§ MR. J. STUART MILL,
in rising to move for anAddress for "Return of the number of Freeholders, Householders, and others in England and Wales who, fulfilling the conditions of property or rental prescribed by Law as the qualification for the Electoral Franchise, are excluded from the Franchise by reason of their sex,said: Sir, I rise to make the Motion of which I have given notice. After the petition which I had the honour of presenting a few weeks ago, the House would naturally expect that its attention would be called, however briefly, to the claim preferred in that document. The petition, and the circumstances attendant on its preparation, have, to say the least, greatly weakened the chief practical argument which we have been accustomed to hear against any proposal to admit women to the electoral franchise—namely, that few, if any, women desire it. Originating as that petition did entirely with ladies, without the instigation, and, to the best of my belief, without the participation of any person of the male sex in any stage of the proceedings, except the final one of its presentation to Parliament, the amount of response which became manifest, the number of signatures obtained in a very short space of time, not to mention the quality of many of those signatures, may not have been surprising to the ladies who promoted the petition, but was certainly quite unexpected by me. I recognize in it the accustomed sign that the time has arrived when a proposal of a public nature is ripe for being taken into serious consideration — namely, when a word spoken on the subject is found to have been the expression of a silent wish pervading a great number of minds, and a signal given in the hope of rallying a few supporters is unexpectedly answered by many. It is not necessary to offer any justification for the particular Motion which I am about to make. When the complaint is made that certain citizens of this nation, 997 fulfilling all the conditions and giving all the guarantees which the Constitution and the law require from those who are admitted to a voice in determining who shall be their rulers, are excluded from that privilege for what appears to them, and for what appears to me, an entirely irrelevant consideration, the least we can do is to ascertain what number of persons are affected by the grievance, and how great an addition would be made to the constituency if this disability were removed. I should not have attempted more than this in the present Session, even if the recent discussions in reference to Reform had not been brought to an abrupt close. Even if the late Government had succeeded in its honourable attempt to effect an amicable compromise of the Reform question, any understanding or any wish which might have existed as to the finality, for a certain period, of that compromise, could not have effected such a proposal as this, the adoption of which would not be, in any sense of the term, a lowering of the franchise, and is not intended to disturb in any degree the distribution of political power among the different classes of society. Indeed, hon. Gentlemen opposite seem to think, and I suppose they are the best judges, that this concession, assuming it to be made, if it had any effect on party politics at all, would be favourable to their side; and the right hon. Member for Dublin University, in his humorous manner, advised me on that ground to withdraw this article from my political programme; but I cannot, either in jest or in earnest, adopt his suggestion, for I am bound to consider the permanent benefit of the community before the temporary interest of a party; and I entertain the firmest conviction that whatever holds out an inducement to one-half of the community to exercise their minds on the great social and political questions which are discussed in Parliament, and whatever causes the great influence they already possess to be exerted under the guidance of greater knowledge, and under a sense of responsibility, cannot be ultimately advantageous to the Conservative or any other cause, except so far as that cause is a good one. And I rejoice in the knowledge that in the estimation of many hon. Gentlemen of the party opposite, the proposal made in the petition is, like many of the most valuable Reforms, as truly Conservative, as I am sure it is truly Liberal. I listened with pleasure and gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman who is now Chancellor of 998 the Exchequer, when in his speech on the second reading of the Reform Bill, he said he saw no reason why women of independent means should not possess the electoral franchise, in a country where they can preside in manorial courts and fill parish offices—to which let me add, and the Throne.
§ MR. WALPOLE
said, he would consent to the Motion, without however pledging himself to any future course on the question.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Address for "Return of the number of Freeholders, Householders, and others in England and Wales who, fulfilling the conditions of property or rental prescribed by Law as the qualification for the Electoral Franchise, are excluded from the Franchise by reason of their sex."—(Mr. J. Stuart Mill.)