Women’s Suffrage

This article, although boaring particularly on the movement affecting England at the present time, contains a great deal which is of universal interest in connection with the subject of women in politics.


Women’s Suffrage

This article, although boaring particularly on the movement affecting England at the present time, contains a great deal which is of universal interest in connection with the subject of women in politics.


Women’s Suffrage


This article, although boaring particularly on the movement affecting England at the present time, contains a great deal which is of universal interest in connection with the subject of women in politics.

To prevent misconception of the treatment which this much-debated subject is to receive in the present article, it may be stated at the outset that it is an endeavor to show that the extension of the franchise to women would be detrimental rather than beneficial to the welfare of the community as a whole.

It does not, indeed, require more than the average endowment of the faculty of looking ahead to perceive that in the political enfranchisement of women there can be no half measures, and that, in the long run, the franchise must be extended to all women or to none at all. At present the hardship of non-parliamentary representation does undoubtedly press most heavily on women householders or ratepayers who desire the vote. But the inadequacy of this limit to the non-recognition of women in our present parliamentary system would become apparent as soon as it were removed bv the extension of the franchise to this class of women, and followed, as it would inevitably be, by its extension to women lodgers. Women of property would naturally resent the disfranchisement that marriage would bring with it, and women lodgers would be in the same predicament. It is unnecessary to point out the confusion that would arise if some wives—those, namely, who are women of property—had votes and some had not, or if wives and daughters in all classes of society could qualify themselves for the vote by money payments for rooms to their respective husbands and fathers. Or again, take those cases in which the wife and not the husband is the owner of the residence, and in which she and not he would be logically and legally entitled to the vote. In short, there seems no reason why, if women are to have the parliamentary vote, marriage should disqualify them for the exercise of that privilege.

When, therefore, we reflect on the tyranny of taxation without representation, we must also not shut our eyes to the fact that some forms of tyranny—and especially such forms of it as are likely to be exercised by the average fair-minded and conscientious English statesmen towards women and their interests—may be preferable to the political chaos that might ensue if the vote were given to some women and not to all, or if, as an alternative, all women were entitled to enter the political arena with the same rights and on the same footing as men.

It cannot, of course, be denied that here and there are to be found women who have in them the making of politicians, nor can it be asserted that clever women are not clever enough enough to become politicians or anything else for which intellectual qualifications are necessary. But this does not upset the view held by many people, on similar lines with men, in the political life of this country.

The main feature of this unfitness seems to lie in the simple fact of a woman being a woman, and in all that womanhood involves and implies, both as regards physical and social functions. This statement is vague, but he who runs may read, and read into it much that cannot be said here, and that need not be, since it is a part of common daily experience.

The great and uncompromising gulf which nature has placed between the sexes, seems to be accentuated rather than bridged over by the refinements of civilization, and the result of this increasing differentiation in physique shows itself in many ways, but mostly, perhaps in the highly emotional nature of woman and

in her variability. Souvent femme varie ! These words are no more familiar than true, and the same may be said of Scott’s oft-quoted refrain on some of the characteristics, charming and otherwise, of the six.

It would, however, at the present day—when we are confronted with a new order of psychological philosophy known as “Pragmatism,” which lays great emphasis on the emotional element in all intellectual processes— be unwise to underrate the part contributed by feeling and sentiment towards the formation of the political convictions of either sex. But, however this may be, it must be admitted that the emotional nature of woman, all valuable as it is as an incentive to many activities in the home and beyond it, is not to be relied on for guidance when the matter in question is one in which the hereditary instincts and intuitions of her sex cannot help, and which calls for farsightedness, broadmindedness, logical reasoning and impartially—in short, for all the qualities which go to make what we call a well-balanced mind. Such a type of mind is not too common in either sex, but the contention here is that it is much more rarely found in a woman than in a man.

Ignorance of politics and absence of interest in them is not a prerogative of either sex, an asesrtion which will be borne out by many who engage in the work of canvassing for elections, parliamentary or otherwise. But the importance of granting or withholding the vote does not depend on the attitude of incompetent voters of either sex towards the franchise, since, in the political game, the ignorant and non-reflecting members of the community must always be the prey of the clever, and their votes represent not the convictions of even the opinions of the voters, but the electioneering spoils of the most adroit canvassing. Apropos of the extension of the franchise to women on the ground of the incompetency of masses of male voters, Ruskin’s remarks in “Arrows of the Chace” may well be quoted here. “So far,” he says, “from wishing to give votes to women, I would fain take them from most men.”

Turning to another aspect of the question of female parliamentary representation, we may consider the application to it of the principle that fitness to exercise new powers and responsibilities can only be acquired or proved by affording opportunities for its use.

Here we find ourselves drawn into a comparison with the laws which govern physical as well as social evolution. The evolution and development of any physical function depends on its use, and disuse means, in the long run, atrophy. Similarly with social functions, use brings increase of power to use, and inaction incapacity, and in both cases habit becomes, as we say, “second nature.”

“And the moral of that is”—easy to see, and to apply to the case in point. Given the opportunity to become practical politicians, and to play a full part with men in the rough-andtumble game of party politics in England, women might, at least the majority of thinking women might, develop the fitness for this new departure in their activities, but at what price?

Mr. Asquith, in his recent reply to an address presented to him by a deputation of East Fife ladies, hints at the possible “price” in the following ominous words.:

Better that no addition should be made to the opportunities for ventilating-, and perhaps remedying, special grievances or special interests of particular classes of women than that they should be dearly purchased in the interests of the sex and of the community at large ; if at the same time you may have to pay as your price lor suffrage—and I am very much afraid you would have to pay it—the putting in jeopardy of the status, the position, the real authority, the unique position of women as a whole in the community. The one thing sounds tangible and direct, the other intangible, almost abstract ; but you must weigh them against one another. You may be sure that any change of this kind will not commend itself to the general opinion and the intelligence of the nation unless you can satisfy them that you can carry it through without

permanent injury to the best interests of women themselves.

Such are the apprehensions of a modern statesman, and from them we can turn our minds backwards through the years and recall some not unsimilar forebodings on the part of John Bright, when he saw the vote exercised in municipal elections by the women of Lancashire. He says :

I know one place in my own neighborhood where scenes of the most shocking character took place. Women were served with what certainly was not good or wholesome for them until the poll closed. I know at another borough in Lancashire at the last general election there were women by hundreds drunk and disgraced under the temptations that were offered in the fierceness and unscrupulousness of a political contest. . . I confess I am unwilling, for

the sake of women themselves, to introduce them into the contest of our Parliamentary system. I think they would lose much of that which is best that they now possess, and that they would gain nothing from being mingled or mixed with the contest and the polling-booth.

Let us hope that the conditions which John Bright describes here are now an impossibility under any political system in this country, but his concluding words fit the situation as much to-day as when they were uttered, and express a sentiment which is very widely spread amongst men, and which still numbers amongst its sympathizers many women.

So far in this article the question of female suffrage has been approached mainly on the theoretical side, but now let us look at it from the practical point of view and ask, “Do the majority of English women desire the parliamentary vote, and the political status and responsibility which it entails?” Information on this point is difficult to obtain, and even if statistics were available, perhaps knowledge of the type of women who desire or who do not desire this change in our political machinery might be a surer guide to its value from the sociological standpoint.

At present nearly all the agitation has been raised by the women who do urgently desire the change, and on the other side there has been mostly silence. But now there are not wanting signs of the times which show that this silence may not always be taken for the slumber of indifference and it would be dangerous to take for granted that all femine political interest and activity is. on the side of those women whose goal is the political emancipation of their sex. In Mr. Asquith’s speech, from which quotation has already been made, he asks : “What is the evidence that the change is desired by the majority of women themselves?” and adds:

I have yet seen no satisfactory evidence on that point, and I do not know that such evidence is procurable. Allow me to assure you that has been a serious hindrance, for this is after all a very great constitutional change, and there is no case in our history in which a constitutional change of this kind has been effected without the clearest possible proof that it was desired and, indeed, demanded by the vast majority of those in whose interest it was made.

These words of Mr. Asquith show the gravity of this “practical” aspect of the question in its strongest light, and need no addition to them here. But whether or no the majority of the women of this country desire the vote, there can be no doubt that in the event of universal adult suffrage, the majority of the voters would be women, a fact which is sufficiently startling to “give us pause” when we consider its revolutionary features.

A few rough statistics may help to bring this home in a practical sense.

Roughly speaking, the male population of the British Isles is twenty millions, the female being twentythree millions. These * figures, of course, include those under age who not qualified for a vote. But if we divide the numbers roughly, taking the statistical figures of four to a family, we have ten million adult men and eleven and a half million adult women.

These figures do not pretend to be accurate, but—if we once admit the principle that it is the right of women to exercise the franchise on equal terms with men, and if we, at the same time, recognize a tendency of the times which may eventually

lead to manhood suffrage—they serve to indicate a proportion of female voters which is sufficiently formidable to foreshadow a change in our electoral system besides which even the Great Reform Bill shrinks into comparative insignificance.

Such a change might conceivably result in female parliamentary representatives, indeed the outcome of it might even be a preponderance of female members of Parliament. But the present writer feels unfitted for the task of peering into a political and parliamentary future so far removed from present conditions that it would need the power of a Mr. H. G. Wells to transport us thither.

The return to more beaten tracks leads to the consideration of another practical side of the association of women with politics.

Our existing system, although excluding women as voters, does already allow of a very considerable outlet for feminine political influence and activity, and with this advantage, viz., that now those women only who have leisure, taste, and aptitude for the work are drawn into the net.

This, then, is the answer to those who argeue that it is absurd to draw the line at full political emancipation for a woman when so many other new doors of activity are open to admit her, at her will. “At her will !” But in the event of the Suffragists having their way, her “will” is not consulted and the political responsibility of the vote, and of all that this may ultimately entail, is forced upon her quite apart from her individual wish or fitness to assume this responsibility. And there is another advantage attaching to the political work now undertaken by the women of this country, in that it is mainly concerned with those departments of it in ¿vhich the natural efficiency of the average woman finds fullest play. Politicians are eager to recognize and to avail themselves of the valuable help rendered by women in the work of political organization on its social side. This is the side which calls for tact, patience, tolerance of detail, personal sympathy and interest, and many such qualities which are often mostly conspicuous by their absence in the sterner sex. Women sufferagists will probably regard such work as this, as being on too trivial a scale to satisfy the mildest of their aspirations, and from their own point of view they are of coure right not to rest content with it. But even they must admit that it is a sphere of political work which, if not covered by women, is not likely to be covered at all, and also that it is one in which the political ambitions of a good many of their sex find satisfaction.

And now we come to the consideration of that which is, from the national and imperial standpoint by far the most important of the issues involved in throwing open the doors of political life to the women of this country, viz., the possible effect of the movement on the health and on the physical responsibilities of our women, on the mothers of the race. So much might be said upon this side of the question, and so much also that is sufficiently obvious to speak for itself, that it is only necessary here briefly to mention one or two of the more important points connected with it.

The first which comes to mind is the decreasing birth rate in the upper classes of English society. What effect would the addition of political life, to the many and complex demands now made upon the time and powers of the women of these classes —in a score of directions undreamed of by their grandmothers—have upon child-bearing? One can almost picture a condition in social life in which women might say. “We have no time for children, our lives otherwise occupied, our powers must be reserved for other uses !”'

Then, take the question of infant mortality among the lower classes. Here generally there is no lack of child-bearing, but a lack of childrearing. What would be the effect on the mothers in these classes of bringing the contentious influence of party politics into their already crowded and often ill-regulated lives, thus affording them one more opportunity

for neglecting to learn how to be useful. in their own homes ? The woman who is too ignorant or too careless to preserve the lives of her own offspring has no claim or ability to take part in legislation.

Then, again, consider the effects which the excitement of a Parliamentary election, or of any special political agitation, public meetings and the like, might have upon many women in “delicate health,” and especially those of the less protected classes, if called upon or at least entitled to take part in it all and swell the numbers of their respective political parties. Surely the community, which does not permit its women to “take up arms” in its cause, has some right to shelter them from The risks attendant upon political warfare.

Apart from these special considerations there is the general increase of wear and tear, and of mental and nervous strain, upon the more delicate frame and constitution of woman which is entailed by her entrance into political life, and which cannot fail to leave its mark on her physique, and, if on lier physique, ultimately on that

In short, there seems so little to be said in favor of political life for woman from the point of view of her physical well-being, that that little must be left to others to discover. It will probably be urged that vromen voters would conduce to the passing of measures for the redress of woman’s grievances and wrongs, and thus tend to promote in general ways the physical well-being of the sex. But people who argue thus seem to forget that it does not need the practical machinery of a parliament elected in part by women’s votes to redress women's wrongs, otherwise women would not hold the high position or wield the powerful influence in political and many other circles which is theirs to-day. The statesman whose work and achievements will stand the test of time are those who recognize that the best interests of women are bound up with those of the race, although not all such men may hold that their interests may be best served by inviting women themselves to drive the political machinery which is, after all, but the means of their end. As well might it be said that children’s votes are needed to further the interests of children (not that any comparison between women and children is here intended) ; and yet, so susceptible are the hearts of even male legislators towards the claims of the most powerless members of the community, that one of the saddest of their evils, child-labor in mines, found its remedy mainly through the emotional havoc wrought by a poem, and by a poem written by a woman.

Child-labor in mines is no more, but child-labor in homes, and of a dreary and deadening description, is still with us, as we learn from the report of recent investigations made by the Home Office into the work of “juvenile carders” in Birmingham. And it is much to be regretted that the women who waste their strength in combats with the police, and their time in Holloway Prison, cannot find in this or kindred objects a more enticing field for the zeal they display as agitators.

But misdirected energy and sentimentality are among the political curses of our age and country, and women of public spirit, whose combined efforts might achieve much useful work, spend their powers in clamoring for the technical political recognition of the suffrage. As if the suffrage were the panacea of all the ills and disabilities which feminine flesh is heir to, instead of being the merest phantom of one !

They would be better advised to show their ability as politicians by formulating some definite remedial proposals with respect to the grievances for the redress of which they desire the power behind the vote, and in that case they would not improbably find that our present parliamentary system, though it “grinds slowly,” is yet sufficiently representative to secure to each section of society its “rights,” whether that section be armed with the vote or not.

There is, no doubt, a considerable class of suffragists, and especially of the older type of suffragist, to whom

these strictures do not apply. But they probably do apply to a good many of the women agitators of the present day, from whose tactics it may reasonably be surmised that their political outlook is largely bounded by the idea of the vote, rather than by the purposes for which the vote is wanted. For instance, in the last raid by the Suffragists on the House of Commons, a good portion of the raiders were said to be extremely young, and it may be naturally inferred from this that their political horizon, though it may have been rosy, was a limited one.

In truth, the disabilities of women in trade, in the labor market, and in every department of life where she enters into competition with men, are due, not to want of direct political representation, not to antagonism between the sexes (for such antagonism is, au fond, against nature), but to her own natural disabilities, the disabilities of womanhood. The man is first the wage earner, the woman first the mother, and on these two laws hang all, or nearly all, the inequalities which woman suffragists are so confident of diminishing by means of women’s votes.

There is a side issue involved in the making of women politicians which may be touched on in conclusion. One of the weak points in a woman's intelectual activity is said to be her absorption in the details of a question, even to the length, sometimes, of blinding her view of the point which is of paramount importance. The truth that lies in this is probably due to the fact that all the details which go to make up the complex structure of modern domestic, family, and social life are, to a very large extent, the woman’s province. The adjustment of these details, their organization and distribution, call for powers and energy of no mean order, and their neglect by women would inevitably result in social chaos. It follows, therefore, that her passion for detail, so far from being detrimental to a woman’s mental equipment, is necessary for the preservation of social order ; and farther, that, if a woman must divest herself of this or any other valuable characteristic, in order tc don the mantle of the politician and the legislator, the community, as a whole, stands to gain far less politically than it loses socially, by the political enfranchisement of its women.