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The Basis of the Parliamentary Suffrage
and the Present Exclusion of Women

1873 — Cambridge Reform Club, Cambridge, UK


It gives me much pleasure to have an opportunity of addressing the members of the Cambridge Reform Club on a matter of great national interest and one which has been from time to time before the country as a practical subject of legislation for more than forty years. I refer to the distribution of political power among the people.

As the name Reform is particularly associated with the various extensions of the suffrage that have taken place since the year 1832, and as I believe no one has yet addressed you on this subject, I thought that a few words on the basis of the Parliamentary Franchise and its proposed extension to women would not be altogether out of place at a meeting of the Cambridge Reform Club.

I am not going to weary you by attempting to trace out the history of English representation; but I would desire to remind you that about the time of Simon de Montford the direct political power of the Commons of England has been a recognised part of our constitutional and that some of the great crises of English history have been occasioned by disputes relative to the distribution and limitation of this power. As wealth and population increased, the numerical strength of the commons became greater, but they were in the time of Charles 1st in danger of losing all but the mere shadow of their authority, and it is to the noble resistance which they then made to tyranny, and probably to John Hampden more than to any other one person, that we owe the present basis of the electoral franchise.

An attempt on the part of the king to levy taxes without the consent of Parliament was me by the cry of “No taxation without representation:’ and this principle, though often isolated and more often forgotten, has really been the essential part of the Reform Bills of the present century. Although legislation rejecting extensions of the suffrage has always been in the direction of a more intimate association of taxation with representation, I ought not to omit the mention that there is not infrequently to be heard a rather reasonable complaint that this phrase “No taxation without representation” is from the point of view of the present day devoid of the meaning it had with our ancestors. Everybody is taxed one way or another, and if we mean universal suffrage, we had better say so.

This phrase accordingly is no longer used to except with definite and precise limitations, and the present theory is that in boroughs householders who pay the rates for the relief of the poor should thereby qualify themselves for the exercise of the parliamentary franchise. Local and direct taxation is now, therefore, the basis of electoral power. Imperial taxation, whether direct or indirect, does not confer on those who contribute to it any admission to the parliamentary suffrage.

Besides the assisting basis of political power in this country, there are of course several theories as to what it ought to be. And two of these theories as well as to the existing state of things, I would desire, as briefly as possible, to call to your attention. There are in the first place those who think that every property qualification for the suffrage, however low the standard may be reduced, is unsatisfactory, and that it affords an insufficient guarantee for the maintenance of the liberties of the people. Those who hold this opinion argue that all who share the burdens of the State, who are held responsible to the Government, and who are called upon voluntarily to submit themselves to the law, ought to have a share in appointing those to whom are entrusted the economy of the State, the conduct of Government and the framing of the law. That is to say, that all adults should be admitted to the franchise provided they are sound of mind and free from crime and pauperism.

There is another opposing view to the one just described; there are some who consider that property is the only safe basis of representation. Those who hold this view are very fond of speaking of a person’s stake in the country, meaning the amount of property he possesses, the idea being I suppose, that if a man does not possess a property, he is not personally interested in the maintenance of the rights of property, and if he is not personally interested in the maintenance of the rights of property there is no villainy of which he is not capable. Besides these extreme Radical and high Tory notions of the basis of political power there is the one of which our existing institutions form a practical example. It consists of a curious mixture of the two opposing views just referred to. It repudiates the notion that there is any theoretical perfection in a property qualification, but it holds on to the idea that it is very desirable to exclude people with no property at all; the froth and dregs of society — Mr Bright’s residuum.

While therefore it retains as a practical, and rough, and ready means of excluding the residuum, the ghost of a property qualification, it reduces it to its lowest positive stand point. I have not referred to these various theories of the basis of political power with any intention of advocating one of them or of attempting to controvert any of them. I merely wish to remind you of their existence, because I think that between them they comprehend the views of all political parties on the subject of the parliamentary suffrage. And now I would ask you to consider whether any one of them justifies the exclusion of women, who fulfil all the qualifications required from the male elector. Certainly no Radical who looks upon suffrage as a protection necessary to the maintenance of the rights of the citizen, can consistently oppose the extension of the suffrage to women.

Women are subject to all the burdens of imperial and local taxation; they are not exempted from contributing to the expenses of carrying on the Government. They have as great a practical interest in economy and in the remission of taxation as men have. Women are often told by those who oppose their admission to the suffrage, that they have nothing to do with politics. But when the Abyssinian war brought about by the bungling of our statesmen, had to be paid for, and twopence was added to the Income Tax, many a poor widow could have furnished practical proof that she had something to do with politics.

When the little bill for the Alabama claims is submitted to the country, women will again be reminded that though they had nothing to do with running up the account, they will have something to do with paying it. In the course of the last Spring, the Treasury send down to Bridgewater a bill amounting, I think to over £6,000, being the expenses of carrying out the election petition inquiry in that place. The local authorities were ordered to make a rate for the discharge of this account; this they accordingly did. And you have therefore this extraordinary result, that although women are expressly excluded from all participation in election matters, yet they are called upon to pay the costs of an inquiry made necessary by the corruption and political immorality of the men, who are alone deemed worthy to exercise political power.

A number of the women, ratepayers of Bridgewater, petitioned the Local Government Board to be exempted from the rate at which the corruption of the electors had rendered necessary. They thought not unnaturally, that as far as this case was concerned, they had nothing to do with politics; it is almost needless to say that their petition was not granted; the Government shrank from excluding women from the one department of political life, in which their presence has always been welcomed. Other benches of politics are too rough and coarse; they would deteriorate the female character (oh, oh) but the elevating operation of paying the bill is one from which the refinement and delicacy of women could ill be spared.

Beside their interest in economical administration, women have also an even greater interest in the passing of just laws and the repeal of obsolete and mischievous enactments. If you will consider how much they have at stake in these matters you will concede that if the argument that those whose lives and happiness are influenced by the laws should have some hand in framing them, is good for anything, it is as applicable to women as it is to men.

Hardly any law is passed which, if it operative all, does not affect women as well men. There are some laws, such as an amendment of the marriage law, the Divorce Act, and the laws relating to the custody of children, in which women have special and peculiar interest. Is it right or just that when these laws are under the consideration of Parliament, that the voice of one sex should heard that all women should be prevented from exercising any direct influence upon the course of legislation on these subjects especially when it is borne in mind that past experience shows that men’s legislation in these matters has not been characterised by a judicial impartiality, but has, in too many cases, been flagrantly unjust to women. It is sometimes said that this line of reasoning, viz, that as women are called upon share the burdens of the State, as they are held responsible to the law, and their welfare and happiness are, to a great extent, influenced by the state of the law, therefore they ought to be admitted to the franchise, proves too much; for it is said that if this argument is good for anything, it would justify extension of political power to children.

This retort is not infrequently made as a reduction ad absurdum of the claim of women to representation. It is, however, evident that it is absolutely necessary that the law should arbitrarily fix an inferior limit to the age which people should assume electoral rights. could not have babies in arms going to the poll, those who advocate women’s suffrage are not bound to defend the age of 21 years which the law has fixed; it is not matter of great importance whether the age selected to mark the political majority is a few years over or under the present limit; it being necessary to fix an age it is obviously desirable to fix one which secures the maximum of independence of the control and the support necessary to childhood, together with minimum of exclusion from the political education which the possession of the franchise affords. I therefore think those who desire the abolition of the political disabilities of women, can use all the arguments that have often been urged in favour of democratic suffrage without laying themselves open to the retort that their opinions, if logically carried out, would lead an enfranchisement of children.

I would now call your attention the opposite or Tory view of the real basis of political power, namely, that it should be regarded not as aright, but a privilege dependent on the possession of property. This opinion may be right, or it may wrong; I shall use no arguments either for or against it; but if it be right, surely the exclusion of women who possess property, and are therefore entitled to the privilege of representation, can in no way justified. If property is the true basis of the franchise, how can it be right to exclude from all direct political power such a woman as Lady Burdett-Coutts. There is probably no one in similar position more conscious of the responsibilities of wealth, and no one who more nobly acts up to her conception of them; and yet she is debarred from the possession of that political franchise which is considered some to be one of the privileges attached to property.

Although I have attempted to show that both the Democratic and the Tory views of the basis of electoral lower equally condemn the exclusion of women from the franchise, it remains to be considered whether the same is to said of the kind of compromise between these opposing theories of which the present parliamentary suffrage in boroughs is an example. Framed with the view of admitting many persons possible to the franchise without admitting the unfortunates described the froth and dregs of society.” the present qualification consists of the lowest possible reduction of the property test.

Every householder, however poor, however ignorant, who lives in borough is presumed by the existing law to lie fit to exercise the parliamentary’ suffrage. Then why, may I ask, are all women who are householders, however wealthy, however cultivated, presumed our law be unfit to exercise electoral power? Why are they to be associated, far as the suffrage is concerned, with minors, paupers, felons, and lunatics? Why are they to shut out from privileges extended to all but the froth and dregs of society? It cannot be because there is a mental, moral, or social disqualification attaching to their sex. for they have been admitted the municipal and educational franchises, and, if such a disqualification existed, it ought to debar them from these privileges. The inconsistency of allowing women ratepayers not only to vote at municipal and school board elections, but to become members of school boards, and to hold important parochial offices, is so striking, that the conclusion can hardly be avoided, that the opponents of women’s suffrage are not actuated by anything that deserves the name of political principle.

The theoretical principles of nearly all parties condemn the exclusion of women from the franchise, and yet the exclusion is maintained. We have, it is true. the House of Commons as many as 217 supporters of Mr. Jacob Bright’s Bill to enfranchise women householders, and these contain within their ranks representatives of every political party. We have several distinguished members of the present Government ; we have nearly all the leading members of the late Conservative Government; and we have the Radicals almost to a man; but still the measure does not command the support which brings success.

The Liberal rank and file hold hack. Women, they say, are Conservatives, and if they had votes we should lose our seats. The Conservative rank and file hold back, because they are exactly the opposite of the Athenians of old, for they hate and suspect every new thing, even when it is only new development their own principles. Mr. Fowler, I am sure, will excuse me if I ask you to take for an example of what I mean the representatives of this town and University. These four gentlemen represent four, or perhaps three, distinct shades of political opinion. There is the deep dyed uncompromising Toryism of the junior member for the University; there the milder and more compliant Conservatism of the late Secretary for the Home Department; and there are your own two members, whose political opinions need description to members of the Reform Club. Not one of these gentlemen supports Mr. Jacob Bright’s Bill. I do not for one instant dream that they oppose it from any but the highest motives, but it is a fact not encouraging to those who are striving to promote the enfranchisement of women, to find that while all political theories of the basis of representation are in their favour, the people who are the practical exponents of these theories are against them. With regard to what I said just now about women being Tories, it is difficult, I think, to find an epithet which will fittingly describe the skin-deep Liberalism which would exclude women from representation on this ground.

I do not know whether women are Tories are not: if they are, it is probably because liberalism and reform have never done anything for them, and because they have often found that liberal principles are kept for platforms and public meetings and are not allowed to influence the daily conduct of those who profess them. But whether women are Tories are not has nothing to do with the justice of their claim to representation. Is Toryism a crime? Does it deserve to visited with political death? If so, all Tories ought to be disfranchised, and the representatives of the party ought to be expelled from the House of Commons. Liberals who oppose women’s suffrage because they think women are conservative, give up every principle which constitutes the raison d’etre of their party, and do all that lies in their power to degrade politics into paltry struggle for place and power. A description of an appropriate representative of such liberalism may be found in one of the ballads in the Biglow papers.

Ex to my principles,
I glory In hevin nothin’ o’ the sort;
I ain’t Whig, I ain’t Tory;
I’m jest a candidate, in short.

Surely all liberalism, which is worthy of the name. would be ashamed to withhold support from demand based on reason and justice, because the result might be the loss of a few votes to the Liberal party. In many places the policy of the present Government on the licensing question has caused a serious defection of licensed victuallers [sic] from the Liberal to the Tory ranks. This kind of Toryism is far less creditable than that with which women are accused; will no enthusiastic opponent of women’s suffrage, on the ground that women are conservative, propose that all licensed victuallers [sic] should disfranchised. If I have not detained you too long already, I should like to say a few words those, if there are any here, who dread and dislike women’s suffrage because it is a new untried and dangerous experiment, to be regarded as another leap in the dark.

Although there have been in the history of this and nearly all other countries, women who have taken a leading part in politics, yet there never has been general diffusion of political power among women. It must be remembered that in this country there has not been till the present century anything deserving the name of a general diffusion a political power among men. But apart from this, I think, it can shown that this movement in favour of the extension of political power to women is not in principle new thing as at first sight it appears.

“There is nothing the history of the growth of civilization more marked than the steady and progressive improvement in the condition of women. If the lot of women always had been what it is now, I confess that their demand for enfranchisement would be hopeless indeed. But the lot of women is so much better now than it was in the past — they have so much more freedom, they are so much more trusted in this responsible work, they have been admitted to so many of the privileges of citizenship, their education is now considered a matter of so much more importance, that there is no reason to think that they cannot progress one step further and allowed to exercise the Parliamentary suffrage. All the precedents are in favour of this change in the political status of women; the one thing that have no precedent for, is for remaining just where we are. The past history if women, in countries of increasing civilization, has been a perpetual record of improvement, political, social, and educational; there are plenty of evidences during the last few years that this progress is not a thing that belongs to the past only; the efforts being made to provide for the higher education of women, their admission to the municipal and education franchises, and their presence on the school boards, show that this progress has been continued down to the present day.

“People often seem to think that progress and reform were very good things once, but that we have had enough of them now. They are fond of insisting on the necessity of “drawing a line somewhere,” and they are particularly anxious that the line should be drawn before the removal of the political disabilities of women. Are then to told that the gradual improvement in the condition of women has now reached its utmost I limit; that the history of women is one of progress and elevation up to the year 1873, but after that fatal date women must stay where they are, and ask no further additions to their privileges and responsibilities.

“I have now attempted to show that the exclusion of women from the parliamentary franchise is contrary not only to the spirit of the constitution and to that of the two great reform bills of the present century, but that it is also incompatible with all the generally received theories of the basis of representation ; and finally I have been bold enough to try to convince you that though new in itself, women’s suffrage would only be a further carrying out of the traditions of progress, and a wider diffusion of liberty which are the most precious bequests we have inherited from the past. It is sometimes assumed that the demand of women for representation, is a signal of a great battle to be fought out between men and women. Never was there any assumption more removed from the fact.

“Men are not benefited anything injurious to women. If the exclusion of women from the franchise is unjust and injurious to the interests of women, the removal of their disabilities will be a gain to men and women too. It is because of this, and because of the help which this movement has had from men, and of the assistance it I hope to gain from them in the future, that I venture to hope the bill for the enfranchisement of women ratepayers will receive the support of the Cambridge Reform Club.