Votes for Women
Excerpts from the House of Commons debate on 20 May 1867

In the Ladies Gallery: Lady Amberley and Millicent Garrett

Mr JOHN STUART MILL I rise, Sir, to propose an extension of the suffrage which can excite no party or class feeling in this House; which can give no umbrage to the keenest asserter of the claims either of properly or of numbers; an extension which has not the smallest tendency to disturb what we have heard so much about lately, the balance of political power, which cannot afflict the most timid alarmist with revolutionary terrors, or offend the most jealous democrat as an infringement of popular rights, or a privilege granted to one class of society at the expense of another. There is nothing to distract our attention from the simple question, whether there is any adequate justification for continuing to exclude an entire half of the community, not only from admission, but from the capability of being ever admitted within the pale of the Constitution, though they may fulfil all the conditions legally and constitutionally sufficient in every case but theirs.

Sir, within the limits of our Constitution this is a solitary case. There is no other example of an exclusion which is absolute. If the law denied a vote to all but the possessors of £5,000 a year, the poorest man in the nation might — and now and then would — acquire the suffrage; but neither birth, nor fortune, nor merit, nor exertion, nor intellect, nor even that great disposer of human affairs, accident, can ever enable any woman to have her voice counted in those national affairs which touch her and hers as nearly as any other person in the nation.


[T]here is an important branch of expediency called justice; and justice, though it does not necessarily require that we should confer political functions on every one, does require that we should not, capriciously and without cause, withhold from one what we give to another.... to lay a ground for refusing the suffrage to any one, it is necessary to allege either personal unfitness or public danger. Now, can either of these be alleged in the present case? Can it be pretended that women who manage an estate or conduct a business — who pay rates and taxes, often to a large amount, and frequently from their own earnings — many of whom are responsible heads of families, and some of whom, in the capacity of schoolmistresses, teach much more than a great number of the male electors have ever learnt — are not capable of a function of which every male householder is capable? Or is it feared that if they were admitted to the suffrage they would revolutionize the State — would deprive us of any of our valued institutions, or that we should have worse laws, or be in any way whatever worse governed through the effect of their suffrages? No one, Sir, believes anything of the kind.

And it is not only the general principles of justice that are infringed, or at least set aside, by the exclusion of women, merely as women, from any share in the representation; that exclusion is also repugnant to the particular principles of the British Constitution. It violates one of the oldest of our constitutional maxims — a doctrine dear to Reformers, and theoretically acknowledged by most Conservatives — that taxation and representation should be co-extensive. Do not women pay taxes? Does not every woman who is sui juris contribute exactly as much to the revenue as a man who has the same electoral qualification? If a stake in the country means anything, the owner of freehold or leasehold property has the same stake, whether it is owned by a man or a woman. There is evidence in our constitutional records that women have voted, in counties and in some boroughs, at former, though certainly distant, periods of our history.

The House, however, will doubtless expect that I should not rest my case solely on the general principles either of justice or of the Constitution, but should produce what are called practical arguments. Now, there is one practical argument of great weight, which, I frankly confess, is entirely wanting in the case of women; they do not hold great meetings in the Parks, or demonstrations at Islington. How far this I omission may be considered to invalidate their claim, I will not undertake to decide; but ...what are the practical objections? The difficulty which most people feel on this subject is not a practical objection; there is nothing practical about it, it is a mere feeling — a feeling of strangeness; the proposal is so new; at least they think so, though this is a mistake; it is a very old proposal. Well, Sir, strangeness is a thing which wears off ... the despotism of custom is on the wane...

Politics, it is said, are not a woman's business. Well, Sir, I rather think that politics are not a man's business either; unless he is one of the few who are selected and paid to devote their time to the public service, or is a Member of this or of the other House. The vast majority of male electors have each his own business which absorbs nearly the whole of his time; but I have not heard that the few hours occupied, once in a few years, in attending at a polling - booth, even if we throw in the time spent in reading newspapers and political treatises, ever causes them to neglect their shops or their counting-houses. I have never understood that those who have votes are worse merchants, or worse lawyers, or worse physicians, or even worse clergymen than other people. One would almost suppose that the British Constitution denied a vote to every one who could not give the greater part of his time to politics; if this were the case we should have a very limited constituency... The ordinary occupations of most women are, and are likely to remain, principally domestic; but the notion that these occupations are incompatible with the keenest interest in national affairs, and in all the great interests of humanity, is as utterly futile as the apprehension, once sincerely entertained, that artizans would desert their workshops and their factories if they were taught to read.

I know there is an obscure feeling — a feeling which is ashamed to express itself openly — as if women had no right to care about anything, except how they may be the most useful and devoted servants of some man. But as I am convinced that there is not a single Member of this House, whose conscience accuses him of so mean a feeling, I may say without offence, that this claim to confiscate the whole existence of one half of the species for the supposed convenience of the other, appears to me, independently of its injustice, particularly silly. For who that has had ordinary experience of human affairs, and ordinary capacity of profiting by that experience, fancies that those do their own work best who understand nothing else?

But perhaps it is thought that the ordinary occupations of women are more antagonistic than those of men are to the comprehension of public affairs. It is thought, perhaps, that those who are principally charged with the moral education of the future generations of men, cannot be fit to form an opinion about the moral and educational interests of a people; and that those whose chief daily business is the judicious laying-out of money, so as to produce the greatest results with the smallest means, cannot possibly give any lessons to right hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House or on this, who contrive to produce such singularly small results with such vast means...

The notion of a hard and fast line of separation between women's occupations and men's — of forbidding women to take interest in the things which interest men — belongs to a gone-by state of society which is receding further and further into the past.... In former days a man passed his life among men; all his friendships, all his real intimacies, were with men; with men alone did he consult on any serious business; the wife was either a plaything, or an upper servant. All this, among the educated classes, is now changed... the two sexes now pass their lives together; the women of a man's family are his habitual society; the wife is his chief associate, his most confidential friend, and often his most trusted adviser...

Is it good for a man to live in complete communion of thoughts and feelings with one who is studiously kept inferior to himself, whose earthly interests are forcibly confined within four walls, and who cultivates, as a grace of character, ignorance and indifference about the most inspiring subjects, those among which his highest duties are cast? ...

It may be said that women may take interest in great public questions without having votes; they may, certainly; but how many of them will? Education and society have exhausted their power in inculcating on women that their proper rule of conduct is what society expects from them; and the denial of the vote is a proclamation intelligible to every one, that whatever else society may expect, it does not expect that they should concern themselves with public interests. Why, the whole of a girl's thoughts and feelings are toned down by it from her schooldays; she does not take the interest even in national history which her brothers do, because it is to be no business of hers when she grows up. If there are women — and now happily there are many — who do interest themselves in these subjects, and do study them, it is because the force within is strong enough to bear up against the worst kind of discouragement...

We are told, Sir, that women do not wish for the suffrage. If the fact were so, it would only prove that all women are still under this deadening influence; that the opiate still benumbs their mind and conscience. But great numbers of women do desire the suffrage, and have asked for it by petitions to this House. How do we know how many more thousands there may be who have not asked for what they do not hope to get; or for fear of what may be thought of them by men, or by other women; or from the feeling, so sedulously cultivated in them by their education — aversion to make themselves conspicuous? ... However this may be, those who do not care for the suffrage will not use it; either they will not register, or if they do, they will vote as their male relatives advise — by which, as the advantage will probably be about equally shared among all classes, no harm will be done. Those, be they few or many, who do value the privilege, will exercise it, and will receive that stimulus to their faculties, and that widening and liberalizing influence over their feelings and sympathies, which the suffrage seldom fails to produce on those who are admitted to it.

Meanwhile an unworthy stigma would be removed from the whole sex. The law would cease to declare them incapable of serious things; would cease to proclaim that their opinions and wishes are unworthy of regard, on things which concern them equally with men, and on many things which concern them much more than men. They would no longer be classed with children, idiots, and lunatics, as incapable of taking care of either themselves or others, and needing that everything should be done for them, without asking their consent. If only one woman in 20,000 used the suffrage, to be declared capable of it would be a boon to all women.

Then it is said, that women do not need direct power, having so much indirect, through their influence over their male relatives and connections. I should like to carry this argument a little further. Rich people have a great deal of indirect influence. Is this a reason for refusing them votes? ... Sir, it is true that women have great power. It is part of my case that they have great power; but they have it under the worst possible conditions because it is indirect, and therefore irresponsible. I want to make this great power a responsible power. I want to make the woman feel her conscience interested in its honest exercise...

. But at least, it will be said, women do not suffer any practical inconvenience, as women, by not having a vote. The interests of all women are safe in the hands of their fathers, husbands, and brothers, who have the same interest with them, and not only know, far better than they do, what is good for them, but care much more for them than they care for themselves. Sir, this is exactly what is said of all unrepresented classes. The operatives, for instance; are they not virtually represented by the representation of their employers? Are not the interest of the employers and that of the employed, when properly understood, the same? ... And what is more, are not all employers good, kind, benevolent men, who love their workpeople, and always desire to do what is most for their good?

...workmen need other protection than that of their employers, and women other protection than that of their men. I should like to have a Return laid before this House of the number of women who are annually beaten to death, kicked to death, or trampled to death by their male protectors; and, in an opposite column, the amount of the sentences passed in those cases in which the dastardly criminals did not get off altogether. I should also like to have, in a third column, the amount of property, the unlawful taking of which was, at the same sessions or assizes, by the same judge, thought worthy of the same amount of punishment. We should then have an arithmetical estimate of the value set by a male legislature and male tribunals on the murder of a woman, often by torture continued through years, which, if there is any shame in us, would make us hang our heads.

Sir, before it is affirmed that women do not suffer in their interests, as women, by the denial of a vote, it should be considered whether women have no grievances; whether the laws, and those practices which laws can reach, are in every way as favourable to women as to men. Now, how stands the fact? In the matter of education, for instance. We continually hear that the most important part of national education is that of mothers, because they educate the future men. Is this importance really attached to it? Are there many fathers who care as much, or are willing to expend as much, for the education of their daughters as of their sons? Where are the Universities, where the high schools, or the schools of any high description, for them? If it be said that girls are better educated at home, where are the training - schools for governesses? What has become of the endowments which the bounty of our ancestors destined for the education, not of one sex only, but of both indiscriminately? I am told by one of the highest authorities on the subject, that in the majority of the endowments the provision made is not for boys, but for education generally; in one great endowment, Christ's Hospital, it is expressly for both; that institution now maintains and educates 1,100 boys, and exactly twenty-six girls.

And when they attain womanhood ... hardly any decent educated occupation, save one, is open to them. They are either governesses or nothing... A young lady, Miss Garrett ... studied the medical profession. Having duly qualified herself, she, with an energy and perseverance which cannot be too highly praised, knocked successively at all the doors through which, by law, access is obtained into the medical profession. Having found all other doors fast shut, she fortunately discovered one which had accidentally been left ajar. The Society of Apothecaries, it seems, had forgotten to shut out those who they never thought would attempt to come in, and through this narrow entrance this young lady found her way into this profession. But so objectionable did it appear to this learned body that women should be the medical attendants even of women, that the narrow wicket through which Miss Garrett entered has been closed after her, and no second Miss Garrett will be allowed to pass through it... No sooner do women show themselves capable of competing with men in any career, than that career, if it be lucrative or honourable, is closed to them. A short time ago women might be associates of the Royal Academy; but they were so distinguishing themselves, they were assuming so honourable a place in their art, that this privilege also has been withdrawn. This is the sort of care taken of women's interests by the men who so faithfully represent them.

This is the way we treat unmarried women. And how is it with the married? ... Now, by the common law of England, all that a wife has, belongs absolutely to the husband; he may tear it all from her, squander every penny of it in debauchery, leave her to support by her labour herself and her children, and if by heroic exertion and self-sacrifice she is able to put by something for their future wants, unless she is judicially separated from him he can pounce down upon her savings and leave her penniless. And such cases are of quite common occurrence.... The richer classes take care to exempt their own daughters from the consequences of this abominable state of the law. By the contrivance of marriage settlements, they are able in each case to make a private law for themselves, and they invariably do so. Why do we not provide that justice for the daughters of the poor, which we take care to provide for our own daughters? Why is not that which is done in every case that we personally care for, made the law of the land, so that a poor man's child whose parents could not afford the expense of a settlement, may retain a right to any little property that may devolve on her, and may have a voice in the disposal of her own earnings, which, in the case of many husbands, are the best and only reliable part of the incomings of the family?

I give these instances to prove that women are not the petted children of society which many people seem to think they are — that they have not the overabundance, the superfluity of power that is ascribed to them, and are not sufficiently represented by the representation of the men who have not had the heart to do for them this simple and obvious piece of justice. Sir, grievances of less magnitude than the law of the property of married women, when suffered by parties less inured to passive submission, have provoked revolutions. We ought not to take advantage of the security we feel against any such consequence in the present case, to withhold from a limited number of women that moderate amount of participation in the enactment and improvement of our laws, which this Motion solicits for them, and which would enable the general feelings of women to be heard in this House through a few male representatives. We ought not to deny to them, what we are conceding to everybody else — a right to be consulted...

Amendment proposed, in page 2, line 16, to leave out the word "man," in order to insert the word "person," instead thereof.

MR EDWARD KENT KARSLAKE said that with regard to giving only spinsters and widows the vote, that 'the spinsters might marry, and the widows might marry again. Now, if the ladies of England were once to obtain this boon — this inestimable boon of the franchise ... and if they attached that importance to it which ]Mill] supposed them to do, could the House expect that they would part with it again by marrying? He said that if Mill 'got in the thin end of the wedge by the admission of unmarried women to the electoral roll he would afterwards claim that married women should also be admitted to the franchise.'

Parliament had never adopted the principles of the Civil Law, but had always deliberately upheld the position that a woman on her marriage should give over all she had, including herself, to her husband for better for worse.... The law was now precisely what it had been for the last 500 years. A Scotch text writer had observed how singular it was that when a man took a woman to the altar he said, 'With all my worldly goods I thee endow', whereas he took from her everything she had, and did not give her a farthing. ... the law of the land at the present day had deliberately settled that the wife should be absolutely and entirely under the control of the husband, not only in respect of her property, but of her personal movements. For example, a married woman might not 'gad about,' and if she did her husband was entitled to lock her up; some held that he might beat her. He had his doubts about that, and if his advice were asked, as a lawyer, he would say do not do it - but undoubtedly the husband had entire dominion over the person and property of his wife. He thought, then, it was clear that votes could not be given to married women consistently with the rules of law as regarded property and the husband's dominion over the wife's movements. Then how would it be in the matter of voting? ... How did the hon. Gentleman propose to deal with these differences of opinion between the head of the family and her whom the poet called "the lesser man?" ...It was absurd to suppose that a woman when she obtained the franchise would, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, be better able to protect herself against the brutality of man. ... They no doubt wanted to make man better than he was, but certainly not by altering the condition of women.

In one of his very able works the hon. Member had laid it down that there was no greater difference between a woman and a man than there was between two human beings, one with red hair and one with black, or one with a fair skin and the other with a dark one. He (Mr Karslake) humbly begged to differ from him, for while he believed that a man qualified to possess the franchise would be ennobled by its possession, woman, in his humble opinion, would be almost debased or degraded by it. She would be in danger of losing those admirable attributes of her sex - namely, her gentleness, her affection, and her domesticity. [He then quotes an ancient philosopher], who said, in speaking of women - 'Let them not struggle to rise above their natural condition which has been assigned to them by Providence'... Mr Karslake concluded: The women of this country would prefer to remain as they were, being content with the happy homes and advantages they now possessed, even with the disabilities referred to by Chief Justice Blackstone... who had said that the very disabilities to which women were subject, taken on the whole, showed how great a favourite was the female sex to the laws of England.

HENRY FAWCETT spoke next, in support of J.S. Mill. He referred to Mr Karslake's contention that 'after women had enjoyed the privilege for two or three years they would value it so highly that they would not relinquish it for marriage. But was he to decide whether it was a good thing or not for women to marry? Surely he might leave that question for women to decide. The whole of the hon. and learned Member's speech was based on the fallacy that man possessed a superior kind of wisdom, which enabled him to decide what was best for the other half of the human race.

... It had been contended that if women took an interest in political matters it would very much deteriorate from their character; but he challenged hon. Members to prove that those women of their acquaintance who interested themselves in politics lost any of those qualities which entitled them to the admiration of the world any more than those who cared nothing about politics...[H]e had no hesitation in saying that he would undoubtedly confer the suffrage also upon married women. In his opinion it would create less discord than religious differences. Yet they passed no law to say that a man and woman with different religious views should not be married.

MR SAMUEL LAING said 'The instinct, he felt assured, of nine men out of ten—nay, of nine women out of ten — was opposed to the proposal which had been laid before the Committee by [Mill], and although they might not be able to give a single argument for their opinion...'

Mr Laing spoke of 'that ideal pattern of perfection which was in the mind of the Creator when He called both man and woman into existence... Between the two sexes it was abundantly evident that Nature had drawn clear lines of distinction... In all that required rough, rude, practical force, stability of character, and intellect, man was superior: whereas in all those relations of life that demanded mildness, softness of character, and amiability, women far excelled... He 'hoped the day was far distant when our women should become masculine and our men effeminate... and he could not help thinking that it was more fitting that men should retain what was proper to men, and the women retain all the privileges that could becomingly be conceded to women.'

VISCOUNT GALWAY believed that the Committee were anxious to proceed to more important business (!)

Mr ONSLOW supported Mill's Amendment. In the borough he represented there were many ladies of the very best description; and in their interest he hoped the Amendment would be carried. He had taken a great deal of trouble to ascertain the wishes of the ladies on the subject. He asked two young ladies in the lobby how they would vote, supposing they possessed the franchise; and their reply was that they would give their vote to the man who would give them the best pair of diamond earrings.

Summing up, Mr JOHN STUART MILL said 'I am a great deal too well pleased with the speeches that have been made against it — his own included — to think of withdrawing [the Amendment]. There is nothing that has pleased me more in those speeches than to find that every one who has attempted to argue at all, has argued against something which is not before the House: they have argued against the admission of married women, which is not in the Motion; or they have argued against the admission of women as Members of this House; or ... they have argued against allowing women to be generals and officers in the army; a question which I need scarcely say is not before the House. I certainly do think that when we come to universal suffrage, as some time or other we probably shall come — if we extend the vote to all men, we should extend it to all women also...

If, as is surmised by one of the speakers, young ladies should attach so much value to the suffrage that they should be unwilling to divest themselves of it in order to many, I can only say that if they will not marry without it, they will probably be allowed to retain it. women should be admitted to any employment or occupation which they are not now admitted to—if it should become the general opinion that they ought to have it, they will have it.

Ayes 196; Noes 73, Majority 123 to reject the Amendment.

The Times reported next day that the debate had been 'for the most part more jocular than serious in its tone.'

The following month, Lydia Becker visted Mr Karslake's constituency, Colchester, to drum up support for votes for women.

Source: Hansard. Debate edited and notes added by Helena Wojtczak