords, it had no more sincere and ardent opponent than Lord James. He saw its bearing upon the question of women's suffrage, and the absurdity involved in a state of the law which allows a woman to be a Town or County Councillor, or even a Mayor, and in that capacity the returning officer at a Parliamentary election, but does not permit her to give a simple vote in the election of a member of Parliament.
The Bill became an Act, notwithstanding Lord James's opposition, and within twelve months he had become a vice-president of the League for Opposing Women's Suffrage and for "Maintaining the Representation of Women on Municipal and other Bodies concerned with the Domestic and Social Affairs of the Community."
It has been said by Mrs. Humphry Ward, Miss Violet Markham, and other anti-suffragists that it is not very creditable to women's public spirit that four years after the passing of the Local Government Qualification of Women Act of 1907, so few women are serving on Town and County Councils. The chief reason for their insignificant numbers is that at present only those women may be elected who are themselves qualified to elect. Outside London this disqualifies married women, and in London it only qualifies those married women who are on the register as municipal voters. It also disqualifies daughters living, under normal conditions, in the houses of their parents. The range of choice of women candidates is, therefore, very severely restricted. Similar disqualifications in former years applied to the post of Poor Law Guardian. When a simple residential qualification was substituted for the electoral qualification the number of women acting as Poor Law Guardians increased in a few years from about 160 to over 1300, of whom eight out of nine have the residential qualification only, nearly half of them being married women. It helps people to realise how the present law limits the range of choice of women to serve on locally elected bodies to ask them to consider what would be the effect on the number of men who could offer themselves for election if marriage were a disqualification for them also. A Bill for allowing women to be elected to Town and County Councils on a residential qualification has been before Parliament for the four sessions 1908–11. It is "non-contentious," but it has never even got a second reading. Bills concerning women lack the motive power behind them which is almost invariably necessary for the successful passage of a Bill through all its stages. Mrs. Humphry Ward and Miss Markham have some justification for their contention that the suffrage movement has largely absorbed the energies of the more active-minded women, and prevented them from offering themselves as candidates in municipal elections. This is inevitable. Not every one possesses the boundless energy of such women as Miss Margaret Ashton, Miss Eleanor Rathbone, or Mrs. Lees, who combine active suffrage propaganda with work of first-class importance as members of councils in large and important towns. But when once the battle for suffrage is won, and the qualification is made reasonable for women, it is almost certain that the number of women elected on municipal bodies will largely increase. In Norway, where women's suffrage has been in operation since 1908, although the population is only a little over 2,000,000, the number of women elected on Town and County Councils in 1911 was 210, and as many as 379 have been elected in addition as "alternates." It appears, therefore, that the secondary object of the Anti-Suffrage League, "the representation of women on municipal bodies," would be best served by extending the Parliamentary franchise to women.
The Anti-Suffrage League in England has made a great point of the number of petitions and protests which they have obtained from women municipal voters declaring their antagonism to women's suffrage in Parliamentary elections. The suffragists, however, attach little or no importance to the figures which have been published. When suffragists conduct a canvass of the same people on the same subject the result is entirely different. Much criticism has been made upon the manner in which the anti-suffragists have obtained the signatures to their petitions and protests against women's suffrage, and we know that in some cases signatures have been asked for "as a protest against being governed by these lawless women." Now there are almost as many fallacies in this sentence as there are words. Many ardent suffragists, probably the majority of them, are opposed to the use of physical violence as a means of obtaining political justice. Moreover, women are not lawless. Women in this country, as all criminal statistics prove, are about nine times more law-abiding than men. If people object to being governed by the more lawless sex, it is not women who should be disfranchised. And besides these considerations there is another—the voter, whether male or female, does not govern. He, when he gives his vote, has to decide between two or more men representing different sets of principles, to which he wishes to confide the various tasks of government.
The Anti-Suffrage Review of January 1911 contained an article called "Arguments for use in Poor Districts," which throws a flood of light on the methods by which these signatures of women against women's suffrage have been obtained. The article represents an anti-suffrage lady going round with a petition against women's suffrage. She approaches the house of a working woman and appeals to her whether, after she has looked after her children and her home, she has not done all that a woman has time for, and "had better leave such things as the Government of India and the Army and Navy, and all those outside things to the men who understand them." A more extraordinarily dishonest argument, if argument it can be called, can hardly be imagined. If it were sound, it would exclude from all share in political power not only working women, but also working men—all who live by the sweat of their brow, and all hard working professional and business men. If the argument were a sound one, the best Government would be a bureaucracy like that of Russia, where the great tasks of government and the management of the Army and Navy "are left to the men who understand them," and where the peasant, the artisan, the professional man, and the merchant have nothing to do with laws but to obey them, and nothing to do with taxes but to pay them. But this system has never commended itself to the political instincts of the British nation. Some of the anti-suffragists at any rate could see this plainly enough when this "argument" was applied to the continued exclusion of working men from the franchise. Mr. Frederic Harrison has written words on this very subject which are as applicable to women to-day as they were to men at the time when they were first published:—
"Electors have not got to govern a country; they have only to find a set of men who will see that the Government is fresh and active. . . . Government is one thing, but electors of any class cannot and ought not to govern. Electing, or giving an indirect approval of Government, is another thing, and demands wholly different qualities. These are moral, not intellectual, practical, not special gifts—gifts of a very plain and almost universal order. Such are, firstly, social sympathies and sense of justice, then openness and plainness of character; lastly, habits of action and a practical knowledge of social misery."
These are the lessons of their own leaders; but the anti-suffragists pay no heed to them; it is little wonder then that they pay no heed to the great suffrage leader who has taught us that women, like men, do not need the franchise in order that they may govern, but in order that they may not be misgoverned.
One other consideration may be deduced from this extraordinary article—"Arguments for use in Poor Districts." If the anti-suffragists will put into cold print such "arguments" that women ought not to vote because they are occupied with the daily tasks of ordinary life and are not prepared to govern India or manage the Army and Navy, what may not the anti-suffragists say in private in the cottages which they visit in order to overcome the reluctance of working women to put their names to the anti-suffrage petitions?
The women who petition against women's enfranchisement are a type that we have always with us. Burke held them up to disdain and contempt in inimitable words in 1772, when Dissenters petitioned against Dissenters. The Five Mile Act and the Test and Corporation Act were then in force. The Test Act made the taking of the Sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England a necessary qualification for holding public office of any kind. The Five Mile Act forbade the proscribed Nonconformists from preaching or holding meetings within five miles of any corporate town. In 1772 these Acts were not often put into operation, but as long as they were in the Statute Book the Nonconformist leaders felt that they were doomed to live on sufferance; their friends in Parliament prepared a Bill for their relief from these outrageous disabilities. Opposition was, of course, at once awakened; it proceeded mainly from the King and the "King's friends." Their hands were strengthened by receiving a petition signed by dissenting ministers, who entreated Parliament not to surrender a test "imposed expressly for the maintenance of those essential doctrines upon which the Reformation was founded." They were for the time successful, but Burke's oratory has pointed the finger of scorn at them for all time. "Two bodies of men," he said, "approach our House and prostrate themselves at our Bar. 'We ask not honours,' say the one. 'We have no aspiring wishes, no views upon the purple. . . .' 'We, on the contrary,' say the Dissenters who petition against Dissenters, 'enjoy every species of indulgence we can wish for; and as we are content, we pray that others who are not content may meet with no relief.'"
We do not envy the Dissenters who petitioned against Dissenters in the eighteenth century, and future generations will probably mete out no very kindly judgment to the women who petitioned against women in 1889 and 1911: "As we are content, we pray that others who are not content may meet with no relief."
One most effective reply has been made by the suffragists to the allegation of their opponents that women do not desire their own enfranchisement. Between the autumns of 1910 and 1911 more than 130 local councils petitioned Parliament in favour of passing without delay the Women's Suffrage Bill, known as the Conciliation Bill. These councils comprise those of the most important towns in the kingdom, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Inverness, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Bradford, Oldham, Leeds, Wolverhampton, Newcastle, and Brighton. No such series of petitions from locally elected bodies has probably ever been presented to Parliament in favour of a Franchise Bill. The anti-suffragists have endeavoured to belittle the significance of these petitions. In an important official letter to Mr. Asquith, signed by Lord Cromer, Lady Jersey, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Lord Curzon, and others, it is stated:—
This is a good specimen of anti-suffrage logic. Women householders are strongly opposed to their own enfranchisement; but Town Councillors who depend upon the votes of these women are forced to petition in favour of their enfranchisement because these councillors "shrink from the risk of offending them."
It is true that Lord Cromer, Lord Curzon, and the other signatories of the letter go on to say that they are much better acquainted with the feeling of the women municipal voters in the various towns than the men are who have lived in them all their lives, and have repeatedly stood in them as candidates in municipal elections. This illustrates the degree of knowledge possessed by the most distinguished of the anti-suffragists of the work-a-day world in which humbler mortals have to live.
Mr. Gladstone said of the House of Lords when they opposed the Reform Bill of 1884 that they "lived in a balloon," unconscious of what was happening among the dim common populations living on the earth. The same criticism is applicable to the anti-suffragists. They opened the year 1911 in their Review by saying that they looked "forward with complete confidence to the work of saving women from the immeasurable injury of having their sex brought into the conflict of political life." This was immediately after the election of December 1910, during which Mrs. Humphry Ward had taken an active personal share in her son's electoral contest in West Hertfordshire; and during which a large number of Unionist candidates and others had had the offer from her publishers of her Letters to my Friends and Neighbours, written anew for the second election of 1910, price 3d. each or 1000 copies for £5. No suffragist blames Mrs. Humphry Ward for her active interest in politics. Whether people like it or not, women are taking part in active political work;
- See letter from Miss Alice Stone Blackwell in Manchester Guardian, July 12, 1911.
- See Anti-Suffrage Review, No. 33, p. 167.
- The exact numbers in England and Wales (autumn 1911) are fifteen on Town Councils (two being Mayors) and four on County Councils.
- As an example I quote the canvass of women municipal electors in Reading made respectively by the suffragists in 1909 and anti- suffragists in 1911. When the suffragists canvassed, the results were:—
In Favour Against Did not answer
1047 60 467
When the anti-suffragists canvassed in 1910 the results were:—
In Favour Against Did not answer
166 1133 401
With such disparity as this between the two returns no conclusion can possibly be drawn from either without further investigation of the methods pursued.
- See Statistical Abstract from the United Kingdom.
- Quoted in Lord Morley's Studies in Literature, pp. 133, 134. The reference there given for the extract is Order and Progress, by Frederic Harrison, pp. 149-154.
- Early History of Charles James Fox, by the Rt. Hon. Sir G. O. Trevelyan, p. 449.
- Anti-Suffrage Review, December 1910.