Select Page

The Right of Every Woman
to the Sovereignty of Her Own Person

October 15, 1874 —  Fourth Annual Meeting, Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights, Bristol, England


The Report just read has shewn us a number of subjects for reform which have been dealt with by this Society. That there is a certain unity in the aims of the Society, and a certain likeness between the different reforms obtained or projected, will be apparent to all. It will be clear to all that every reform undertaken, and every measure opposed by this Society, has been undertaken or opposed with the object of redressing or preventing a clear wrong, an injury existing or threatened to some portion of the community who are unable to help themselves, or to redress their own wrongs. The work aimed at by the Society, on the face of it, will, therefore commend itself to the judgment of all right-feeling people.

But beyond this general harmony of the objects aimed at, there is a deeper principle of unity which is not at once nor so easily perceived, and which, in fact, requires yet to be fully worked out. It is there, however; and it is natural that those who have laboured hard in the work of this Society, pre-eminently the Secretary of it, who has been the life and soul of the work, the head and the heart alike, and whose self-denying labours entitle her to the gratitude of all the poor and oppressed in this land — it is natural, I say, that these should be anxious that the public should now possess a clearer understanding of the moral principle underlying all their action.

It is true that the general progress of many separate aims tending in one direction may be accompanied with inconsistencies. It may be asked of this Society — “If you take up this or that question of rights, infringed or neglected, why do you omit certain others which we can show you? Why do you take up certain cases of personal wrong, and pass by others?’ We reply, that any shortcoming, or apparent contradiction in the work of this Society hitherto, is nothing more than what usually, I might say invariably, accompanies the stage of inquiry and tentative action which immediately precedes the arrival at a great principle. Single cases of wrong or abuse arrest attention, and are worked out on their special grounds, before the existence of a general principle is clearly understood even by those who are doing the work, and before it is even suspected by the general public. Persons interested in one or other branch of the work of this Society have not uncommonly given their support exclusively to that one branch, professing sometimes to feel no sympathy with the other objects for which the Society was labouring, too short of vision to go beyond the one case of reform which their own judgment ap proved as necessary, they have sometimes unconsciously set aside the very foundations of the whole work, and discredited that on which they must themselves rely for their justification in promoting the one reform in which they were interested. At last, however, this laborious toiling in single instances, is followed by a more wide and leisurely survey of the whole field of motive and action; and it now begins to be apparent that every narrow tangled path has had, in fact, the same general direction, although it had its own special object. Far greater and simpler considerations begin to settle every question which comes before the Society; and it is only necessary to await the gradual enlightenment of those who have contracted their views to their own particular questions, to perceive that these first pathways of a new moral and political activity are widening right and left, until they unite in one clear, broad, and consistent highway of established principle.

I shall not here attempt any definition of the principle which underlies the work of this Society, further than that which the title suggests; such an attempt would be premature, so long as we are in the stage of discovery, and of gradual but sure advance towards the establishment of the fundamental principle. When it is fully developed, it will be more clearly seen through the action grounded upon it, than through any mere verbal definition but I may recall your attention to the title of Personal Rights.

I suppose it will be admitted that men have a consciousness of right. This sense, it is true, is often confused, obscure, and not seldom self-contradictory; but so, without culture, are all the instincts and powers of man, and in the clearing away of such confusion lies much of the substance of true education and progress. The sense of right, and its relation to duty, becomes brighter, clearer, simpler, and more uniform in its decisions, as men advance morally, and in other respects. Essentially, however, it exists everywhere.

It is necessary to distinguish between the senses in which we use the word “right.” It may be right for a man to behave civilly to me; but if he fails to do so, it does not follow that it is right for me to beat him into good manners. It may be right for a man to seek his own improvement in knowledge; but it does not follow that I have a right to compel him to do so, or that he has a right to compel me to teach him. It may be right for me to relieve my neighbour in distress; but it does not follow that, however distressed he may be, he has a right to take my goods without my consent.

Again, it is not everything which makes a man worse off, which is necessarily a wrong inflicted on him; nor does it follow that we have a right, in consequence, to interfere in his favour by force, that is, by government, however much we may pity him. For example, all the laborious years of an inventor may be rendered blank and profitless by the later thought of some more talented fortunate inventor. Human life abounds with such cases, and upon them has frequently arisen a confused notion of individual rights and wrongs, and an appeal for governmental interference which has produced only mischief. It is in part due to the neglect of these distinctions that law-making and government, even when conducted with a tolerable measure of good intention, have often become an oppressive complication of interferences. In countries little advanced, the power of government is exerted, here for some things, there for others, until the objects of human legislation present, perhaps, the strangest medley that it would be possible to collect. Few works would more startle men, or do more service, than a simple list of them. On the mass of these inconsistent matters men greatly disagree; what seems good legislation here seems folly there; here a dress or a ceremony is enforced by law; there a different dress and a different ceremony; and so on through the whole. Yet at the bottom of all there has been a sense of right, though an ill-constructed, dim, and ill-exercised sense.

But setting aside the things on which men disagree, there are some rights about which all agree, and these are not difficult to characterise. The Vigilance Association will not fail to secure a full justification before the public for all it has done, and for what it hopes to do, if it retrenches from the list of rights all claims of a disputed or doubtful character, and tenaciously holds fast to those rights about which men are agreed, beginning by the limitation of the term “right” in its political sense, as laid down in Magna Charta itself, the claim for security of person and property. I think this amount of right will not be disputed by any, Even among thieves the principle of the security of property obtains; for however they may wage war on the rest of the world, they immediately resent among themselves the appropriation by one thief of the plunder acquired by the efforts of another.

Beyond what pertains to man as man, labour is instinctively the origin and justification of property, and the foundation of right; other rights, valid as they may be, are derivative. On this subject of labour I shall have more to say presently.

Beyond the severe definition of rights laid down by Magna Charta, we may go further, and embrace, without fear of disagreement or dispute, the rights of children, the right they have to maintenance and protection at the hands of their parents, and failing their parents, of the State, so long as they are incapable of supporting or protecting themselves. These rights of children and persons of a tender age, have been advocated and defended by this Society, in the attempted reforms of the Mutiny Act, and the changes effected in the Seduction law, and laws for the protection of young girls.

I might mention certain other rights, the sense of and desire for which have very gradually dawned upon the minds of men in modern nations, with the advance of political thoughts, such as the right based on the belief that all men are equal, that distinctions in authority and power, so far as they are admitted, should be admitted only by general consent for the general good; that eve, man is naturally entitled to liberty; that the restraints to be put on that liberty can only be justly ordained by an authority in which he shares; that such an authority, in a large community, can only be exercised by delegation, and that he who shares in deputing those who make the laws, exercises his liberty in the only way he can consistently with the magnitude of the nation to which he belongs. It would not have been inconsistent with the principles of this Society that it should, in the midst of a nation of men reaching out their hands for the full satisfaction of this lately developed sense of rights, advocate the identical claim of the half of the nation now excluded on account of sex from this exercise of liberty. That it does not do so is explained by the existence of an organisation existing for this purpose alone. Thus the work of this Society is just so far limited.

It may be said, then, that that for which this Society contends, in principle, is, to express it generally and comprehensively, the right of the individual conscience, which demands freedom in the region of action as well as of thought, restricted only by the equal rights of others, that is, by the law of justice; in other words, it is freedom for moral progress.

Now, as to the actual work of this Society, it would be a mistake to suppose that its task is that of defending personal rights against accidental infringements, or the redress of individua, wrongs proceeding from individual outrage; such wrongs can be redressed by being brought before our law courts, and such rights can be maintained by the ordinary appeal to the laws. The peculiarity of the work of this Association is that it has been, and of necessity must be, mainly directed against certain laws them selves, against existing or projected legislation of an unjust, unwise, or overbearing character, and against the aggressions of Government in certain Departments acting without the sanction of laws approved by the people, enacted after due discussion, and under the public eye. The necessity of defending personal rights against the Acts of the Legislature itself, is strikingly illustrated in some of the matters brought before you in the Report now read; as, for example, the ordaining by Government that the soldiers of our army shall live under conditions which imply, and even necessitate, a distinct violation of the most sacred rights of children; their right of maintenance at the hands of their fathers.

The necessity for the existence of a Society for Vigilance was, indeed, in the first place forced into notice by an aggressive Act of the Legislature, which violated the most sacred of all rights; a right which may be said to have been conferred and incontestibly established by nature herself: I allude to the right of every woman to the sovereignty of her own person. It might have appeared incredible that any legislature, any council of men on earth, should have had the hardihood and wickedness to violate, and to decree the violation, of this most sacred right. But it has been done; we have lived to see it; and this being the case, out confidence is shaken, and we have learned to realize not only that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” but that there is no outrage on morality and decency which may not be perpetrated by an unchristian Government at the instigation of interested persons and cliques, under the guise of philanthropy or in the name of expediency. Private acts of outrage upon womanhood, less terrible than those now perpetrated in our own country in the name of the State, have excited risings and rebellions, and in general have been severely visited by the laws of every country professing any degree of enlightenment or civilization.

The evils of any ill-conditioned country, as far as they depend on the Government, are generally found to arise from either defect or excess of Government action; either from want of security, or meddling beyond security; or from both. When the laws fall short of affording security of person and property to men and women, Government fails in its duty, and terrible evils accumulate; for the individual is not then free to work out the employment of his faculties, but is occupied hourly either with provision for self defence, or with brooding fancies of revenge; blood-feuds prevail, and lynch law is resorted to. On the other hand, when Government goes beyond protection, as in France, obstacles beset every private effort and the individual man is as really debarred from the true use of himself as if there were no Government at all; only the hindrance operates in a different way. Frequently, the two errors scourge the same country, side by side; and while the jurist attributes the misery of the people to the absence of effective legal security, the economist traces it to perpetual interferences with industry, and to violations of personal freedom in other respects. Both are right, but neither to the exclusion of the other. But what shall we forbode of the state to which a country is tending in which the Government has not merely erred by interference far beyond the needful protection of person and property, but has actually itself become the guilty aggressor, seizing, outraging, and enslaving the persons of citizens, not criminals before the law? In such a country we may expect to see, and we do actually see it now in England, an increase from year to year of offences against the person, of disregard for the claims of womanhood, and of contempt for the human soul. The Legislature itself has set the example, and that Legislature can, with an ill grace, set itself to the work of enacting new laws and new penalties for the prevention and punishment of private violations of personal rights, of private outrages on the helplessness of childhood and the sacredness of womanhood, while itself is weighted with the heavy guilt of having publicly decreed such violations.

Not the least valuable part of the work of this Association has been that of continually reminding our legislators of the old constitutional defences of personal freedom, which have of late been in several instances recklessly set aside; and of opposing every new Bill brought before Parliament which embodies any such fresh violation. No doubt many M.P.’s have felt it irritating to be constantly recalled by busy and watchful monitors to the recollection of the first principles of just Government, but how ever that may be, it is very necessary that they should be continually brought back to those first principles, and that special legislation suggested by interested persons should, when necessary, be rebuked and brought into public condemnation by being placed in the full light of those principles, and judged by their standard.

It is equally necessary to bring the same corrective influence to bear on many measures which are prompted b a busy but not over-wise philanthropy. There is probably more prying, laborious benevolence in this country than in any other; enough to remedy every social grievance under the sun, if it were more sober and enlightened, animated by a purer zeal, and by a more sound and systematic principle. Unfortunately, however, this humane spirit, as most commonly manifested among us, has something morbid, roaming, and restless in its character, which impairs both its purity and usefulness. There is too little of patient, searching comprehensiveness in its investigations, and too much that is inquisitive, even to indelicacy, in the activity with which it is ever prowling about for some victim to save, or some imaginary op pressor to devour. Legislative enactments honestly designed to remove the social mischiefs around us, should be directed, not to prohibit them so much as to remove the temptations which have led to them, and to alter the circumstances which have nourished their growth. One great secret of past legislative failures has been the neglect of this principle. It is also a grave misfortune of our present course of public business, that official and responsible men are too much overwhelmed by necessary labour to examine any question, or amend any evil, which is not forced upon their attention by public clamour. Now, although there may at times remain to us the sole resource of public clamour as a means of compelling a reluctant Parliament to remove a public scandal or repeal an immoral law, yet, on the other hand, not a few unwise, unjust, and even cruel measures are concocted and pushed through Parliament, the initiative of which has been left wholly to the zeal of some crotchety individual reformer, or to that of the medical or other profession, who profess that the interests of science and of the future generations require the coercion and forcible regulation of the weaker classes of the community in their industrial and domestic pursuits. Hence, in the midst of a growing petty tyranny, already becoming too grievous to be borne, we have scarcely any real reforms. Everything is fragmentary and partial. We are for ever putting a new piece into an old garment, and making the rent worse. We enact laws which make women wholly dependent; we enact poverty for them, and then prohibit modes of earning food, to which nothing but poverty would drive any mortal. With the one hand we hold out irresistible temptations, and with the other penalties for yielding to them.

I have spoken of the right to labour as one of the indisputable rights of humanity, the right of each to work honestly, with his own hands, to obtain his own living. There is a saying common among us to express the extremity of enslavement, and that is, that a person “cannot call his soul his own.” Now, in no case does this phrase express a graver reality than in the case of women debarred from honest work; circumscribed, hindered, and finally thrust out of the pathways of industry and honourable wages. For, consider what are the alternatives which a woman is then obliged to face. First, actual starvation. Can anyone say that in reducing a fellow creature to hunger and death by forbidding the honest work which that fellow creature was willing and ready to undertake, is not a denial of the most primitive of human rights which allows a man to live? Secondly, there is the workhouse; dependence on the State. To reduce large numbers of persons, who are neither criminal nor unwilling to work, to this state of abject and degrading dependence, is certainly not consistent with the right of the individual conscience, which claims freedom for moral progress. What moral progress is possible for human souls forced by unequal laws and unjust social conditions into the slough of pauperism? And, if we consider the medical plea for forbidding women to work, that is, a regard for the health of their future offspring, we are almost constrained to ask, what hypocrisy is this which pretends that the infants of des: ponding and inactive pauper mothers, will be physically and mentally such as these materialistic breeders of the human race desire to produce. Thirdly, there is the trade of prostitution — the one trade or profession which our Government appears anxious to throw open freely to women; there is that crime (the only crime which people are paid to commit), a crime against God, against nature, and against their own souls. Who will dare to say that it is no violation of human rights that women should be driven out of honest industry into this trade, which, however highly it may be paid, and however carefully superintended by Government for the advantage of men, cannot be said to be consistent with freedom for moral progress. In this trade, the victim cannot indeed call her soul her own, nor yet her person; both are enslaved in the most horrible sense. Nor, I think, can the doctors plead that the children of mothers driven by destitution to this means of subsistence for themselves and those dependent on them, are likely to grow up sound and healthy in mind and in body. Yet the health of the future generations among the poor is the excuse perpetually urged for the repeated attempts to restrain and forbid the labour of women in factories and other industry.

We might imagine a sentimental naturalist, distressed at the sight of some one of the humbler animals, whose maternal instincts had prompted it to tear off its own fur for the protection of its young: he pities her so much that he muzzles her, so as effectually to prevent her denuding her own breast in order to protect her nest, but he neglects to furnish her with any material in place of her own coat; and she, poor creature, cannot tell him “If I do not tear off my own fur, my offspring will perish.” She can only inarticulately fret and rage against the restraint put upon her, and her young do perish for lack of the provision which the sentimental naturalist failed to make as a substitute for the mother’s self inflicted loss. But the parallel stops here; for the humble animal there is no possible moral degradation held forth as an alternative to be grasped for the physical salvation of her offspring. It is for human beings alone, made in God’s image, that that horror is possible, that that alternative exists, and can be forced into the front by the stronger portion of humanity, for the weaker to embrace and be wrecked by.

A Parliament of rich men is unfit to legislate for the poor on such questions as these. They may be full of benevolent intentions, but while they fly to save a portion of the weak and the poor from a hardship which they see, they plunge them into other and far greater hardships which they do not see, being in too elevated a position to see them, or which they are determined to regard as remote and exceptional dangers. Whatever their intentions, the result is worse than mere mistaken charity, inflicting severer suffering than it supersedes; it is a flagrant and cruel injustice. To ignore the present social conditions, such as the preponderance of women, by nearly a million, over men in this country, to enact and maintain laws which make the inordinate labour of women essential to the sustenance of their half-famished families and themselves, and then to forbid this labour, is surely the very wantonness of despotic power. Our legislators cannot unite the pleasures of benevolence with the profits of oppression. They cannot combine the luxury of doing good with the emoluments of doing evil.

The vast question of the whole industrial future of England is wrapped up in this question of restrictions on the labour of women. In the early part of this century pauperism was the dread and scourge of our country: at that time our system was one in which industry found perpetual obstructions. Poverty prevailed to such an extent as to endanger the public peace. Economists and politicians began to see that this was a direct consequence of the principle of interference with the economic laws which regulate labour; restrictions on labour were removed; free trade and free labour were substituted for protection, privilege, and monopoly; and pauperism declined. A history of our English Poor Laws, side by side with a history of the laws and usages which have affected labour, would exhibit this relation very strongly. In every country where extreme and extensive poverty exists, there are extensive interferences with individual energy. Although our fathers outgrew the meddling of successive Governments with the cost of their food and the style of their dress, although we have been told that we need never again fear any attempt of Parliament to fix the rate of wages, and although we have joined in the nation’s rejoicings over free trade and the emancipation of labour, yet at this very day we find ourselves again in the midst of a re-action against that very freedom; we find our. selves once again in the midst of compulsion, and danger to our liberties, from the same tendency in busy and shallow minds to recur to legislation for the carrying out of their special objects, encouraged as that tendency is, by the general ignorance of our law makers and their constituents, of the true principles of economy.

While interference vastly augments poverty, an elaborate poor. law following of necessity in its train, debilitates the principle of charity. What is done under authority, is rarely done for any other or better motive; and “where provision is made for the poor, independently of the sympathy of those who can relieve them, that sympathy sickens and dies for want of exercise.” It may be true that our poverty, the consequence to some extent of a fatal interference with freedom of action in the region of industry, has become too ponderous for our charity to bear. In this extremity of its own making, the principle of interference, like all other errors, will have to meet its own results by a further plunge in the wrong direction, and more extensive and more intricate laws must be made for the enforced maintenance of an artificially pauperised community.

If the present tendency should continue to prevail, interference and restrictions now operating in certain industries will rapidly be extended to other industries, until labour everywhere will suffer depreciation, and an industrial collapse of a grave and disastrous kind must be the result. In the face of this danger, it cannot but be felt by all who have any knowledge of the working of economic principles, that one of the most important, perhaps the most important, of all the branches of work in which this Society is engaged, is that of opposing all legislation which restricts the honest labour of women in factories and in other departments of industry.

Having become, half unconsciously, the guardian of a great social and economic principle — through its opposition to a series of wrongs inflicted and contemplated by Parliament in the case of working women — we must express a strong hope that this Association will not relax its exertions until it has brought the principle of restrictive legislation, as applied to adult labourers, to the most conclusive test before the eyes of the world; and until it has driven away a fog and mist of confusion from the mind of the nation, “purged its legislation from a barbarism, and released its industry from an oppression and a snare.”



Source: Speech delivered at the fourth annual meeting of the “Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights,” held at Bristol, October 15th, 1874 (London: Frederick Bell & Co.), 1874, pp. 1-10.