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Women and Representative Government



Those who have been labouring in behalf of the removal of the electoral disabilities of women, feel that a very critical time in the history of the agitation is now approaching. The question of parliamentary reform, and a further extension of the principle of household suffrage, will probably occupy the attention of the House of Commons during a great part of next session. The old familiar arguments that taxation without representation is tyranny, that those who are subject to the law and fulfil the obligations of citizenship cannot be justly excluded from all share of making the laws, will be heard again and again; and it will moreover be urged that it is alike unjust and inexpedient to place the stigma of political subjection upon whole classes of loyal, peaceable and industrious citizens, by making the qualifications for the franchise such as they cannot fulfil. On one side of the House it will be urged that property ought to be represented; on the other side of the House the words of Mr. Chamberlain at the Cobden Club dinner will be repeated, that 'full confidence in the people is the only sure foundation on which the government of this country can rest.' And what the advocates of a real representation of the people want to make sure of, is to remind the orators who make use of these telling phrases, that the human race consists of women as well as of men. They wish to remind the Radicals and Liberals, who have done so much to get rid of political disabilities, that the disability of sex is as repugnant to true Liberalism as are the disabilities of race and religion. They want to remind the Tory party that if a fair representation of property is what they are aiming at, they will be acting very inconsistently if they support a system which gives no kind of representation to property, however vast, which happens to be owned by a woman.

It is sometimes said by those who do not deny the justice of women's claim to representation, that it is necessary to show what practical good will be done to women and to the community at large by giving women votes. The answer is not far to seek. Exactly the same good that is done to other people by self-government and representative government, as opposed to government by an autocracy or an oligarchy. One overwhelming advantage which results from representative government is that it teaches people to take care of themselves; it teaches them that faults in their system of government are due, not to the tyranny of those who are set over them, but to their own lassitude and want of zeal in correcting those faults. What better remedy than this can exist against revolution? And what a miserable waste of noble qualities results from the opposite system—the system of repression and autocracy. It is not necessary to look further than to the contemporary history of Russia for examples. We see there courage, compassion, fidelity, devotion, ingenuity, and patience, turned aside from channels in which they might have made the whole world a better place to live in, into channels which lead to conspiracy, murder, and insatiable longings for revenge. These are the fruits of tyranny when tyranny is carried to extremes. It is the aim of representative government to avoid these social cankers; and it is the aim of those who favour the representation of women to make representative government in our own country as complete as possible by including all citizens, men and women, who fulfil the legal qualifications, and who have not forfeited their political liberty by crime or pauperism.

It is not necessary here to dwell at any length on the painful subject of laws that are unjust to women. No one who has ever given even a few minutes' attention to the subject will deny that there are many laws which, to use Mr. Gladstone's expression, give to women 'something less than justice.'[1] If it is necessary to quote examples, the inequality which the law has created between men and women in divorce suits furnishes one. The cruel law which gives a mother no legal guardianship over her children is another. I think there can be little doubt that if similar hardships had affected any represented class, they would long ago have been swept away. As it is, however, though the injustice of these and other laws affecting women is fully and almost universally recognised, year after year rolls by and nothing is done to remedy them. Here are matters almost universally admitted to involve injustice and wrong, and no one tries to remedy them. Why is this? It is because the motive power is wanting. Representation is the motive power for the redress of legislative grievances. If not what is the use of representation? People would be as well off without it as with it. But all our history shows the practical value of representation. Before the working classes were represented, trades-unions were illegal associations, and consequently an absconding treasurer of one of these societies was liable to no legal punishment. Not one man in a thousand attempted to justify such an iniquity, even when it was an established institution. It was a recognised injustice; but it was not till the working classes were on the eve of obtaining a just share of representation that the motive power for the redress of that injustice was forthcoming. The same thing can be said with regard to those laws which press unjustly on women. Hardly anyone defends them; it is not so much the sense of justice in parliament or in the country that is wanting, as the motive power which representation, and representation alone, in a self-governed country can give, to get a recognised wrong righted. Another illustration of the value of representation may be found in looking back at recent discussions on alterations in the land laws of England and Ireland. This legislation has been discussed, month in and month out, in the House of Commons and on every platform in the United Kingdom, as if the interests of two classes and two classes only had to be considered, those of the farmers and the landowners. The labourers have been apparently as much forgotten as if the land were ploughed and weeded and sown by fairies, and not by men and women, who stand at least as much in need of any good that law-making can do them, as the other classes who are directly interested in the soil.

A curious illustration of the absolute neglect so far as politics are concerned, of all who are not represented, or whom, it is expected, will be shortly represented, may be found in the accounts of the recent celebration of the Bright festival at Birmingham. The Liberals who assembled to do the honour to Mr. Bright which he so richly deserves, enumerated, in honest pride, the main achievements of Mr. Bright's career; but they did not point to any chapter in the statute book and say, 'Here he succeeded in changing a condition of the law that was oppressive to women.' And this was so, although Mr. Bright has, on more than one occasion—as, for example, on behalf of a bill enabling women to receive medical degrees—lifted his powerful voice in favour of justice being done to women. Matters which affect injuriously, or the reverse, unrepresented classes, lie outside what are called practical politics. The politicians' field of vision is entirely filled by those who are represented; the unrepresented are forgotten. So, again, when the Birmingham Liberals let their imagination range over what was to be expected and worked for in the future, no mention was made of anything being done for women. Their ideal seemed rather to be manhood as opposed to universal suffrage; that is, all men not being either paupers or felons to be admitted to political power, no matter how ignorant, how poor, how degraded, in virtue of their manhood; while all women are to be excluded in virtue of their womanhood. The Birmingham imagination sees also with the eye of faith the payment of members. Members can only be paid by the taxpayers, that is the men and women of England; but the anomaly in a self-governed country of taking money from women to pay representatives without giving women any representation does not seem to have occurred to the political seer.

When, on July 6, the question of the removal of women's electoral disabilities was discussed in the House of Commons, the chief point relied upon by the opponents of the resolution moved by Mr. Mason was, that it was not clear whether the resolution, if carried, would have the effect of enfranchising married women, who, in virtue of the Married Women's Property Act, are no longer precluded from possessing the necessary qualification. It is no secret that some of those—for instance Mr. Mason himself—who are in favour of removing the disability of sex, are not in favour of removing the disability of marriage; whilst others desire the removal of both disabilities. If Parliament should see fit to admit women to the benefits of representation, opportunity would no doubt be afforded, during the passage of a Reform Bill that extended the suffrage to women, for the House of Commons to declare distinctly whether it wishes to give the right of voting to married women who possess the qualification or not. In this, as in other matters, it appears to me very unpractical to reject a substantial measure of reform because it does not grant all that may be thought desirable. Personally I entirely sympathise with those who wish to see the disability of coverture removed. If, however, the House of Commons is willing to remove the disability of sex, but unwilling to remove the disability of coverture, I think those who represent the women's suffrage movement outside the House of Commons would be acting most unwisely to reject what is offered to them. Many of the supporters of the Reform Bills of '32 and '68 were in favour of universal suffrage, but had to be content with a smaller instalment of enfranchisement. Mr. Chamberlain said the other day, at Birmingham, that Radicals nearly always had 'to accept a composition,' and the women's suffrage party may have to do the same.

I have said that the sense of justice is not so much wanting as the motive power which will convert a passive recognition of the existence of wrong into an active determination to get that wrong righted. It must not, however, be forgotten, that without being consciously unjust or cruel, there is such a thing as a torpid sense of justice. As the ear gets deafened and the vision gets blurred by frequent misuse, so the sense of justice becomes feeble and dim by constant association with laws and customs which are unjust. To live in a society whose laws give women 'something less than justice,' is apt to pervert the conscience, and make those whose imagination is not very active acquiesce in injustice as if it were part of the inevitable nature of things. Magistrates, for example, who sometimes punish men less severely for half-killing their wives than for stealing half-a-crown, are partly responsible for this faulty sense of justice, and may be partly regarded as the victims of it. We want—to use an expression of Mr. Matthew Arnold's—to call forth 'a fresh flow of consciousness' on all these questions where the interests of women are concerned. We want to ask ourselves, and to set others to ask themselves, 'Ought these things to be supported simply because they exist?' 'Could we not come nearer to righteousness if we aimed at a higher ideal of justice?'

It will no doubt be argued by some, that while much yet remains to be done before the balance is adjusted, so as to give perfect justice to women, yet that much has already been done to improve their legal status, and that it is not too much to hope that in time all grievances will be redressed without giving women votes.[2] The Married Women's Property Act, it is said, has redressed a great and crying evil; why may not other evils be redressed in the same way? To such as use this argument it may be replied that, in the first place, the Married Women's Property Act would probably never have been introduced or heard of, if it had not been for the wider movement for the parliamentary representation of women. The women's suffrage societies, by constant and untiring efforts actively carried on for sixteen years, have done something to awaken that keener sense of justice to women to which reference has just been made. However, let it be supposed that this view of the history of the passing of the Married Women's Property Act is entirely erroneous, and let it be supposed that the Legislature have, of their own free will, quite unmoved by any representations made to them by women, been graciously pleased to say that married women may have what is their own. What right has any set of human beings to say to another, 'I concede to you that piece of justice, and I withhold this, not because you ask for either, or can make me give you either, but because I choose to act so'? What is the policy, what is the sense, of compelling half the English people to hold their liberty on such terms as these? All this circumlocution is unnecessary and inexpedient. Give women the rights of free citizenship, the power to protect themselves, and then they will let their representatives know what they want and why they want it. They will find, no doubt—as other classes have found—that though the price of liberty is vigilance, the House of Commons will never turn a deaf ear to well-considered measures of reform which are demanded by the constituencies.

This movement for the representation of women is nothing more nor less than a simple outgrowth of the democracy which has been the gradual product of this century. The old ideal of government, even in England, which has had representative institutions so long, was that the few should govern the many. The democratic ideal—which has been steadily growing here, on the Continent, and in America—is that the many should govern themselves. When the representatives of the present electorate undertake a further extension of the suffrage, we ask them to be true to their own principles, to be just—even to women—without fear. If women are not excluded from the next Reform Bill, may we not anticipate the growth of new bonds of sympathy and union between men and women? Their lives will be less separated than they have hitherto been. It is one of the most disastrous things that can happen to a nation to have a great wall of separation, as regards opinion and feeling, grow up between men and women. This state of things is to be seen very conspicuously in some Catholic countries—such, for instance, as Belgium—where the women influenced by Catholicism, and the men influenced by a revolt against Catholicism, belong, as it were, to two entirely different strata of civilisation; and hence each sex loses a great part of what it might otherwise gain from sympathy and companionship with the other. Every circumstance which widens the education of women—their political, as well as their literary education—renders impossible the building up of that wall of separation. It may be said there is no danger of such a state of things in England; but if there is no danger of it, is it not because we have already gone so far along the road of giving equal justice to women? We have gone so far and with such good results there could hardly be a better reason for going further.

It is possible there may be some who have rather a dread of this demand for giving women votes, because it is so essentially modern. Few of the leading statesmen of the present day ever say anything in its favour, and fewer still of the political leaders of the past have supported it. It must, however, be remembered that when a politician becomes a political leader, his time is so much engrossed in carrying on the work of practical politics—that is, in one form or another, in obeying the behests of those who have political power—that he very seldom has time to give to other people's wants. We must not expect the initiative in this matter to come from Governments. We must ask those who have votes to help us, and let Governments know that they wish for justice for women as well as for themselves. All good things must have a beginning, and if this demand on the part of women for representation is good in itself, it is none the worse for being, as compared, say, with tyranny and selfishness, new. Christianity was a new thing once; even now—as we were reminded the other day—it is held to be true only by a minority of mankind; the belief in witchcraft was once universal and was shared even by the wisest and most cultivated of men. If there is a soul of goodness in things evil, may we not observingly distil out of the mistakes of the past something that will strengthen our hopes for the future? No one is wise enough or great enough to be able to set a limit upon the progress of mankind towards knowledge and well-doing. In the chapter of Grote's History of Greece on the attitude of the Greek mind towards the Greek myths, the author shows, how in the early dawn of Greek history, the belief was universal and unquestioned, that all natural phenomena were the direct result of the personal intervention of gods and semi-divine beings. Then came slowly and hesitatingly the beginning of what we have now learned to call 'natural science;' and, little by little, the most cultivated classes began to seek to explain things according to some rational theory of the universe. They ceased to regard the personal intervention of Zeus or Demeter or Athene as a satisfactory explanation of the cause of storms, the fertility of the earth, and other similar things. It is, however, remarkable that Socrates, although he lived well within the time when this dawn of natural science had begun, only partially discerned its future sway. He taught that there were two classes of phenomena, one produced by natural causes and one resulting from divine interposition; and he held that 'physics and astronomy belonged to the divine class of phenomena, in which human research was insane, fruitless, and impious.' Now is it not possible to take both courage and warning from this?—courage, not to limit our hopes for the future, not to say this aim is too high ever to be realised: and warning to have no popes in our protestant minds? The best and wisest of human beings is liable to err. Let us think for ourselves—weigh diligently the reasons of the faith that is in us, and strive earnestly for all things that we believe to be just and reasonable.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

  1. Mr. Gladstone's speech in the House of Commons on the Women's Suffrage Bill, 1871.
  2. The Birmingham programme does not lend much probability to this hopeful view of women's prospects of getting the benefits of representation without votes.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.