the Enfranchisement of Women
October 1866 — National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Manchester England
That a respectable, orderly, independent body in the state should have no voice, and no influence recognized by the law, in the election of the representatives of the people, while they are otherwise acknowledged as responsible citizens, are eligible for may public offices, and required to pay all taxes, is an anomaly which seems to require some explanation, and the reasons alleged in its defense are curios and interesting to examine. It is not, however, my present purpose to controvert the various objections which have been brought forward against the extension of the suffrage to women. Passing over what may be called the negative side of the question, I propose to take it up at a more advanced stage, and assuming that the measure is unobjectionable, I shall endeavor to show that it is positively desirable.
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There are now a very considerable number of open-minded, unprejudiced people who see no particular reason why women should not have votes, if they want them, but, they ask, what would be the good of it? What is there that women want which male legislators are not willing to give? And here let me say at the outset that the advocates of this measure are very far from accusing men of deliberate unfairness to women. It is not as a means of extorting justice from unwilling legislators that the franchise is claimed for women. In so far as the claim is made with any special reference to class interests at all, it is simply on the general ground that under a representatives government, any class which is not represented is likely to be neglected. Proverbially, what is out of sign is out of mind, and the theory that women, as such, are bound to keep out of sight finds its most emphatic expression in the denial of the right to vote. The direct results are probably less injurious than those which are indirect, but that a want of due consideration for the interests of women is apparent in our legislation could very easily be shown. To give evidence in detail would be a long and an invidious task. I will mention one instance only, that of the educational endowments all over the country. Very few people would now maintain that the education of boys is more important to the State than that of girls. But as a mater of fact, girls have but a very small share in educational endowments. Many of the old foundations have been reformed by Parliament, but the desirableness of providing with equal care for girls and boys has very seldom been recognized. In the administration of charities generally, the same tendency prevails to postpone the claims of women to those of men.
Among instances of hardship traceable directly to exclusion from the franchise and to other cause may be mentioned the unwillingness of landlords to accept women as tenants. Two large farmers in Suffolk inform me that this is not an uncommon cause. They mention one estate on which seven widows have been ejected who, if they had votes, would have been continued as tenants.
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All women who [are] heads of a business or a household fulfill the duties of a man in the same position. Their task is often a hard one, and everything which helps to sustain their self-respect, and to give them consideration and importance in the eyes of others, is likely to lessen their difficulties and make them happier and stronger for the battle of life. The very fact that, though householder and taxpayers, they have not equal privilege with male householders and taxpayers is in itself a deconsideration, which seems to me invidious and useless. It casts a kind of slur on the value of their opinions, and I may remark in passing that what is treated as of no value is apt to grow valueless. Citizenship is an honor, and not to have the full rights of a citizen is a want of honor. Inconspicuously it may be, but by a subtle and sure process, those, who without their own consent and without sufficient reason, are debarred from full participation in the rights and duties of a citizen lose more or less of social consideration and esteem.
These arguments, founded on consideration of justice and mercy to a large and important class, might, in a civilized country and in the absence of strong reasons to the contrary, be deemed amply sufficient to justify the measure proposed. There remain to be considered those aspects of the question which affect the general community. And, among all the reasons for giving women votes, the one which appears to me the strongest is that of the influence it might be expected to have in increasing public spirit. Patriotism, a healthy, lively, intelligent interest in everything which concerns the nation to which we belong, and an unselfish devotedness to the public service — these are the qualities which make a people great and happy; these are the virtues which ought to be more sedulously cultivated in all classes of the community. And I know no better means at this present time, of counteracting the tendency to prefer narrow private ends to the public good, than this of giving to all women, duly qualified, a direct and conscious participation in political affairs. Give some women votes, and it will tend to make all women think seriously of the concerns of the nation at large, and their interest having once been fairly roused, they will take pains, by reading and by consultation with persons better informed than themselves, to form sound opinions. As it is, women of the middle class occupy themselves but little with anting beyond their own family circle. They do not consider it any concern of theirs if poor men and women are ill-nursed in workhouse infirmaries and poor children ill-taught in workhouse schools. If the roads are bad, the drains neglected, the water poisoned, they think it is all very wrong, but it does not occur to them that it is their duty to get it put right. These farmer-women and business-women have honest, sensible minds and much practical experience but they do not bring their good sense to bear upon public affairs, because they thin it is men’s business, not theirs, to look after such things. It is this belief — so narrowing and deadening in its influence — that the exercise of the franchise would tend to dissipate. The mere fact of being called upon to enforce an opinion by a vote would have an immediate effect in awakening a healthy sense of responsibility. There is no reason why these women should not take an active interest in all the social questions — education, public health, prison discipline, the poor laws, and the rest — which occupy Parliament, and they would be much more likely to do so if they felt that they had importance in the eyes of Members of Parliament and could claim a hearing for their opinions.
Besides these women of business, there are ladies of property, whose more active participation in the public affairs would be beneficial both to themselves and the community generally. The want of stimulus to energetic action is much felt by women of the higher classes. It is agreed that they ought not to be idle, but what they ought to do is not so clear. Reading, music and drawing, needlework, and charity are their usual employment. Reading, without a purpose, does not come to much. Music and drawing and needlework are most commonly regarded chiefly as amusements intended to fill up time. We have left, as the serious duty of independent and unmarried women, the care of the poor in all its branches, including visiting the sick and the aged and ministering to their wants, looking after the schools, and in every possible way giving help wherever help is needed. Now education, the relief of the destitute, and the health of the people, are among the most important and difficult matters which occupy the minds of statesmen, and if it is admitted that women of leisure and culture are bound to contribute their part towards the solution of these great questions, it is evident that every means of making their cooperation enlightened and vigorous should be sought for. They have special opportunities of observing the operation of many of the laws. They know, for example, for the see before their eyes, the practical working of the law of settlement — of the laws relating to the dwellings of the poor — and may others, and the experience which peculiarly qualifies them to form a judgment on these matters ought not to be thrown away. We all know that we have already a godly body of rich, influential working-women, whose opinions on the social and political questions of the day are well worth listening to. In almost every parish, there are, happily for England, such women. Now everything should be done to give these valuable members of the community a solid social standing. If they are wanted, and there can be no doubt that they are, in all departments of social work, their position in the work should be as dignified and honorable as it is possible to make it. Rich unmarried women have many opportunities of benefitting the community, which are not within reach of a married woman, absorbed by the care of her husband and children. Everything, I say again, should be done to encourage this most important and increasing class, to take their place in the army of workers for the common good, and all the forces we can bring to bear for this end are of incalculable value. For by bringing women into hearty cooperation with men, we gain the benefit not only of their work by of their intelligent sympathy. Public spirit is like fire: A feeble spark of it may be fanned into a flame, or it may very easily be put out. And the result of teaching women that they have nothing to do with politics is that their influence goes towards extinguishing the unselfish interest — never too strong — which men are disposed to take in public affairs.
Let each member of the House of Commons consider, in a spirit of true scientific inquiry, all the properly qualified women of his acquaintance, and he will see no reason why the single ladies and the widow among his own family and friends would not form as sensible opinions on the merits of candidates and the voters who returned him to Parliament. When we find among the disfranchised such names as those of Mrs. Somerville, Harriet Martineau, Miss Burdett Coutts, Florence Nightingale, Mary Carpenter, Louisa Twining, Miss Marsh, and many others scarcely inferior to these in intellectual and moral worth, we cannot but desire, for the elevation and dignity of the Parliamentary system, to add them to the number of electors.
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The extension proposed would interfere with no vested interests. It would involve no change in the principles on which our Government is based, but would rather make our Constitution more consistent with itself. Conservatives have a right to claim it as a Conservative measure. Liberals are bound to ask for it as a necessary part of radical reform. There is no reason for identifying it with any class or party in the State, and it is, in fact, impossible to predict what influence it might have on party politics. The question is simply of a special legal disability, which must, sooner or later, be removed.
It was said by Lord Derby, in his speech on entering upon the office of Prime Minister last Session, in reference to Reform — that “there were theoretical anomalies in our present system which it was desirable, if possible, to correct; that there were classes of persons excluded from the franchise who had a fair claim and title, upon the ground of their fitness to exercise the privilege of electors; and that there was a very large class whom the particular qualifications of the Act of 1832 excluded.” I venture to submit that the exclusion of female freeholders and householders from the franchise is an anomaly which it is very desirable, and not impossible, to correct; that there is not class of persons having a fairer claim and title upon the ground of their fitness to exercise the privileges of electors; and that whatever may be deemed expedient with regard to other class, this class, at any rate, should not be excluded by the particular qualifications of the Reform Act of the future.
Source: “Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women,” Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, in Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universality Women and Social Reform 1776-1936. ed. Dorothy May Emerson (Boston: Skinner House Books), 2000, p. 59-64.