Arguments for and against women's suffrage: some excerpts from the debate about the Parliamentary Franchise (Extension to Women) Bill 1892

SECOND READING. 27 April 1892

SIR A. ROLLIT (Islington, S.)

'[The] old ground seems to have been taken once again that, this is a proposal "revolutionary in character," "a reversal of the order of nature," that it is "such a change as has never been made since the Creation," and now "put forward for the first time in the world's history." All these expressions are addressed to the proposal to confer upon women a vote for Parliamentary elections which they have long exercised, and exercised with advantage in relation to municipal government. Revolutionary! Why, Sir, this proposal is not even an innovation; for if I remember my history correctly, the franchise, both Parliamentary and municipal, was possessed by women in former times on the same lines as those I suggest today at any rate it was exercised by women from time to time in the election of knights of the shire for Yorkshire and elsewhere.

And, if this privilege of voting by women was extinguished because of its disuse, I must remind the House that the cessation was due to the association of the vote with services in kind [i.e.military service] and that those services have since been commuted, with the result that qualified women do just as much for the Army as most men - namely, help to pay for it. But these criticisms, however forcibly they may have applied to former measures, can have no application to this Bill, which aims, as I say, at a practical - and the only present practicable - solution of the question, and which is based distinctly on the natural, and ultimately inevitable, development of our principles of representative government. And so we hope this extension will secure proper regard for the interests of those who are now unrepresented among the electorate. enfranchisement has hitherto proceeded on two great main lines: - the possession of qualifying property and contributions to taxation.

The arguments of our opponents are too often contradictions in terms. If women press for this extension, then "they are agitators, and their demand should not be complied with;" if they do not agitate, then "they are indifferent on the subject." If many Petitions are presented, then "they are got up by organisation;" if the Petitions are few, then "you see women do not want this extension." If the platform is occupied, then "there is reason to fear the invasion of Parliament by the advocates of female suffrage;" if the platform is not resorted to, then "there is no popular feeling in favour of the proposal."

The House, perhaps, hardly realises how many landlords [i.e. landladies] are in the unfortunate position of having lost their husbands, and yet are carrying on their farms, employing numbers of labourers who have votes, while they, though more qualified in every respect, have none, simply and only because they are women! Few know how many women are farmers and graziers - some 20,000...

It may be said that this vote is beyond the sphere of women's intelligence and knowledge of politics. It is not necessary that women should know - it is not possible that they - or we - or anyone - can know the whole range of politics at the present time. ... What women can, and do, understand better than men can understand for them is their own interests.'

Mr S. SMITH (Flintshire) 'I believe that, with one voice, all the leaders of this agitation will claim absolute equality as between men and women; this is the goal at which they are aiming, and nothing less will satisfy them. Most of those who will vote for this Bill intend at the first opportunity to widen it so as to equalise the franchise as between men and women; and should Parliament pass this Bill, what will be our position at the first General Election at which women vote? The country will be overrun with female orators inciting women to remove the stigma placed on their sex; the 800,000 or 900,000 female electors will be urged to vote only for those candidates who will promise to put men and women on an equal footing ...

The grant of the franchise claimed by this Bill will necessitate in the following Parliament the further grant of absolute political equality as between men and women... I do not wish to see it. I believe that most Members here do not wish to see it and the world will see the first instance in history of a great Empire ruled by women. No one who has watched this agitation can doubt that women will then claim and enforce their right to sit in Parliament, and we shall then see not only the Mrs. Fawcetts and the Miss Cobdens of the future, but the Mrs. Besants and the Miss Helen Taylors sitting on these Benches.

Men, as a rule, gain a rough experience of the world; they mix in workshops and clubs, and discuss the politics of the day, and in a rough sort of way make up their minds on the current topics. Nearly all of them read newspapers and attend public meetings, but how few women have either the taste or opportunity of doing this? How few women take an interest in politics, or read speeches, or attend meetings? It is doubtful whether out of the ten or eleven millions of adult women even one million ever read a political speech, or care the least about politics. What are the vast majority of these women? Several millions of them are wives and mothers; the great majority of them are wives of working men, struggling with families of small children from early morning till late at night, utterly unable to study the complicated questions which come before Parliament. What they do read is mostly the religious serial, or the cheap novel, and it is impossible for them to frequent clubs and public meetings without ruin to their children. Of the women who are not married the vast majority are domestic servants shop girls, factory girls, sempstresses, barmaids, &c., and I ask this House what knowledge of politics do they possess? If a census could be taken of their reading, I verily believe that not one in ten would be found ever to read a speech or care a rush about politics. The clever political women who really study politics are a mere handful, perhaps not one per cent of the whole women of this country, and for then sakes we are asked to revolutionise our Government.

It is no valid argument to say that it is a shame to deny the franchise to a clever intelligent lady, and give it to her coachman or her butler. That is not the question before us. The real question is whether women as a whole are as fit to exercise the franchise as men as a whole, and I deny that they are, or can ever be. Men as a class naturally take to politics when they get a chance; but women will not, because the bent of their minds is different. They live - that is, the great bulk of them do - by the heart more than the head, and the enfranchised servant girl will continue to prefer the novelette to the Times or the Daily News. There are certain professions and occupations that women can never fill so well as men. They never will make soldiers, or sailors, or policemen, or Judges, or clergymen ...and they will never become politicians, because their minds recoil from it.

The Bible teaches in the most explicit form the subordination of woman to man, especially in the marriage state. "The husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the Head of the Church" Is the uniform language of Scripture, repeated in one form or another hundreds of times. Could a greater calamity befall the human race than to undermine this sacred institution? I much doubt that with female franchise will arise an agitation for substituting perfect equality as between husband and wife, and, should that be successful, a time of social chaos would ensue. Since the time of John Stuart Mill, who repudiated the marriage law of the New Testament, an agitation has arisen for what is called the emancipation of women. I look with dread upon this movement. It is at bottom directed against those organic laws for the guidance of the sexes which the Creator has laid down.

Europe has had one instance of the effects of the emancipation of women from those natural restraints which God and Nature have placed upon them. In the most corrupt times of the Roman Empire there was a movement for absolute equality between the sexes, and all laws were repealed which recognised any superiority on the part of man. Will the House allow me to quote an extract from the great historian Gibbon, showing the effects of this legislation? "When the Roman matrons became the equal and voluntary companions of their lords, a new jurisprudence was introduced that marriage, like other partnerships, might be dissolved by the abdication of one of the associates. In three centuries of prosperity and corruption this principle was enlarged to frequent practice and pernicious abuse. Passion, interest, or caprice suggested daily motives for the dissolution of a marriage: a word, a sign, a message, a letter, the mandate of a freedman declared the separation; the most tender of human connections was degraded to a transient society of profit or pleasure." Under this state of things it was not unusual for a wife to have 20 husbands in succession, and a husband as many wives. I must express my deepest conviction that it is perilous in the last degree to tamper with those Divine laws which govern the relations of the sexes.

A peaceful and pure home life is the true foundation of all national wellbeing. That happy home life can only be found when wives and mothers make the family the centre of their being. All that tends to draw them from this is pernicious. The outside attractions are already too strong in this restless age. Why add to them enormously by pushing women into the maelstrom of politics? Already there is a dangerous disinclination to marriage among young men. The decline in the marriage rate is an ominous feature of the times. For the decade ending 1860 it was 16.9 per thousand annually, for the decade ending 1890 it was only 14.9, being a decline of twelve and a half per cent. I much fear that under womanhood suffrage a still further decline will occur. Most men hate a noisy, turbulent, home life; they do not wish wives that claim equality, and fight for their rights. A silent distaste for marriage might be one of the results of what is falsely called the emancipation of women. I say that it is falsely so called, for it is really a diversion of women from their natural sphere of wifehood and motherhood. I believe the ultimate effect of pushing them in the maelstrom of politics will be to produce an increasing silent distaste for married life...

In no country are women accorded greater liberty than here, nowhere do they use the Press and the platform more freely. Some of them have splendid gifts; and no one grudges them a sphere for their use; but why should they insist on forcing the franchise on their unwilling sisters? A clever woman can wield a thousand times more influence by speech and writings than by a vote. Remember, that when once given it will be difficult for any woman to abstain; she will be canvassed incessantly, and get no peace till she pledges herself. And elections will be far more frequent in the future than in the past...Fancy a wife receiving a crowd of canvassers in her husband's absence, and probably going, with her political associates to one meeting, and her husband to another. How long would domestic life stand such a strain? I ask the House to pause before taking this terrible leap in the dark. It is the most revolutionary proposal of our time.'

SIR W. B. BARTTELOT (Sussex, North West). 'I will ask the House whether, supposing this Bill, which is called a moderate measure, is passed into law, they think they are going to stop there; and whether, having started the ball rolling, they will not find it increases its pace; and whether, before very long, we shall not only have all the widows and spinsters with votes, but whether we shall not find married women asking to have votes also ... The result would be more women voters than men voters, and I should like to ask the House what the position of this great country would be if placed in that peculiar position? ... What I should like to ask the House is, How can she perform all the duties and bear all the responsibilities men are called upon to undertake? I will venture to say that such can never be the case. Another thing I should like to point out is that those who feel that woman, having got the franchise, would not advocate coming into this House, are miserably mistaken, and even you, Mr Speaker, might have an opponent in a lady, supposing women were admitted to this House... Although there may be some women masculine in all their ways, yet the majority of women - those loving and sympathetic women whom we all so much respect and admire - we have to protect, and I, for one, will not place upon them a burden they are unfit and unable to bear.

You are going to put women in antagonism with men. That is a very serious question to be borne in mind. You are going to put them in a relation of life which we have been taught should never exist. They are going to be put in the position of men, and very likely, if the wife is of a different opinion from her husband, the most unpleasant consequences may ensue in that particular family. In this House you shut the ladies up with a grill before them, and do not allow them to look at you if it can be helped, in order that your attention should not be distracted. Do you suppose for a moment that if the ladies got the vote they would not claim to be in the other Gallery, and indeed in every part of the House where strangers are now allowed to sit?

I should like to ask the House whether they think women would be the most fitting persons to manage this great Empire in times of danger, of anxiety, of panic, and of trouble of all sorts. What would you think of a woman - and we all know there are women of that class - who would leave their families and all they hold most dear and sacred and go into the public arena, and make speeches, and take part in questions about which, perhaps, they know little or nothing? I say what can be more unwise than to place the future destinies of this country in their hands? ... there would be 10,500,000 women with votes, as against only 9,500,000 of men voters. I will ask the House to consider what position this country would be in if at any great crisis, with, perhaps, peace and war trembling in the balance, we had to depend upon the vote of the women of this country. ... if you pass this Bill you will place women in a position for which they are unfitted, and I believe the effect would be most mischievous to women themselves.'

Mr WOODALL (Hanley) ... 'We are told that many women would protest against a measure which would expose them to some inconvenience. My hon. Friend reminded the House that in the discussion with regard to the abolition of slavery it was contended that the negroes themselves did not desire the liberty which it was proposed to give them ...

The irony of the situation is that while so many hon. Members hesitate to confer the vote upon women they are willing to have them associated with them in the rough work of political contests, acting on electoral committees, undertaking the work of canvassing, and persuading men how they are to vote, and in the course of which women have displayed the very highest kind of political acumen, almost amounting to that of professional experts.

Members say that women do not desire a vote... what has been the experience of the use made by women of the vote in municipal affairs? We find that they vote in something like the same proportion as the male voters.'

Mr BRYCE (Aberdeen, S.) said he wanted 'the fullest social equality and the freest entrance into all professions and occupations' for women, but also that: 'I believe politics will do them more harm than good. Political work is exposed to serious temptations, and there are certain things in the constitution of women which make them more liable to succumb to those temptations than men... the participation of women in voting, and that which must follow voting - sitting in this House, and the participation in all the active work of governing - will ultimately lead to a revolution in the social relations of the two sexes which will be not only momentous, but, so far as we can see, disastrous.'

SIR H. JAMES (Bury, Lancashire) 'In the main our politics are composed of practical subjects, and they must depend for their decision upon practical knowledge. We hear discussed here questions affecting the control of the Army, and we listen to military men on the subject. Naval questions are also discussed, and we have the opinions of naval men to guide us. Commercial life is represented by commercial men, and even legal matters are represented by lawyers. Now, upon none of these subjects can we receive practical assistance from any woman, she not being a member of any of these professions. Yet it is proposed to give the preponderating influence to women, who are unskilled from lack of practical knowledge, while at the polling booth, as well as in Parliament, women will be allowed to take the same share as men in deliberating on and determining questions of which they are totally ignorant.

If the principle of Parliamentary equality is established, all the positions of this House must be open for women, even that of being a "Whip" ... The result is that we should be regarded as a nation of women instead of a nation of men.

FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr A. J. BALFOUR, Manchester, E.) 'In my opinion women could not with advantage to themselves, or to the community, take part in the labours of a great deliberative Assembly like this. That is a reason for not giving them a seat in this House, but is it a reason for not giving them an opportunity of expressing an opinion and giving a vote every four or five years?

Source: Hansard. Debate edited by Helena Wojtczak