Thursday, 3 April 2008

Suffrage since 1903: Arguments against women's suffrage

Not all women wanted the vote. Queen Victoria had referred to women’s suffrage as ‘wicked folly’. In 1908, Mrs Humphrey Ward[1] went so far as to form the National Anti-Suffrage League[2]. Arguments against women’s suffrage fell into six main categories.
The ‘separate spheres’ argument. According to this argument, the role played by men is different (and should be different) from that played by women. While the masculine public sphere is for men, the feminine domestic sphere is for women. Many men believed that women were ‘the weaker sex’ and would not be able to cope with the ‘hurly-burly’ of elections. This view originated in the period before the 1872 Ballot Act when voting was ‘open’ (not in secret) and violence and harassment was common. Women should keep out of the political arena. Their strength lay within the family providing support, inspiration and raising children. If the vote was given to women, it might cause political disagreements with their husbands and consequently accelerate the break-up of the family. In short, women were a civilising element in society. Forcing women into a public, political role would detract from their femininity or, as William Gladstone put it, “trespass upon their delicacy, their purity, their refinement, the elevation of their whole nature”. Giving women the vote, therefore, would damage their femininity. The ‘different biology and psychology’ argument[3]. It was a widely held that women tended to be temperamental and prone to outbursts of emotion so how could such beings be trusted with the franchise? The militant tactics of the WSPU after 1905 reinforced this viewpoint. Anti-suffragists held a number of assumptions about female psychology and physiology. It was argued that women were physically and mentally weaker than men. They were more emotional, unable to grasp abstract questions and slow to make up their minds. For those who had to conserve their limited energies for the vital and debilitating business of childbearing, politics would be too great a strain. The medical profession in general supported these views with scientific authority despite being largely ignorant about female physiology in this period. Sir Almroth Wright expressed this view, most notoriously, in the letter published in The Times on 28th March 1912 at the height of the suffragette violence. He attacked the suffragettes as frustrated spinsters venting their bitterness on men but he also claimed that women in general were prone to hysteria that made them inadequate to receive the vote. ‘Physical force’ arguments. There was a range of ‘physical force’ arguments. It was claimed, “The voter, in giving a vote pledges himself to uphold the consequences of his vote at all costs ... women are physically incapable of this pledge.” The argument went on that if, for example, women voted to go to war they would not be physically strong enough to fight the enemy and as a result, did not deserve full citizenship. Some opponents of women’s suffrage pointed out that the maintenance of the British Empire required a large army and because women did not contribute to the defence of Empire, they should not have the vote. A further variant was the idea that, since women could not physically enforce the laws they made, men might simply refuse to accept them leading to a breakdown in law and order. The eminent jurist A.V. Dicey warned that since women constituted the majority of voters they would be in a position to force Parliament policies opposed by the male minority. Fears about the practical results. If adult suffrage were granted, there would be about 1.5 million more women voters than men. Thus, the government would reflect female views and as women were ‘less virile’ than men were it would result in Britain and the Empire being weakened. Parliamentarians entertained a number of fears about the practical effects of enfranchisement. To concede even a limited vote would lead eventually to complete suffrage and thus a female majority that might well push anti-male policies. There were also concerns that women would use their new political power to improve their position in the labour force or that they would neglect their domestic duties. Women did not really want the vote. Some opponents of women’s suffrage argued that the majority of women did not want the vote (or at least, did not care one way or another whether they had it). Suffragists, they claimed, were an unrepresentative if vocal minority. The Anti-Suffrage League argued that the vote was overvalued. Even though some men had the vote, there was still plenty of poverty, unemployment and low wages. Thus, it must not be assumed that female suffrage would solve all the problems of women. This view was reinforced by the argument that women themselves did not really want the vote. The campaign for the vote was carried on by a small, untypical minority and watched by most women with what Asquith called “languid and imperturbable indifference”. Other anti-suffragist arguments. Two further (and somewhat contradictory) arguments were put forward. First, there was the argument that women were already represented in Parliament by the men in their family. In addition, women already exercised some control over political decision making since leading politicians listened to the views of their wives, mothers and other female acquaintances. Secondly, women were incapable of making decisions and would do what the men in the family told them to do. This would result in some men, in effect, having several votes more than others. Many of the anti-suffragist arguments represented self-serving pleas by a traditional male elite anxious to preserve its position and authority. On the other hand, there is a danger in dismissing the entire anti-suffragist case simply because today we take it for granted that women should have the vote. Historians need to explain when and why certain parts of the anti-suffragist case lost their force. In the 1870s and 1880s, it is not obvious that most women were enthusiastic about the vote. Suffrage societies were very small pressure groups until well into the first decade of the twentieth century. Large women’s organisations such as the Mothers’ Union were not suffrage organisations and even the Women’s Co-operative Guild, which had 30,000 members, did not adopt women’s suffrage until 1900. Above all, the anti-suffragists drew strength from the fact that their membership was not exclusively male. Many women, including able ones who enjoyed a prominent public role such as Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale and at one time Beatrice Webb, refused to support women’s suffrage. The 1889 anti-suffragist petition, published under the leadership of Mrs Humphrey Ward, demonstrated the strength of anti-suffragist feeling. The explanation for their attitude seems to have been that they thought they had achieved more influence by their own efforts than a mere vote could possibly give them.

You may also find the following blogs on my site useful:

[1] On the subject of Mrs Humphrey Ward, see the biography by John Sutherland, OUP, 1990. It may seem paradoxical that an advocate of women’s emancipation through education and local government should oppose the suffrage question. [2] Brian Harrison Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, Croom Helm, 1978 is the standard work on the subject. [3] Thomas Laqueur Making Sex: The Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, Mass., 1990 provides an invaluable overview on this issue. Studies that are more specific are: Christine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (eds.) The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, London, 1987 and Ludmilla Jordanova Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries, London, 1990


James said...

This was very useful information as i am studying this at A level in school, it covered many arguments and i got exactly what i needed from it i also found it very interesting. thanks for taking the time to write this up and

Anonymous said...

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Katharine B said...

I am teaching in a high school for the first time next week, would you mind if I used this post as a source for my lecture?

Richard Brown said...

By all means use the post as a source Katharine. Good luck with the lesson