HC Deb 12 May 1905 vol 146 cc217-36


Order for Second Reading read.

*MR. SLACK (Hertfordshire, St. Albans),

in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, expressed his regret that the measure should have come on at so late an hour in the afternoon, and said that as a comparatively new Member he felt almost appalled at the extraordinary abuse of the forms of the House which that afternoon had been witnessed, manifestly and in some quarters avowedly with a view to preventing discussion of this Bill. A study of previous debates on the question of the Parliamentary enfranchisement of women had convinced him that no detailed argument in favour of the principle was necessary. The arguments of John Stuart Mill on Mr. Disraeli's Reform Bill in 1867 were still unanswered and, in his opinion, they were unanswerable. The question was not one of Party, the principle having been supported by a majority of every Party in the House. The enfranchisement of women was a necessary factor in modern social progress, which had already been accepted by British colonies and which before long the mother country also would be compelled to accept. The principle had been discussed seventeen times in that House. In 1897 a Bill similar to the one under discussion was read a second time by a majority of seventy-one, while last year a Resolution affirming the principal was carried by a majority of 114. This week, Punch, that popular journal which generally had its finger upon the pulse of genuine public opinion, had put the case for this Bill in a nutshell, or rather in a cartoon, entitled "The Dignity of the Franchise."

The object of the Bill was to place women electorally in precisely the same position as men now occupied. The Bill would enfranchise women of every class, married and single, working women and women of leisure. It was certainly the intention of the promoters that it should enfranchise married women, and in Committee he would be glad, if necessary, to insert words, making this quite clear, providing that women should be enfranchised whether under coverture or not. The class chiefly concerned, however, were the working women of the country. The Bill embodied no new-fangled fancy franchise, but simply extended all existing franchises to women. It equalised the Parliamentary suffrage by admitting women as citizens on the same terms as men and abolishing the electoral disqualification of sex. It would enfranchise the great and numerous class of women occupiers. It had been ascertained that in the Bradley Ward of the Borough of Nelson more than 95 per cent. of the women voters now on the register were working women, while in Bolton the percentage was no less than 90, and out of 5,234 women voters now on the municipal register, and whom this Bill would add to the Parliamentary register, no fewer than 4,752 were working women. In St. Pancras, out of 5,231 women on the local register, 3,221 were working women. And in two wards of the city of Leeds 532 out of 536 and 1,100 out of 1,190 women voters were working women.

Fifty-three years ago Herbert Spencer wrote— Equity knows no difference of sex. The law of equal freedom manifestly applies to the whole race, female as well as male, and that was just as good philosophy today as when first written. During the generation since Disraeli's Bill of 1867 there had been a great advance in public opinion on this question. Women could now vote for county, borough, and parish councils and boards of guardians. and a few weeks ago the House decided by a large majority that the women who were qualified to vote for those municipal bodies should also be qualified to be elected to them. It was these same women who under this Bill would be qualified to exercise the Parliamentary franchise. The national attitude had changed, but in this House the recent tendency had been retrograde and reactionary. Women had lost ground both as regarded educational and municipal administration. They were no longer qualified for direct election to the education authorities, nor were they eligible to sit on the London borough councils, which had taken the place of bodies for election to which they were previously elegible. These disqualifications would never have been imposed had the principle of this Bill been the law of the land. Women had no Parliamentary vote to protect the position they had gained, and in legislative assemblies unrepresented interests far too frequently went to the wall.

The test he would apply to this as to all other matters was simply, "Is it right?" and he held that few men could say from their conscience that it was not right to give to women the Parliamentary franchise. The disfranchisement of women was unconstitutional, inexpedient, mischievous, and unjust. It was wrong to force reasonable and responsible citizens to obey laws which had been enacted without the possibility of sanction or protest on their part. Women were excluded from the learned profession, ineligible for service on juries, and for the magistracy. Before the law women were prosecuted, defended, tried, and judged by men, and thus the door was opened to prejudice, error, and injustice, Give them the Parliamentary suffrage and the greatest of their grievances would be assuaged, their wrongs mitigated, and the injustice to a certain extent remedied, because they would have a voice in the constitution of the highest Court of the realm. In this House, by their own representatives, they could then voice their case. This Bill was framed as a reasonable measure—to extend the franchise to women on the same terms as to men. It was intended to enfranchise every woman, who if she had been a man would have had a vote, whether as owner, occupier, or lodger. The Bill was drawn on a sound and broad basis—sound, because it made no invidious legal distinctions between different classes of women, and broad because it took the existing basis in regard to men. It sought to establish the principle that now and always there should be precisely the same qualification for men and women, and that the future broadening of the vote which must come should carry women with it. The area covered by the Bill could not be usefully widened or narrowed; if it were on a different basis it would be open to the charge of introducing a fresh complication into our already over-complicated, antiquated, and discredited electoral system. Women asked for no privilege. They claimed a sacred and inviolable right which had been recognised by colony after colony with the best possible results. They begged no favour but a fair field for a great body of responsible citizens. They demanded bare justice, the redress of a great wrong, and the adjustment of a glaring inequality. Their claim was based on the eternal principles of liberty, equality, equity, and justice, and also of national morality and righteousness—principles to which this House could never for long consent to turn a deaf ear. The House had nothing to do with the consequences of a measure which simply sought to do justice. Withholding justice always led to public danger and discontent. He ventured to prophesy that the results of this measure if passed would be both beneficent and permanent, the bounds of freedom would be enlarged, and government would be more broadly based because based upon the will of all the people. He begged to move.


said he was glad to have the opportunity of seconding the Motion that this very modest Bill should be read a second time. That women who had the same qualifications as men should be placed on the Parliamentary register, and that sex should be no bar to the franchise, was a proposal which, in his opinion, was rendered both desirable and necessary by the modern conditions of industry, and by the development and extension of that commercial and industrial system on which the prosperity of this country rests. The position of female labour in many countries was such that woman was the servant of man, working for him, not as a free agent, but in a state of dependence upon him whether wives or daughters. In England at least women were free, going to their work as the equals, and, indeed, as the competitors of men, receiving their wages and disposing of them as they thought well. In many trades, where the handling of fine fabrics and the manipulation of delicate machinery was necessary, it was found that the labour of women was superior to that of men. Thus in the great development of manufacture, it had come about that female labour took a large share in the production of the national wealth, and the commercial prosperity of the country might be said to be largely dependent upon it. But while women took their places in industry side by side with men, their position was by no means the same. They complained that they were peculiarly subject to the exactions of the sweater, that they received lower wages than men even for the same work, and that, as regarded technical education, their needs were almost wholly disregarded. They were shut out from all schemes of industrial reform. This they attributed, and rightly so in his opinion, to political helplessness. All would recognise the great improvement in the condition of working men since the establishment of trades unions, and how, by combination, so much had been obtained for the benefit, of working people, and probably all would agree that that improvement and that benefit would not have been secured, at any rate to the same extent, if the members of trades unions had not been endowed with the vote. And, now that women as much as men worked in their factories and workshops, now that they were in many cases the breadwinners, and in some cases the sole breadwinners, what argument was there for withholding from them the privileges of democracy which men enjoyed? While the foundation of their vast system of commerce rested so much upon female labour, while women shared so largely in the upkeep of the nation by the contribution of their labour to its trade, he submitted that no argument could be advanced in favour of sex remaining a disqualification for the franchise.

Many persons who were in favour of the franchise being given to women with a property qualification were opposed to this Bill. Personally, he took no interest in the extension of the franchise only to women with a property qualification. He did not believe that women with property cared in the least about the vote; to many it would be a luxury, to some even a nuisance, and Parliament need not trouble itself on account of those who were indifferent or were not pressing the matter forward. But women who worked for a weekly or daily wage did care about the vote; to them it would be not a luxury, but daily bread. He believed that inquiry had shown that 90 per cent. of the women who would go upon the register if this Bill passed would be working women. He understood that 7s. a week was the average wage of the working women of this country, and he remembered hearing it stated by a member of a deputation last year that she had worked ten hours a day welding chains for 5s. a week. These were the women who wanted the same chance in life as men, and while they did the same work and furnished so large a proportion of the labour supply of the country, there could be no reason why they should be denied political rights. It could not be to the interests of a commercial State which required for its sustenance a constant supply of well-fed and healthy labourers that cheap labour of this kind should be exacted from any section of its citizens. The question to-day was not how much or how little the franchise should be extended, but that in that franchise, whatever it was or might be, there should be equality, that one worker should not be denied what was given to another. He cared not what effect such a reform might have upon the balance of political Parties. A State, highly civilised and advancing in civilisation, conducting its internal economy on principles of equity and justice need have no fear of disturbance of political power.

He hoped the Bill would be read a second time. In any case, if those who opposed or supported the measure did so moderately and without prejudice, so satisfied was he with the arguments in its favour that he was certain the discussion would prove a step forward in the path of a reform for which the advancement of this country and its people would give ample justification. Their great commercial system was based upon the industry and intelligence of the people, and it might be said that the working people had the greatest stake of all in its maintenance and prosperity. Anything which injured that system contracted its operations, or impaired its machinery, must be felt firstly and most severely by those who worked for daily or weekly wages. Consequently their stake in the prosperity of the country was a great one, and that so large a proportion of those who had this large stake should be kept out of political rights was a condition which, in his opinion, both needed and demanded alteration. The request for that alteration was now made, and he could assure the House there was intense energy and force behind it. In the past there had been great men in the Conservative Party who had not been slow to recognise the aspirations of democracy, nor to discern, even though from a distance, the operation of forces not, perhaps, visible at the top, but the strength and intensity of which were clearly to be seen below. There had been statesmen on their side, who, in response to that instinct, had been the first to initiate and to bring to maturity democratic changes in the constitution of this country. He hoped and believed that the species was not yet extinct, and he further hoped that the next great measure of electoral reform might come from their side and that it might embrace at least that modest extension of the franchise suggested in the Bill before the House and of which he was glad to have the opportunity of supporting the Second Reading.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton),

in moving that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said that reference had been made to the views of John Stuart Mill. It was true that he voted for Mr. Mill's Motion, but he did so with great hesitation, and certainly not because he regarded his arguments as unanswerable. He remembered asking Mr. Mill, at Mr. Bright's suggestion, whether he was really in favour of giving the franchise to all women or only to a few. It was only when Mr. Mill replied that he was in favour of giving it to a few that Mr. Bright was prepared to vote for women's suffrage. Therefore Mr. Mill, whose arguments had been referred to as unanswerable, would himself have been against this Bill. That was thirty-seven years ago, and in thirty-seven years one increased to a certain extent in experience. Every successive year since then had made him more and more regret the vote ho then gave, and he had endeavoured to make up for it as a penance by opposing the Women's Franchise Bill tooth and nail ever since. He was entirely against female suffrage, and even if he were in its favour, he would, as a Radical and a democrat, oppose this Bill. After all, women were different from men physically and intellectually. We did not know how the difference had arisen. According to Darwin we all commenced from a single cell; the protoplasm by evolution became in some cases a man and in others a woman, and as a result of the processes in the laboratory of nature the sexes differed intellectually and physically. There were many physical tasks performed by men for which women were not fitted. They could not serve as soldiers.


You are not a soldier.


agreed, but he recognised that in every country in the last resort it was the business of every citizen of the country to go to its defence, and therefore he constituted one of the Reserves. Apparently, his hon. friend suggested that the franchise should be given to women because they could fulfil the duties of citizenship by turning out as soldiers after all the men had been destroyed. But that was not women's business; they could not do it; it must be recognised as one of their limitations. Neither could women act as policemen. Order and liberty, the social fabric, rested ultimately upon force, and the fact that women could not contribute to that force was a limitation of citizenship. The vote should be given only to those who could maintain a Government by force if necessary, provided, of course, it was a sound Government, but women could neither defend a good Government nor upset a bad one. It was the same in industrial life. As civilisation increased, the hard manual work was taken out of the hands of women. In this country the law had interfered to prevent women from doing men's work. He thought, therefore, it might fairly be said that women could not fulfil the duties of citizenship. Of course, it was not their fault that they were more beautiful than muscular.

There was also a difference between women and men in mental equipment. In some things they were superior to men, but in other things men were very much their superiors. During the first years at school girls outstripped boys, but after a certain age the boys more than overtook the girls. In domestic matters women were much more useful and understood them better than men, and in certain little trades in which women engaged they might be able to give points to men. But in the consideration of the great problems which came before the Imperial Parliament they were certainly inferior intellectually to men. There were doubtless exceptions, but he was speaking of the sex as a whole. Women were nervous, emotional, and had very little sense of proportion. Every man know what it was to argue with a woman. He had given it up. A woman would lay down her views, and though it were conclusively proved to her that she was wrong, she would continue stolidly to repeat her old arguments. But whence did she get her opinions and conclusions? Very often from someone who had influence over her.

Considering the nature of this great Parliament and what its duties were he was convinced that women, fitted as they were for many things, were not fitted to have votes. It was said that women were entitled to the franchise as a right. But the giving of votes must depend upon whether it was an advantage to the community, and it would be a great disadvantage to the community to give women votes. It would also be injurious to women themselves. It was said also that the argument against women being unfit for the franchisé was disproved by the fact that this country had an excellent Queen for many years. But it must be remembered that the Queen could only act on the advice of her Ministers, and in his opinion it would be easier for a woman to act as Queen than to act as a simple voter. Women exercised a great influence over men, and they desired to retain that influence. The laws of nations had been largely shaped by women, although women had no hand directly in the making of the laws. This influence would be lost to women if they had votes, and that was the reason why the vast majority of women did not desire the franchise. In fact, women had at present such an influence over the actions of men that if they had been really united in the desire for the franchise they would have got it long ago. It was only a few women with masculine minds who took an interest in politics and desired to have votes in order that they might enter the political arena. This matter must be considered from a broad point of view. Whatever the Bill might say, the admitted object of the promoters was to put men and women in a position of absolute equality in the matter of the franchise, to break down the barrier of sex, and to give women the vote precisely as it was now given to men. What would that mean? Somehow or other there were more females than males born, and at the time of a general election there were always more men than women absent from the country. Therefore, as there were more women than men in the country, if the female franchise was established it would mean the absolute abnegation of the rights of men, and the surrender of the whole government of the country to women. It was true that on ordinary questions women would not all act together; they would be split up into Parties; but when it came to a question of the interest of women versus the interest of men they would be absolutely united against the male portion of the community. It was, therefore, absolutely dangerous. Women would want to sit in Parliament. Whether his hon. friend was in favour of that or not—


I am not in favour of assisting you to talk it out.


Talking it out! Was it really supposed that a measure of this tremendous importance could be voted upon after a discussion of two hours? No, it was not a question of talking it out; he was trying to convert his hon. friend. But whether his hon. friend was in favour of it or not, it would matter very little if women were given votes, as the right to sit in the House could not then logically be denied.

Now, would it really be desirable to turn this venerable and respectable Parliament into an arena with a promiscuity of sexes? He thought it would be most undesirable There were young men there. He had seen in the lobbies all sorts of political flirtations going on to get their vote. As an old man he could not conscientiously countenance placing them or anybody else in the hands of those ladies. He had had cards sent in to himself, and gentlemen had come to him and said, "The ladies want to see you." Well, he was cautious. He remembered the intelligent Ulysses closed his ears not to hear the sirens; and so he did not go to those ladies. If he had gone—man was weak—he might have been cajoled and humbugged into taking their part and voting for this measure. No, it was really not safe. That was the view taken in all other matters. Boys and girls were not now taught together; it was recognised that the education for the one was not exactly suited to the requirements of the other sex. Would anybody suggest that there should be juries of women? ["Certainly."] Mixed juries? ["No."] They would not go so far as that; even they drew the line there! The general opinion was that the administration of justice would not gain by having jury-women instead of jurymen. Men were calmer and more likely to give a fair verdict. Would his hon. friend suggest that there should be women Judges and women advocates?

MR. CORRIE GRANT (Warwickshire, Rugby)

All we want is freedom.


said that was what he wanted. He wanted freedom for men. He was not going to be crushed under the dominion of women. He was a follower of John Knox, who wrote of "the horrible regiment of women." He went further; he was a successor of St. Paul. St. Paul objected to women talking in churches. Apparently the church was then the place where discussions were carried on. Take the Church now. Were Archbishops women? He admitted that many working women did not get fair treatment in the matter of wages, but to give them votes would not raise their wage by one shilling. How was it that men bad obtained better wages? Not by legislation, but through their trade unions, and those who desired to improve women's wages would do better to go and preach trade unionism to the women workers than to endeavour to secure them a barren vote which would do them no good at all. If his hon. friends would promote legislation to secure to women a minimum wage he would heartily support them. But even if he were in favour of women's suffrage, as a Radical and a democrat he would oppose this Bill.

Under the Bill as it stood, only propertied women, lodger spinsters, and female servants would get votes. If a woman married she would loss her vote.


The hon. Member is entirely inaccurate.


suggested that the hon. Member should read the Bill for himself. If it passed without modification marriage would be practically penalised. He would never accept what he did not think was an honest Bill. There was a deliberate attempt in the present measure to get in the thin end of the wedge. Women might be useful members upon subordinate local boards, for they had capacity for administrative work, and that work affected both sexes, but could not his hon. friend appreciate the vast difference between a board of guardians or a school board and the great Imperial Parliament? The Bill was thoroughly undemocratic and opposed to the most elementary principles of Radicalism. Votes in favour of women's suffrage had increased, it was said, and possibly that was so. Men were very weak in regard to women. Ladies came to them and adjured them to support the cause, and promised in return to canvas for the candidate, who in the belief that the movement would never come to a head weakly gave a promise. A vast number of Gentlemen had incautiously made such promises, and were anxious to avoid the fulfilment of their obligations. ["Oh."] Yes, they were glad the Bill came on for discussion too late for a division. He did not shirk the expression of his views in opposition to the Bill. An important Bill came on dealing with a matter on which he had a strong opinion, and it was supposed that discussion should be restricted under pain of being accused of a desire to talk out women's suffrage. But let supporters of this Bill understand that they could not have it both ways, and if women came into political life they must accept the conditions equally with men. The polite deference to women in drawing-rooms did not obtain in politics, but it was supposed, perhaps, that if ladies had seats in the House male Members would yield them precedence in speaking, though a man might hold strong views, as he did, on the question of vehicle lights. To give the franchise to women would destroy the best relation between the sexes. Think of a married man after having hoard speeches maundering on all the evening having to go over the whole again with his wife and daughters. They might be on opposite sides, and it would mean the destruction of the social relations that had existed from time immemorial. Those who were Radicals should vote against the Bill, even if they were in favour of women's suffrage, because it was not a Radical and democratic Bill, and Conservatives should not be induced to support it by the limitations attached, for they might be assured that if once a certain number were admitted to the franchise every woman in the country would soon be clamouring not only for votes but for the right to sit in the House.


said that he for once was in full agreement with the hon. Member for Northampton. When men exercised their Parliamentary franchise they were creating the great body with whom ultimately must rest not only the making, but the enforcement of the laws. It might be perfectly possible that in certain constituencies the votes of women under the Bill might be in the majority, and as the undoubted desire of the promoters of the Bill was to extend it to all women, in the end that majority would be probable in all constituencies. To carry out the principle logically both husband and wife would have to have the vote. Supposing a House consisting to a large extent of Members elected by the votes of women passed a law to which men as a whole objected, did hon. Members suppose that it would be possible to enforce that law? They could not force men's obedience to laws passed by the influence of a majority of women, contrary to the opinion of men on whose power the final sanction of the law rested. Something like a revolution would result. They would have dissociated the real from the nominal power of the country. The real sanction of any law at present was that it was backed by the power of the men who passed it, and by allowing women to come in, and in certain circumstances to control the election of Members to Parliament, they would vest the creation of the legislative power in one body, while the sanction for the maintenance of the laws passed by the Legislature was vested in another body. The agitation now experienced in consequence of the passing of the Education Act would be nothing compared to that which would follow an Act framed on the demands of women contrary to the wishes of men. Nothing but another Bill restraining the power of election and bringing the power back to its real source of origin would be able to set the matter right.

His information as to the opinion of the colonies, where women had received votes, regarding the success of that change did not agree with that given to the House that day. On the contrary, he was informed that the colonies were seriously dissatisfied with the result, and that there was a desire to repeal that legislation. In canvassing for county council elections he had been struck by a general failure on the part of women voters to take a broad or all-round view of a question. In almost every case they fixed upon some minor detail, and refused to consider anything else. That was not the spirit in which it was desirable to conduct elections to that House. Men did not regard matters in that light at a general election, though they might at a by-election. The hon. Member for Leicester described the Bill as a modest measure. Any adjective less appropriate it would be difficult to find. It was distinctly the most ambitious Bill in this direction ever brought before Parliament. He cordially agreed with the hon. Member for Leicester that women of property did not care about the vote and that it would be a nuisance to them. The vast bulk of women did not desire the franchise.


I entirely dissent.


said he was speaking from his own experience. Although he had made long inquiry he had been unable to find any desire in this direction among either property owners or any other class. The hon. Member for St. Albans had urged that John Stuart Mill's opinions ought to be sufficient to induce Members to support this Bill. But John Stuart Mill would not have been in favour of such a Bill, as his Motion undoubtedly had reference to propertied people.


Mr. John Stuart Mill proposed exactly what I propose to-day viz., to read the word "person" for "man" in the Reform Bill of 1867, and that would have enfranchised every woman that my Bill seeks to enfranchise.


said that, at any rate, that was some years ago, and public interest in the question, however strong it might have been at the time referred to, was not so strong now.


rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put;" but Mr. Deputy-Speaker withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.


said that for the hon. Member to say that no one could conscientiously refuse to support the Bill appeared to be a parody of the whole situation.

And, it being half-past Five of the clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.

Whereupon Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes before Six o'clock till Monday next.