Monday, 3 December 2012

Why not give women the vote?

Not all women wanted the vote. Queen Victoria who felt quite capable of ruling an empire and yet opposed women’s suffrage referring to it as ‘this mad, wicked folly’. [1] Many women campaigners, such as Octavia Hill, were convinced that reforms in civil and social rights were of greater moment than political enfranchisement. Most national and regional newspapers, especially The Times were hostile to the women’s suffrage campaign especially after militant action began although this did encourage newspapers to print stories about the suffragettes, providing them with the ‘oxygen’ of publicity. There was a deep-seated fear of change particularly sharing power with women who had never been seen as men’s equals. Opposition to women’s suffrage was frequently instinctively hostile and blatantly prejudiced but much of it was also carefully considered and cogently argued. Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian period, it was deep-rooted and influential, organised and vocal and the ‘antis’ came from across the social and political spectrum and involved women as well as men.

For those who accepted the notion of ‘separate spheres’, and many still did in the 1880s, the role played by men was different (and should be different) from that played by women. [2] While the masculine public sphere was for men, the feminine domestic sphere was for women. [3] Bax went so far as to deny that any oppression of women had occurred at all:

The whole modern women’s movement is based, in a measure, at least, on an assumption which is absolutely unfounded -- to wit, that man has systematically oppressed woman in the past, that the natural tendency of evil-minded man is always to oppress women, or, to put in another way, that woman is the victim of man’s egotism.....[4]

Before the 1872 Ballot Act, voting was ‘open’, a public statement on the hustings and violence and harassment was common. [5] Many men believed that women as ‘the weaker sex’ would not be able to cope with the ‘hurly-burly’ of elections and should be kept 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 in 1892, ‘trespass upon their delicacy, their purity, their refinement, the elevation of their whole nature’. [6] Goldwin Smith, in a letter published in The Times, wrote that women’s real object was ‘nothing less than a sexual revolution…deposing the head of the family, forcing women into male employments, and breaking down…every barrier which Nature or custom has established.’ [7]

The ‘different biology and psychology’ argument 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 and that it would be a highly undesirable product of women’s suffrage if women came to shape policy. This was frequently reinforced by their lack of education and it was difficult for many people to believe that women were as capable as men of making intelligent choices as voters. For those who had to conserve their limited energies for the vital and debilitating business of childbearing, politics would simply 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, an eminent if eccentric medical practitioner, expressed this view, most notoriously, in the letter published in The Times in 1912 at the height of the suffragette violence that was reprinted the following year. [8] 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. His attack on ‘militants’ as a justification for denying the vote to women was echoed by others. For instance, Harold Owen, wrote:

The fact, then, that Suffragism has been supported by the vehemence and disorderliness of a few woman is no commendation whatever of the vote being granted as an act of grace. Their earnestness is counter-balanced by the orderly earnestness of women who do not want woman to be enfranchised....[9]

This delicacy of nature and also of physique unfitted women formed the key, traditional military role of the citizen. 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.’ [10] Male suffrage was justified by the fact that men could be called upon to risk their lives for their country, a sacrifice that women would not be asked to make 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. Lord Curzon, an ardent anti-suffragist and former Viceroy of India told Glasgow audiences in 1912 that, if women received the vote, the sub-continent would be lost to the Empire.

The logic of their case was that women could properly be entrusted with municipal affairs, while imperial matters were outside their ‘sphere’; but the two doctrines did not combine very happily together. They [the anti-suffragists] had some trouble with their own members, particularly with the imposing array of Peers who were their vice-presidents, since these gentlemen objected just as strongly to the presence of women on borough councils as anywhere else (outside the home); and the spectacle of their troubles was a constantly recurring delight to their opponents... [11]

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.

There were also fears about the practical results of enfranchising women. If adult suffrage were granted, there would be about 1.5 million more women voters than men. Government would reflect female views and as women were ‘less virile’ than men were it would result in Britain and the Empire being weakened. To concede even a limited vote would lead eventually to complete suffrage and a female majority that might well push anti-male policies. The eminent jurist A. V. Dicey warned that since women constituted the majority of voters they would be in a position to force Parliament into adopting policies opposed by the male minority.[12] 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.

Some opponents of women’s suffrage suggested that the majority of women did not want the vote or at least, did not care whether they had it. This claim was plausible despite the suffragists’ best efforts to disprove it. 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. They maintained that 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. Suffragists, they claimed, were an unrepresentative and small, if vocal minority and their campaign for ‘their own emancipation’ was watched by most women with what in 1892 Asquith, who had long opposed women’s suffrage, called ‘languid and imperturbable indifference’. [13] Two further and somewhat contradictory arguments were put forward. 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. Also, since women were incapable of making decisions and would do what the men in the family told them to do, if they had the vote it would lead to some men, in effect, having several votes more than others.

Above all, the anti-suffragists drew strength from the fact that their membership was not exclusively male. Anti-democratic and hostile to the labour and feminist movements of their day which they saw as a threat to marriage and motherhood, they were ridiculed as absurd by supporters of the parliamentary vote for women. Many women, including some who enjoyed a prominent public role such as Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale and at one time Beatrice Webb, refused to support women’s suffrage although they were often enthusiastic about local government and the need for social action by women to improve the conditions of the poor. For them, involvement in local government was a ‘proper channel’ for ‘womanly’ influence and involved action in areas such as education and the Poor Law, areas of ‘home concerns’ or the upkeep of towns or ‘civic housekeeping’. Mary Ward called women’s civic duties the ‘enlarged housekeeping of the nation’ arguing that their domestic skills were need not just in the private sphere but in the public sphere as well. Bush suggests that the anti-suffrage women leaders were divided into three loose and overlapping groupings, the maternal reformers, the women writers and the imperialist ladies.[14] Although there was a diversity of view, most of the leading women drew their enthusiasm from deeply rooted convictions about womanhood, the nation and empire. It was almost universally assumed that differences between the sexes were natural, and that any major departure from women’s role as wives and mothers would bring social chaos to Britain and the Empire. [15] Their anti-suffragism was social rather than political and reflected the continuing development of their role as women in improving nation and empire. Theirs was a view of citizenship that saw women’s mission as essential to the proper development of the country and in that benign moral vision, the parliamentary vote had no place.

Many of the anti-suffragist arguments represented self-serving pleas by the 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. From the view of the main women’s middle- and upper-class non-political organisations the anti-suffragist claims were far from absurd and reflected mainstream female opinion on desirable gender roles and on women’s positive role in national life. [16] Large women’s organisations such as the Mothers’ Union were not suffrage organisations and even the Women’s Co-operative Guild with 30,000 members did not adopt women’s suffrage until 1900. Anti-suffragist ballots to test public opinion on women’s suffrage suggested that those opposed to votes for women outnumbered suffragists by two to one. [17] 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 small pressure groups until well into the first decade of the twentieth century and shared similar beliefs with anti-suffragists about their social mission to strengthen the family both at home and in the empire through their participation in social activism.


[1] Queen Victoria to Sir Theodore Martin, 29 May 1870, cit, ibid, Rover. Constance, Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics, 1866-1914, p. 34.

[2] Hart, Heber L., Women’s Suffrage and National Danger: A Plea for the Ascendency of Man, (Alexander and Shepheard), 1889, pp. 89-188..

[3] Delap, Lucy, and Heilmann, Ann, (eds.), Anti-feminism in Edwardian literature, 6 Vols. (Thoemmes Continuum), 2006, Heilmann, Ann, and Sanders, Valerie, ‘The rebel, the lady and the ‘anti’: Femininity, anti-feminism, and the Victorian woman writer’, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 29, (2006), pp. 289-300.

[4] Bax, E. Belfont, The Fraud of Feminism, , (Grant Richards Ltd.), 1913, pp. 173-174.

[5] Kinzer, Bruce, The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English Politics, (Garland), 1982.

[6] Gladstone to Samuel Smith MP, 11 April 1892, Matthew, H. C. G., (ed.), The Gladstone Diaries, Vol. 13, 1892-1896, (Oxford University Press), 1994, p. 19.

[7] The Times, 26 May 1896.

[8] Wright, A. E., ‘Militant Hysteria’, The Times, 28 March 1912, reprinted in Wright, Sir Almroth E, The Unexpurgated Case against Woman Suffrage, (Constable and Company Ltd.), 1913, pp. 77-86

[9] Owen, Harold, Woman Adrift. The Menace of Suffragism, (Stanley Paul), 1912, pp. 138-139.

[10] NUWSS, Anti-Suffrage Arguments, (Templar Printing Works), 1913, a poster.

[11] Ibid, Strachey, Ray, The Cause, 1928, pp. 319-320.

[12] Dicey, A. V., Letters to a Friend on Votes for Women, (John Murray), 1909, pp. 69-70.

[13] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 27 April 1892, Vol. 3, c1510.

[14] Bush, Julia, Edwardian Ladies and Imperial Power, (Leicester University Press), 2000, pp. 170-192.

[15] Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain, (Oxford University Press), 2007, pp. 23-139.

[16] Ibid, p. 4.

[17] Ibid, p. 5, results were summarised in The Anti-Suffrage Handbook, (National Press Agency), 1912.

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