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The Laws That Men Have Made

March 24, 1908 — The Portman Rooms, London, England


It seems to me a very strange thing that large numbers of women should have met together to-night to consider whether the vote is of importance, while all day long, across the water, in the Peckham by-election, men whether they realise it or not, have been exercising it, and in exercising it settling for women as well as for themselves great questions of public importance.

What, then, is this vote that we are hearing so much about just now, so much more than people have heard in discussion at least, for a great many years? I think we may give the vote a threefold description. we may describe the vote as, first of all, a symbol, secondly, a safeguard, and thirdly, an instrument. It is a symbol of freedom, a symbol of citizenship, a symbol of liberty. It is a safeguard of all those liberties which it symbolises. And in these later days it has come to be regarded more than anything else as an instrument, something with which you can get a great many more things than our forefathers who fought fo the vote ever realised as possible to get with it. It seems to me that such a thing is worth fighting for, and women to-day are fighting very strenuously in order to get it.

Wherever masses of people are gathered together there must be government. Government without the vote is more or less a form of tyranny. Government with the vote is more or less representative according to the extent to which the vote is given. In this country they tell us we have representative government. So far as women are concerned, while you have representative government for me, you have despotic government for women. So it is in order that the government of the country may be made really representative, may represent not only all classes of the community, but both sexes of the community, that this struggle for the vote is going on  on the part of women.

To-day, women are working very hard for it. And there is no doubt whatever that very, very soon the fight will be over, and victory will be won. Even a Liberal Government will be forced to give votes to women. Gentlemen with Liberal principles have talked about those principles for a very long time, but it is only just lately that women have realised that so far as they are concerned, it began in talk and ended in talk, and that there was absolutely no intention of performance. To-day, we have taken off the mask, they will have to yield. People ask us, “Why force it on just now? Why give all this trouble to the Liberals, with their great and splendid program of reform?” Well, we say, after all, they are just the people to whom we ought to give trouble, and who, if they are sincere, ought to be very glad that we are giving them the trouble, and forcing them to put their great principles into practice. 

To-night, it is not for me to talk to you very much about the agitation. I have to talk to you about what the vote will do for women, and what being deprived of the vote has caused women to suffer. And so I mean to devote most of the time at my disposal to this side of the question. What I am going to say to you tonight is not new. It is what we have been saying at every street corner, at every by-elect during the last eighteen months. It is perfectly well known to many members of my audience, but they will not mind if I repeat, for the benefit of those who are here for the first time tonight, those arguments and illustrations with which many of us are so very familiar. 

In the first place, it is important that women should have the vote in order that in the government of the country the women’s point of view should be put forward. It is important for women that in any legislation affects women equally with men, those who make the laws should be responsible to women, in order that they may be forced to consult women and learn women’s views when they are contemplating the making or altering of laws. Very little has been done by legislation for women for many years — for obvious reasons. More and more of the time of Members of Parliament is occupied by the claims which are made on behalf of the people who are organized in various ways in order to promote the interests of their industrial organizations or their political or social organizations. So the Member of Parliament, if he does dimly realize that women have needs, has no time to attend to them, no time to give to the consideration of those needs. His time is fully taken up by attending to the needs of the people who have sent him to Parliament. While a great deal has been done, and a great deal more has been talked about for the benefit of the workers who have votes, yet so far as women are concerned, legislation relating to them has been practically at a standstill. Yet it is not because women have no need, or because their need is not very urgent. There are many laws on the statute — book today which are admittedly out of date and call for reformation; laws which inflict very grave injustices on women. I want to call the attention of women who are here tonight to a few acts on the statute — book which press very hardly and very injuriously on women.

Men politicians are in the habit of talking to women as if there were no laws that affect women. “The fact is,” they say, “the home is the place for women. Their interests are the rearing and training of children. These are the things that interest women. Politics have nothing to do with these things, and therefore politics do not concern women.” Yet the laws decide how women are to live in marriage, how their children are to be trained and educated, and what the future of their children is to be. All that is decided by Act of Parliament. Let us take a few of these laws, and see what there is to say about them from the women’s point of view.

First of all, let us take the marriage laws. They are made by men for women. Let us consider whether they are equal, whether they are just, whether they are wise. What security of maintenance has the married woman? Many a married woman having given up her economic independence in order to marry, how is she compensated for that loss? What security does she get in that marriage for which she gave up economic independence? Take the case of a woman who has been earning a good income. She is told that she ought to give up her employment when she becomes a wife and a mother. What does she get in return? All that a married man is obliged by law to do for his wife is to provide for her shelter of some kind, food of some kind, and clothing of some kind. It is left to his good pleasure to decide what the shelter shall be, what the food shall be, what the clothing shall be. It is left to him to decide what money shall be spent on the home, and how it shall be spent; the wife has no voice legally in deciding any of these things. She has no legal claim upon any definite portion of his income. If he is a good man, a conscientious man, he does the right thing. If he is not, if he chooses almost to starve his wife, she has no remedy. What he thinks sufficient is what she has to be content with.

I quite agree, in all these illustrations, that the majority of men are considerably better than the law compels them to be, so the majority of women do not suffer as much as they might suffer if men were all as bad as they might be, but since there are some bad men, some unjust men, don’t you agree with me that the law ought to be altered so that those men could be dealt with?

Take what happens to the woman if her husband dies and leaves her a widow, sometimes with little children. If a man is so insensible to his duties as a husband and father when he makes his will, as to leave all his property away from his wife and children, the law allows him to do it. That will is a valid one. So you see that the married woman’s position is not a secure one. It depends entirely on her getting a good ticket in the lottery. If she has a good husband, well and good: if she has a bad one, she has to suffer, and she has no remedy. That is her position as a wife, and it is far from satisfactory.

Now let us look at her position if she has been very unfortunate in marriage, so unfortunate as to get a bad husband, an immoral husband, a vicious husband, a husband unfit to be the father of little children. We turn to divorce court. How is she to get rid of such a man? If a man has got married to a bad wife, and he wants to get rid of her, he has but to prove against her one act of infidelity. But if a woman who is married to a vicious husband wants to get rid of him, not one act nor a thousand acts of infidelity entitle her to a divorce. She must prove either bigamy, desertion or gross cruelty, in addition to immorality before she can get rid of that man.

Let us consider her position as a mother. We have repeated this so often at our meetings that I think the echo of what we have said must have reached many. By English law, no married woman exists as the mother of the child she brings into the world. In the eyes of the law she is not the parent of her child. The child, according to our marriage laws, has only one parent who can decide the future of the child, who can decide where it shall live, how it shall live, how much shall be spent upon it, how it shall be educated and what religion it shall profess. The parent is the father.

These are examples of some of the laws that men have made, laws that concern women. I ask you, if women had had the vote, should we have had such laws? If women had had the vote, as men have the vote, we should have had equal laws. We should have had equal laws for divorce, and the law would have said that as nature has given to children two parents, so the law should recognize that they have the two parents.

I have spoken to you about the position of the married woman who does not exist legally as a parent, the parent of her own child. In marriage, children have one parent. Out of marriage children have also one parent. That parent is the mother — the unfortunate mother. She alone is responsible for the future of her child; she alone is punished if her child is neglected and suffers from neglect. But let me give you one illustration. I was in Herefordshire during the by-election. While I was there, an unmarried mother was brought before the bench of magistrates charged with having neglected her illegitimate child. She was a domestic servant and had put the child out to nurse. The magistrates — there were colonels and landowners on that bench — did not ask what wages the mother got; they did not ask who the father was or whether he contributed to the support of the child. They sent the woman to prison for three months for having neglected her child. I ask you women here tonight, if women had had some share in the making of the laws, don’t you think they would have found a way of making all fathers of such children equally responsible with the mothers for the welfare of those children?

Let us take the law of inheritance. Often in this agitation for the vote, we have been told by advance members of the Liberal Party that to give  votes to women on the same terms as those on which men now have the vote, would be to strengthen the influence of property, and to help to continue the existing laws of property. 

When you look at the laws of inheritance in this country, it makes you smile to hear that argument. Men have taken very good care that women do not inherit until all male heirs are exhausted. So I do not think these democratic gentlemen are quite sincere in the fears they express lest the influence of property should be very much strengthened if women got the Parliamentary franchise. I do not think it is time yet for women to consider whether the law that the eldest son shall inherit the estate is a just law. I think we should put it in this way: if it is to be the eldest child, let it be the eldest child, whether that child is a man or a woman. I am perfectly certain that if women had had the vote when that law was made, that that is how it would have been settled, if they had decided to have a law of primogeniture.

Well, one could go on giving you many more of these examples. I want now to deal with one objection which may be i the minds of some people here. They say, you are talking about laws made a long time ago. Laws would not now be made like that. If a new law were made, it would of course be equal between the sexes. But as a matter of fact, it seems almost impossible for men, when making new laws that will affect both sees, to recognise that there is any woman’s side at all. Let us take an illustration from the last session of Parliament. For many years we have been accustomed to see pass through the House of Commons and go up to the House of Lords that hardy evergreen, the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill. I used — it is many years since I began reading the debates on that measure — I used to read the speeches carefully through to see if I could find one speech from a man which showed any kind of realisation of the women’s side of that Bill. You read eloquent appeals to make it possible for a man who had lost his wife to give to the children the best kind of step-mother that they could have. Who could make a better step-mother, it was asked, than the site of their deceased mother? By nature ties, by old associations, by her knowledge of the children, she was better fitted than anybody else to take the mother’s place. But you never heard of a man who thought there might be another side to the picture. So you have on the Statute-book a piece of legislation which gives relief to the widower who would like to provide a kind step-mother for his children, but does not give relief to the widow who would like to give a kind step-father to her children. I do not think it ever entered into the minds of these legislators that there might be a widow who would like to fulfill the behest of the Old Testament that the living brother should take up his deceased brother’s burden and do his duty to his brother’s family. So you see, men in this twentieth century, you have go the same spirit. 

The man voter and the man legislator see the man’s needs first, and do not see the woman’s needs. And so it will be until women get the vote. It is well to remember that, in view of what we have been told of what is the value of women’s influence. Woman’s influence is only effective when men want to do the thing that her influence is supporting.

Now let us look a little to the future. If it ever was important for women to have the vote, it is ten times more important to-day, because you cannot take up a newspaper, you cannot go to a conference, you cannot even go to church, without hearing a great deal of talk about social reform and a demand for social legislation. Of course, it is obvious that that kind of legislation – and the Liberal government tell us that if they remain in office long enough, we are going to have a great deal of it — is of vital importance to women. If we have the right kind of social legislation it will be a very good thing for women and children. If we have the wrong kind of social legislation, we may have the worst kind of tyranny that women have ever known since the world began.

We are hearing about legislation to decide what kind of homes people are to live in. That surely is a question for women. Surely every woman, when she seriously thinks about it, will wonder how men by themselves can have the audacity to think that they can say what homes ought to be without consulting women. Then take education. Since 1870 men have been trying to find out how to educate children. I think they have not yet realized that if they are ever to find out how to educate children, they will have to take women into their confidence, and try to learn from women some of those lessons that the long experience of ages has taught to them. One cannot wonder that whole sessions of Parliament should be wasted on education bills.

For, you see, it is only just lately that men have begun to consider education, or to try to learn what the word means. So as we are going to have a great deal more time devoted to education, I think it will be a great economy of time if we get the vote, if only that we may have an opportunity of deciding how girls are to be trained, even in those domestic duties which gentlemen are so fond of reminding us we ought to attend to.

I suppose you all read your newspapers this morning. You saw that a great statesman was pouring out words of wisdom on a subject which one may think might well be regarded as women’s business, and which they might at all events have some share in deciding how girls are to be trained, even in those domestic duties which gentlemen are so fond of reminding us as we ought to attend to.

How it makes one smile to hear a statesman comparing whisky and milk, and discussing whether babies should have natural mother’s milk, or humanized milk, or sterilised milk, or what is a sufficient quantity of milk. All these things Cabinet Ministers have discovered that they are quite competent to decide without us. And when a few women ventured to make a small protest and suggested that perhaps it would be best to give to women, the mothers of the race, an opportunity of expressing themselves on the subject, they were characterised as disgraceful, and turned out of the meeting for daring to raise their voices in protest.

Well, we cannot wonder that they are deciding what sort of milk the babies are to have, for it is only a few months ago that they decided how babies should be brought into the world, and who should officiate on the occasion. The Midwives Act, owing to the extreme difficulty and slowness with which, during twelve years of ceaseless agitation, it was carried through Parliament, has made of the women who agitated for it convinced suffragists, since, if they had had votes the measure could have been passed in a couple of years. Even when carried, it was at the expense of many concessions, which, had the women promoting the Bill possessed the franchise, they would certainly have been able to avoid. To this day the midwives have no direct representation on the Central Board which administers the Act. Still, in spite of legislation like that, we find politicians, responsible members of the Government, saying that women ought to have nothing to do with politics, and that they ought not to ask for the vote.

What limits are there to be to this? The same gentleman who thinks himself quite competent to say how babies ought to be fed tells us that he is going to interfere not only with babies, but with their mothers as well. He is going to decide by Act of Parliament whether married women are to be allowed to earn economic independence, or are to be prevented from doing so. He thinks married women who are earning their living are going to submit to a virtual repeal of the Married Women’s Property Act, and to leave it to their husbands to decide whether they shall have any money to spend as they please. To deprive married women of the right to go out to work, to decide this for them without consulting women voters whether they are to earn wages or not, is an act of tyranny to which, I believe, women, patient and long-suffering as they are, will not submit. I hope that even the Liberal women will revolt when it comes to that. But I am not over hopeful about them, because, unfortunately for poor married women who know what it is to need to earn a living, those who decide what the policy of the Liberal women shall be are women who have never had to earn a living, and do not know what it is to have little children dependent upon them and liable to me starved if their mothers are prevented from going out to work. But fortunately the women who are going to be interfered with are not the kind of women who will submit be interfered with quietly. Women who belong to the aristocracy of industry, women such as the cotton workers in the Lancashire mills, are not likely to be driven into the ranks of the sweated without protest.

What is the reason for the proposal? We are told it is to set these women free, to let them stay at home. I do not see that Mr. John Burns proposes to compensate women for the loss of their earnings. I do not see that he proposes to compel husbands to give to their wives a definite portion of their income for house-keeping purposes. All he proposes is that women, whoa re earning fro ten shillings, to thirty shillings a week shall be prevented from earning that income for themselves. He does not propose if the husband is sick or weakly and unable to earn enough to keep the home, to supplement their income by a grant from the State. All he proposes to do is to take away from the married women the right to earn an income for herself. This, he says, will stop infantile mortality and put an end to race degeneracy. Could you have a greater example of ignorance of the real facts of the situation? I come form Lancashire. I was born in Lancashire. I think I know more about Lancashire than Mr. John Burns. I can tell you this, that infantile mortality and physical degeneration are not found in the homes of the well-paid factory operatives, but they are found in the home of the slum-dweller, the home of the casual labourer, where the mother does not get out to work, but where there is never sufficient income to provide proper food for the child after it is born. That is where babies die — in those horrible slum districts, where families have to be maintained on incomes of from sixteen shillings to eighteen shillings per week, and where you can have rents from five shillings to eight shillings per week to pay. What woman can feed her children on an income like that, even if her husband brings the whole of it home?

I know the cotton workers of Lancashire. Not long ago, we were in the Rosendale Valley, Mr. Harcourt’s constituency. In that constituency more women earn wages than men. You find daughters earning more money than their fathers. You find wives earning more money than their husbands. They do piece work, and they often earn better wages than the men. I was talking one day to one — a married woman worker whom I met in the train. She was going home from the mill. She had a child three or four years of age, well dressed, very blithe, and looking well fed. I asked her if she worked in the mill. She said, “Yes.” I asked her what wages she earned. She said, “Thirty shillings a week.” She told me she had other children. “Who looks after the children while you are at work?” “I have a housekeeper,” she answered. I said to her, “You are not going to be allowed to work much longer. Mr. John Burns is going to make you stay at home and look after the children.” And she said, “I don’t know what we shall do then. I suppose we shall have to clem.” I don’t know whether you all know our Lancashire word “clem.” When we say clem, we mean starve. In thousands of homes in Lancashire, if we get Mr. John Burns’ proposal carried into law, little children, now well clothed and well fed and well cared for, will have clemmed before many months are over. These women say a shilling that they are earn themselves is worth two shillings of their husbands’ money, for it is their own. They know far better than their husbands how much money is needed for food, how much is needed to be spent on the home. I do not think there is a woman in Lancashire who does not realise that it is better to earn an income of her own than to be dependent on her husband. They realise it better than women of the upper classes who provide nurses and governesses for their children. I put it to you whether the woman of the working class, so long as she sees that her children are well fed and are well enough cared for, has not as much right as her well-off sister to provide a nurse for her children. We should like to say this to Mr. John Burns, that when women get the vote, they will take very much better care of the babies than men have been able to do.

There may be many women in this room to-night who do not know much about the industrial women from practical experience. I want to say something about them. Here in London last year there was the Sweated Industries Exhibition. That Exhibition went to Manchester. It went to Birmingham. The papers were full of it. After it was held there were conferences in the Guildhall, conferences in the large centres of population, and resolution were carried demanding legislation to deal with the sweating evil. Nothing has come of it all. If any of you women are doubtful about the value of the vote to women, that example ought to be enough. Look at the Government’s proposals. What do you get in the forefront of their programme? You get an eight hours’ day for miners. Bu you get nothing for the sweated women. Why is the miner being attended to rather than the sweated worker? The miner is being attended to because he, the miner, has got a vote. You see what the vote will do. You see what political power will do. If women had had the vote there would have been proposals to help the sweated woman worker in the Government programme of this session. I think that women, realising the horrible degradation of these workers, the degradation not only to themselves, but to all of us, caused by that evil of sweating, ought to be eager to get political freedom, in order that something may be done to get for the sweated woman labourer some kind of pay that would enable her to live at least a moral and a decent life.

Now let me say something on another point. Among those here are some professional women. You know what a long and a weary struggle it has for women to get into the professions, some of which are now open to women. But you all know that the position of women in those professions is not what it ought to be, and is certainly not what it will be when women get the franchise. How difficult it is for women to get posts after they have qualified for them. I know this from practical experience on a public body. Every time we had applications from women for posts open to them, we had applications also from men. Usually the standing of the women was very much higher than that of the men. And yet the women did not get those appointments. The men got them. That would all be altered if we got political equality. It is the political key that is needed to unlock the door.

Again, in all grades of education, certainly in elementary education, women are better qualified for the work than the men. You get a better type of woman. Yet for work equal to that of men, she cannot get equal pay. If women teachers had the Parliamentary vote, those men who go to the House of Commons to represent the interests of teachers would have to represent the interest of women teachers as well as the interest of the men. I think that the gentleman who made the teachers the stepping-stone to office, and who talks at bye-elections about manhood suffrage would have taken up the interests of the women who have paid his wages if he felt that he was responsible to women voters.

Almost everywhere the well-paid posts are given to men. Take the College of Arts. Women art students do quite as well as the men students. And yet after their training is over, women never get any of the posts. All the professorships, all the well-paid posts in the colleges and Universities are given to men. I knew the Head of one of the training colleges in one of the great cities. She said to me: “It makes me feel quite sad to see bright young girls expecting to get their living, and finding after their training is over that they can get nothing to do.” The Parliamentary vote will settle that. There is no department of life that you can think of in which the possession of the Parliamentary vote will not make things easier for women than they are to-day.

Then there is the administrative side of public life. We want the vote not merely to get laws made. I think the possession of the Parliamentary vote is very important on the administrative side of politics. I have every reason to think that, because I have just come out of prison. We may congratulate ourselves that the Militant Suffragists, of whom I am one, have at least succeeded in forcing the Government to appoint the first woman inspector of prisons. Of course, it is a very small thing, but it means a very great deal. It means the beginning of prison reform reform in prison discipline and prison treatment that have been needed for a very long time. Well, when we get the vote, it won’t take many years talking about things to get one woman inspector appointed. The immediate result of our getting the vote will be the appointment of many more women inspectors of factories in all Ireland. Yet in Belfast alone, more women and girls are working in factories than men and boys. The need there for inspection is enormous in these linen and jute factories. It is perfectly obvious that when you have women and girls working in factories, if they are to be properly inspected, you must have women inspectors. We shall get them as soon as we are able to get women’s interests properly attended to, which we shall only be able to do when we are in possession of the vote.

There is the same thing with regard to education. Women inspectors of schools are greatly needed. Moreover, there is not a single woman Poor Law inspector, nor a woman inspector of workhouses and workhouse hospitals. And yet it is to the workhouses and the workhouse hospitals that we send old people, sick people, and little children. We need to get women relieving officers appointed. I cannot get away from Mr. John Burns. You would think that a working may by origin, and the son of working people, might have been able to realise that it would have been a good thing to have women as relieving officers. And yet when Mr. John Burns, shortly after his appointment, was asked whether he would sanction the appointment of a woman relieving officer in a large Union in the North of England, he said it was not illegal, but it was a practice not to be encouraged. We shall get that position for women. We shall get it made possible for women to manage the business when men have always conceded is the business of women, the care of the sick, the care of the aged, the care of little children.

Well, I could go on giving you many, many more of these illustrations. In fact, the more one thinks about the importance of the vote for women, the more one realises how vital it is. We are finding out new reasons for the vote, new needs for the vote every day in carrying on our agitation.

I hope that there may be a few men and women here who will go away determined at least to give this question more consideration than they have in the past. They will see that we women, who are doing too much to get the vote, want it because we realize how much good we can do with it when we have got it. We do not want it in order to boast of how much we have got. We do not want it because we want to imitate men or to be like men. We want it because without it we cannot do that work which it is necessary and right and proper that every man and woman should be ready and willing to undertake in the interests of the community of which they form a part. It has always been the business of women to are for these things, to think of these home questions. I assure you that no woman who enters into this agitation need feel that she has got to give up a single one of her woman’s duties in the home. She learns to feel that she is attaching a larger meaning to those duties which have been woman’s duties since the race began, and will be till the race has cased to be. After all, home is a very very big thing indeed. It is not just your own little home, with its four walls, and your own little private and person interest that are looked after there. The home is the home of everybody of the nation. No nation can have a proper home unless women as well as men give their best to its building up and to making it what a home ought to be, a place where very single child born into it shall have a fair chance of growing up to be a fit, and a happy, and useful member of the community.



Source: Speeches and Trials of the Militant Suffragettes: The Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1918, ed. Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press) 1999, pp. 31-41.