Votes for Women
Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1883


Mr HUGH MASON ( president of the National Society for Women's Suffrage) ... I do not mean to make Members of Parliament of women. [Mr WARTON: Why not?] I do not mean to make them soldiers or sailors, or railway stokers, or colliers, or to give them occupations of that kind. But I invariably answer, when I am asked by a man where I mean to stop, having made those reservations, that I do not intend to go beyond the Throne. In this country we have had women as Monarchs wielding the sceptre, and discharging the highest functions of the State, wisely and conscientiously, and patriotically; and surely if women are competent to perform those high duties, in the way which I have described, they are worthy of having conferred on them votes which it is the object of my Resolution to confer.

... We are also told—I will not say whether there is any truth in it or not—that the Parliament of England never yields anything to reason or argument, but that it yields only to fears, and threats, and intimidation. Now, we have never seen the women resorting to threats or intimidation; but their organization, their agitation, has been conducted in the most Constitutional and the most lady-like manner—they have brought no stain whatever upon their sex, or upon the purity of their minds by using expressions or adopting means which would be a disgrace to themselves or to the question with which they are identified. I have known in manufacturing towns, where I have resided all my life—I have known many cases of honest women having drunken and worthless husbands, who neglected their work, neglected the feeding and clothing of their families, neglected their families' education, and who by their vices had considerably shortened their own. lives. I have known those men die; and I have seen their widows left with a number of small children, not one of them possibly able to work; I have seen those women, I will not say manfully, but heroically facing their distressed circumstances, working hard for their children, gradually clothing them, gradually bringing beds and fresh furniture into the houses, for in many cases the furniture in their former homes had been taken away to gratify the vices of their husbands. I have seen them pay their husbands' debts, keep a roof over the heads of themselves and families, educate their children, pay the rent regularly, and yet, because these persons are women, and incomparably superior in every respect to the worthless husbands they had lost a short while before, they are not allowed to give a vote, while the worthless husbands had been allowed that privilege. Will any person venture to tell me that if anyone should have been deprived of the vote, it should not have been the man who so neglected his family and duties, but the woman?

BARON HENRY DE WORMS ... Women have now the advantage of going to the great Universities. Have they destroyed the character of those Universities? Certainly not. They have raised their own position; they have developed their own intelligence; they have shown that they are equally gifted with men. They have shown, now, they have the advantages they did not have formerly; that they are capable of engaging with men in a fair contest of educational warfare. If that be the case, surely it, in itself, speaks volumes in favour of the extension of the suffrage to women. We are apt to consider women by the light in which they were regarded in the days of our forefathers; we are apt to remember how the women of 100 years ago had not opportunities for education; but devoted such energies as they might possess to strumming on the spinet, and exercising their culinary powers in making syllabubs and preserving fruits. All this is changed.

...Another argument which is used against the proposal is, that it is the thin edge of the wedge; that if we allow women to have votes for Members of Parliament, the time will not be far distant when they themselves will aspire to the position of occupying seats in the House... I myself should be the first to oppose anything of the sort, to oppose it strongly... Government is carried on here, as in all countries, by the men of the country.

[In the course of this Parliament] a large measure of electoral reform will be introduced... to extend the franchise now existing in boroughs to labourers in the counties. We may assume that the labourers in counties are not as highly educated as men in the same walk of life in the boroughs. Still, it is intended to extend the franchise to those men; but, at the same time, to refuse to extend the franchise to those women who may be landowners in the country, and who may actually employ those men. Why is that? Simply because they are women. You give the vote to yokels, but you refuse it to the educated women, on whose bread they live. A greater absurdity can hardly be conceived. In point of fact, these women who own land are of a very considerable number. In England and Wales, according to the Return of owners of land in 1872, called The New Doomsday Book, the number of women, who were landowners of one acre and upwards, was given as 37,806 out of 269,547, a proportion of one in seven... They have the same stake in the country as men, they pay the same rates, they have the same responsibilities ... the same privileges in some respects... they are subject to the same penalties.

Mr EDWARD LEATHAM... Let my hon. Friend consider a few of the things which he has to do before he is entitled to proclaim this principle. In the first place, he has to repeal no inconsiderable portions of the law of the land. This clearly decrees the subordination of the sex, at all events in marriage—and marriage is the normal state of woman... And the subordination of the sex in marriage is based upon the declarations of Holy Writ. My hon. Friend, therefore, before he has his way, must expunge certain well-known passages of Scripture. But when he has revised the Scriptures, and amended the law of the land, he will only have reached the beginning of his task. He must proceed to revolutionize the pursuits of woman. These are not at all political, but eminently domestic. It is the pursuits of man which take him away from his home—the robust life of the street and the Forum; the only life, remember, which qualifies for politics. Is woman prepared to join in the rude tussle of the streets? Is she to become more and more masculine every year? Human nature revolts from the idea, and, most of all, that womanly nature which is both the safeguard and the glory of the sex, and which I believe to be invincible. Before my hon. Friend has any right to come down to this House with his unpretending Resolution in his hand, he has to perform one of the labours of Hercules—he has to convince and convert women. For women—I speak of the sex—do not ask for the franchise. This is an undoubted fact...

But no doubt my hon. Friend will say that he does not propose to enfranchise the sex, but only a woman here and there—a few spinsters and widows of a certain standing. Yes; but, so far as he goes, he bases his proposal upon the political equality of the sexes; and the fact that he only proposes to enfranchise one woman in 40, and precisely those women who are the least representative of the sex, only shows how illogical his proposal is.... And he calls this namby-pamby wishy-washy advocacy of Woman's Rights the removal of the electoral disabilities of women. And why are we to enfranchise these women? It cannot be because, as we used to be told, questions affecting woman cannot otherwise be solved fairly by this House; because we have just passed a Married Woman's Property Act, and thus removed the grievance of the sex. And it cannot be because women are taxpayers, because we are no longer living under the Plantagenets; and taxation and representation have long ago shaken hands and parted. In these days of indirect taxation, the man who, for his means, mates the most munificent contribution to the Exchequer is probably the habitual drunkard.

... But my hon. Friend says—"You have broken through the principle of sex already in the municipalities." I know it, and deplore it. But because we have made one mistake, the consequences of which may be trivial, is that any reason why we should make a second and much more serious mistake, the consequences of which may be enormous? The municipal franchise was given to women by a few words slipped into the Municipal Franchise Act at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, when everybody was asleep. The whole question is better understood now; and I venture to think that my hon. Friend will not catch the House napping a second time.

...I am one of those who think that the true woman—pure, faithful, modest, and shrinking from all undue publicity—is noble enough already. Let her aspire to fill the high place to which Revelation and the respect of all good men entitle her, and she will never have cause to sigh because she is forbidden to dabble in the mire of a political election.

Mr ELLIS ASHMEAD-BARTLETT... I think the views of women on the great social and economical and moral questions of the day, which are really of more importance than the so-called political questions, are far more stable than those of men... So far as I have had the advantage of hearing the opinions of women on any definite subject, I have found them devoted—continually, consistently, permanently devoted—to what I may describe as the reformation of the human race. [Laughter.] ... Women are devoted to the cause of temperance, to the cause of morality; they are devoted to the improvement of the condition of the poor, and with more or less, though not quite equal, intelligence to the cause of education. They are a refining and elevating influence in all the social relations of life. ...

MR HENRY FOWLER ... The position of married women is this. A woman by marrying has, deliberately, with her eyes open, surrendered certain advantages—if you like, certain privileges—which would belong to her as a single woman, and she, as a married woman, has no right to complain of the consequences of her marriage. This appeal that is made to Parliament is not made on behalf of married women. Married women are content to leave these interests in the hands of their husbands; and I believe that to introduce a question of political differences into the home would be a step of very grave public danger and disadvantage, and I, for one, should strenuously oppose it.

Mr ALEXANDER BERESFORD HOPE ... To bring forward a suggestion like this one at the eve of a possible Reform Bill, at a time when opinions are seething and agitating, at a time ... which is the reign of omnipotent "fads," to bring forward the idea of enfranchising that charming portion of mankind, whose influence is so beneficent because it is felt, not seen, is one of the most preposterous and, at the same time, one of the most revolutionary suggestions that could possibly be agitated.

JACOB BRIGHT. There is one thing anybody can see with regard to women. No one can accuse them of leading disorderly or criminal lives; nobody can accuse them of drunkenness. If there were as little drunkenness amongst men as there is amongst women, if there were as little crime amongst men as there is amongst women, we should want fewer policemen, fewer prisons, and there would be less burdens and rates on the people.

... A remarkable speech was made in Birmingham the other day by the President of the Board of Trade... The right hon. Gentleman took a prophetic view of what may happen some years hence. He told us that every person not a criminal and not a pauper was to have a vote, provided that person was of the masculine gender. There was no suggestion that for all time to come a woman should have any Constitutional influence over those who made the laws which she is called upon to obey. ... This House sometimes passes laws which apply to women only. It sometimes inflicts grievous penalties upon women which would be intolerable to men. It interferes with the labour of women, perhaps sometimes advantageously to them; but at other times with considerable danger to their interests. Supposing some Assembly were to legislate for men over which men had not the least control. I undertake to say there would not be one man in 1,000,000 who would not see the monstrous injustice of such a state of things. It is somewhat comic that the "time immemorial" argument should be relied upon on these Benches. Many things have existed from time immemorial... If we had always adhered to what had been consecrated by time, instead of now being the for most nation in the world, we should probably be a group of painted savages.

... I admit that women have gained much without the franchise, and I will tell the House when that gain began. It began with the introduction of the question of women's suffrage to the House, and the gain has been mainly due to the awakening intelligence of women on political questions, owing to the widespread agitation and the demand for women's suffrage. ...To give the franchise to men is to raise and to strengthen them. It would have the same effect upon women. Universally, to possess political influence is to command respect, and if women were more respected they would be less open to injury of every kind. ... In conclusion, I shall merely say that clever speeches, from whatever side of this House they come, will not subdue this agitation.

Mr RAIKES ... There is no doubt that many women are quite as well qualified for seats in this House as many hon. Members; and no one can deny that there have been, and are, numerous examples of women of great intellectual capacity, and of high cultivation and attainments, who have specific and peculiar knowledge of many questions on which their opinions are entitled to the highest respect. This is, as far as it goes, an argument in favour of their sitting in this House; but I cannot see that it constitutes a valid reason for flooding the register with all the 95 or 96 per cent of other women, who have not the time or the qualifications for the study of political questions.

... But we are endangering the moral superiority of women if we tell them that their duty in life is not that duty it has hitherto been conceived to be—not that simple round of daily domestic life in which a woman's days are passed. If we are going to detach women from those duties, which reconcile her to the sphere in which her lot is cast, and to ask her to turn her attention to political affairs, to study the columns of the political magazines and daily newspapers, in order to arrive at conclusions on questions which otherwise she could but imperfectly understand, and to expose her to the annoyances which appertain to political and public action; to bring her from that place in which she is so happy, and where she contributes so much to the happiness of the other sex, in order to make her a bad copy of man, the day, I trust, will be long distant when such a result will be achieved.

... When I see men of great gifts, of high aspirations, and noble example, such as (Mr Jacob Bright), who can find nothing better to do than to go about from place to place to try and catch the cheers of poor, unreflecting, and thoughtless women, by uttering conventional platitudes which they may fully believe, but which are sterile of any good for the country, and exciting an agitation out of which no definite result can be achieved; or when I see their female colleagues ascend those platforms and make public speeches—I wish to speak with all due respect of those ladies and of their public aims and aspirations, and even their ambition—I must say that these things cause to me, and to many people in this country who do not belong to this House, and who are not active politicians, something of a feeling of pain, in the presence of a public scandal which we grieve to witness, especially when I see that this is done at the expense of that sex which we all honour and revere... far from deprecating the well-recognized merits of women, I rather desire to preserve that safe and honourable seclusion which is given to them by nature and sanctioned by Revelation, which up to the present time has been respected by the law of England, and will, I trust, in the future, continue to be respected and protected by that law.

THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir HENRY JAMES) ... Ought not a person who claims the rights of citizenship to be able to fulfil all its burdens? What is the first duty of a citizen? It is to defend the country in time of war. It is a principle which has been recognized in every State from the earliest times. Will she do that?

There is another duty of citizenship—to assist in the suppression of internal commotion. Will woman take part in that? Will she be a special constable? Will you make of woman a Justice of the Peace? Will you make her a juryman? Will you allow her to be a Bishop? I will not say that the office of a Bishop represents the greatest degree of unfitness for women; but I might mention different offices, none of which they could fulfil. ... If you are going to put these unfit women into the rights of citizenship, are we to sacrifice the interests of this country in the hope that they will improve?

... What qualifies a man for admission to this House? ... Do we not one and all bring to bear something of a peculiar and particular knowledge? Cannot my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, and others in the same Profession, enlighten us respecting the law? Do not commercial men tell us their views upon trade and commerce? Do not military men give us their experience of armies and of war? To any one of these subjects can woman contribute any experience? She can tell us, no doubt, of her great experience of domestic life; but, unhappily for us, that is not a subject with which we have to deal here.

... What would result if women took part in politics? We should find them timid in time of panic and violent in time of outbreak... If they have to decide questions like these, I am afraid the goodness of their nature will stand them in little stead. We shall have the impulses of hearts rather than the reasoning of minds. ... The women of England have never yet really expressed their opinion upon this question. Were it not for that class of women who are happy in gazing upon, and being gazed upon by crowds, there would be no demand at all for women's suffrage. Those who represent the real feminine feeling of the country do not go to public meetings. ... Men who take but little heed of political life, who find their happiness at home, and who wish to see this country well governed ... will denounce this measure as an influence that can add nothing to the happiness and the strength of any man's domestic life, and that will bring within the action of public men a source of weakness and of impulse detrimental to the very best interests of this country.

The House divided:—Ayes 130; Noes 114: Majority 16.

Mr (later Sir) Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett's younger brother, William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett Burdett-Coutts married the great philanthropist Angela, Baroness Burdett-Coutts and assumed her surname. He was also an MP (Con, Westminster, 1885-1921).

Source: Hansard. Debate edited and notes added by Helena Wojtczak