Votes for Women
Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1870

Mr JACOB BRIGHT Sir, I rise to move that the Bill for the Removal of the Political Disabilities of Women be now read a second time. ...If a man is on the rate book and pays his rates, then, though he belong to the fraternity of London thieves, though he be an habitual drunkard, or a returned convict, though he may belong to the class of those who are so ignorant that they scarcely know the name of the Sovereign who sits upon the Throne - yet, if a man be able to submit to the test, whatever his position or character may be, he is at that moment admitted to the rank of voter, and enabled to influence the proceedings of this House. It does seem a strange anomaly that this test - that this qualification - which works such magic with men, is wholly inoperative with women, and that no matter what a woman's position may be - how much property she may have - how much intelligence she may possess, she is still excluded from the franchise, though able to come and submit to every test which Parliament has established.

It must be remembered, however, that no man is compelled to defend his country. It is a voluntary matter. We hire those who defend the country, and if women as well as men pay the taxes into the Exchequer which enable us to pay those who defend the country, that is a sufficient answer to the argument. I think Florence Nightingale could tell of the services of women who have done something even in defence of their country. The services in the hospital are almost as necessary as those which are performed in the camp; and women are always ready for that or any other kind of service.

... Is there a single tax which men pay which women do not pay also? Is the ability to pay on the part of men and women equal? There is not a male and female rate of taxation, but there is a male and female rate of wages and earnings. Women everywhere, with a few remarkable exceptions, are getting far less money than men; they have to work much longer for the same money; and they are even paid much less when they are doing precisely the same work. Taxation must, therefore, fall somewhat more heavily upon women than upon men...

At the present moment what does Parliament say to women who are occupiers and owners of property? It says to them - You are fitted to vote in local matters - in small concerns which do not greatly affect you you are entitled to have your vote; but when we come to Imperial affairs, then you are disqualified, and we refuse to admit you...

According to the common law of England, a married woman, in regard to the rights of property, is in the position of the negro in the Southern States of America before the American Revolution. She cannot control her property, and she has not the possession of one farthing of her earnings. According to my view, the possession of property is necessary for education, and for the proper development of character. Be the woman ever so prudent, be the man ever so imprudent - be the woman ever so sagacious, and be the husband ever so imbecile, still he has absolute control, not only of his own but of hers. Sir, the House is agreed upon this question, and is unanimous upon the injustice of the present law... I may, then, be asked why need women have votes, if they can obtain redress without them? It is one thing to acknowledge an evil and another to find a remedy for it. We legislate in the following order: - First, for those who can make themselves dangerous; next, for those who exercise a pressure at the polling-booth; and lastly, or not at all, for those who have no votes, and therefore no constitutional influence.

The Married Women's Property Bill has three times received the sanction of this House, and it has been twice before a Select Committee; but he would be a very imprudent man who would undertake to say when it will become law, or, further, that it will become law without greater mutilations than it has yet received. But that is not the way in which the class which has the franchise is treated... I have seen Members of this House sit here till daylight in order to defeat the Married Women's Property Bill, which seeks to prevent the confiscation of the property of a vast number of persons... and I have been glad to see the same hon. Members competing in this House in their desire to protect the funds of trades unionists and to protect the trades unions themselves. That is the effect of the franchise... but I am afraid it will be a long time before the Government undertake to deal with these questions which belong to a portion of society among whom the franchise does not exist...

There is a great free school in Manchester - an admirable school - which takes children out of the gutter; but it only takes in the male children, and the girls are left in the streets. Surely such a thing must have a very bad influence upon those boys and girls.

... if justice does not require that every individual should have a vote, it does require that every class should be represented; and we have established it as a political axiom, that no class ever will receive legislative equality at the hands of another class. We have always said that those who are called on to obey the laws should have some voice in making the laws, and that representation should follow taxation.

... In the Southern States of America, in the Northern States to a very large extent, and in this country to a great extent also, the people were told before the American War that the negro was not fit for freedom. People never are fit for freedom or for constitutional rights until they obtain them; but now there is not a man in America who would like to go back to the terrible state of things which existed before the Civil War broke out...

I confess I am surprised when I am told that women, as a class, are unfit for the franchise; women who are the subjects of a female Sovereign, are engaged in many literary pursuits; who are at the head of educational establishments; who are managing factories and farms, and controlling thousands of businesses throughout this country! If I am told that many women are not fitted for the franchise, I am bound to admit it; but, then, the same thing may be said of many men. Anyone who says that women generally are not fitted in point of intelligence for the franchise knows very little of the agitation which has produced this Bill. There has never been an agitation more ably conducted...

... Some of the objections are very peculiar. I have been told that women are too religious ... and that, therefore, they should be subject to political disabilities... It is true that the religious sentiment is stronger in women than in men; their path in life is a harder one, and law and custom, instead of coming in aid of their weakness, too often trample upon it and bestow their favours on the stronger sex. That being so, it is not remarkable that women, more than men, should seek consolation and strength from that Power before whom, at least, all human beings are equal. I have also been told that women should not be political, or, in other words, that it is the duty of women to be politically ignorant. I might as well be told that grass should not be green; and, no doubt, if you sufficiently excluded air and light and moisture it would no longer be so. Women are political, and they cannot fail to be so in the circumstances in which they are placed. They are born in a free country, where public meetings are held on every variety of subjects, those meetings being open to everybody; they are born in a country where we have a daily Press which is the ablest, the most interesting, and the cheapest which the world has ever known... if we are not to make our women political, we must shut the doors against the Press. To tell me that women should not be political is to tell me that they should have no care for the future of their children, no interest in the greatness and progress of their country. If it be true that women are not to be political, then we ought logically to take away from them the only shred of privilege which connects them with this House - the privilege of petitioning this House. Tens of thousands of women's names have been sent to this House in Petitions this year. We are supposed - [here the hon. Gentleman pointed up to the Ladies' Gallery] - not to know that there is a Gallery behind that screen; but I have noticed that it rarely happens that an hon. Gentleman comes down to make an important speech without his having some one or more of the female members of his family up in that Gallery. If women be deteriorated by political knowledge, I think the female members of the families of Members of Parliament must be in a very deplorable state indeed. I have visited them at their own homes, but I have never found that deterioration: on the contrary, I have found with larger knowledge more vivacity and interest; in short, an intellectual flavour not always to be found elsewhere.

An objection, considered to be a very great one with regard to the franchise, is, that women themselves do not care for it, and would not use it if they had it. But no one who has paid any attention to the facts of the case would raise that objection. Before the Municipal Franchise Bill gave municipal rights to women - where women had the power of local voting they used that power in the same proportion as men; and I have found that since the Bill of last year came into operation, in many municipalities they have voted in nearly an equal proportion with the men, while there are cases in which the polling of women has exceeded the polling of men. But it should be borne in mind that by passing this Bill we do not compel women to vote. There are a great many men who have no interest in politics at all, and who do not wish to vote...

Women vote in all local matters; they have every parochial vote; they have votes in corporate and non-corporate towns. In the non-corporate towns and in parishes they vote according to the property they are rated for. Thus, a lady of property may have as many as six votes, while her servant - her gardener or her labourer - has only one. But is it not an absurdity that a woman can have six votes and her man-servant only one in local matters, while in Parliamentary elections the poor man retains his one vote, while the woman, who is in a high position and owns large property, has absolutely none.

Without any Division in either House of Parliament, and with only one single voice raised, and that not with any earnestness, against it, women were admitted to vote in all our municipal elections. Women go up to the poll, they do not vote with the quiet of the Ballot, but they go up openly and give their votes once a year, not once in four or five years, and it must be borne in mind that these municipal elections have become as completely political as any Parliamentary election could possibly be. I do not know how or on what argument we can now say to women - "No; you have come so far, but you shall not come any further."

During the three short months we have already sat here this year, more than 100,000 names have come up asking us to pass this Bill.

Mr SCOURFIELD stated that 'the main proposition which he wished to maintain was, that they had no sufficient evidence that it was the wish of the women of England to have this privilege conferred upon them... he had asked the question of many women, and almost invariably the answer he received was, that they would much rather not have these privileges conferred upon them. ... It was said that they need not vote if they did not like; but they knew that when a district became excited election agents would hunt out the name of every person who could vote, and careful inquiry would be made as to every influence that could be brought to bear in order to get them to vote in favour of a particular candidate. In this way women would be subject to an amount of annoyance and persecution of which they had little idea at the present moment.

Mr W. FOWLER I want to ask hon. Members where this is to stop? It appears to me that if the argument that has been used is good, there is no reason on earth why women should not be elected Members of Parliament. There is not a single argument which has been used that does not end in that... My impression is that we have gone too far in giving them the municipal vote; but it does not follow that we should go further in a wrong direction... I consider the state of the law with regard to the property of married women to be a scandal and disgrace to this country, and I think that nothing can exceed the harshness and injustice of that law... But it does not follow that women must necessarily have a vote. All that follows is that we should have right men sent here, who will do justice to all classes of society. The hon. Member says that women will never have justice until they have direct representation. I dispute that proposition.

The whole question is this: Are women, or are they not, to enter into political strife like men? That is the real point at issue... I do not like to see women mixed up so much in all political questions. It is quite right that they should have their opinions, and that they should state their opinions and act upon them; but I do not desire to see a constant succession of women lecturers going about the country.

... it is not a disability that women should not have a vote, but that it is rather a privilege that they should not be mixed up in political strife... I desire to state, and make it most clearly understood, that my motive in doing so is to save them from what would be rather an injury than a blessing.

Mr BERESFORD HOPE: [It] is an acknowledged constitutional axiom, that those who enjoy political privileges, such as that of voting, are correlatively under obligations and responsibilities to take their part in the public service. I do not talk of the direct responsibility of the public defence, which maybe limited - though this is illogical - to the male sex alone, but of such obligations as the liability to serve on juries. If you give a woman a vote, are you prepared to make a woman liable to serve on juries? ... how would those who advocate this measure like to make women serve on such juries as those accustomed to deal with matters which come before Lord Penzance? [i.e. divorce cases] The male intellect is logical and judicial, the female instinctive and emotional. The instinctive and emotional has its own duty and its own functions in the progress of things; and that function is to guide, to influence, to moderate, to regulate, to suffer - not to govern...enfranchise women generally, and make them a power in the country, and you will find yourselves drifting on a sea of impulsive philanthropy and sentimentalism, where you are now at anchor on the principles of political economy.

SIR CHARLES W. DILKE: Mr Courfield objected to the argument drawn from the fact that Petitions had been brought forward in favour of the measure, and said that the proper way for a Member of this House to proceed when he wished to ascertain the opinions of the people on a particular subject was to go about and ask individuals one by one what they thought of it. Sir, ... the only means which people have of directly making known their wishes to Parliament is by Petitions, against which the hon. Member protests...You will always find that in the case of any class which has been despotically governed - and, though I do not wish to use strong language, it cannot be denied that women have been despotically governed in England, although the despotism has been of a benevolent character - the great majority of that class are content with the system under which they live.

Blackstone, describing those who are subject to political disability, that - "No vote can be given by lunatics, idiots, minors, aliens, females, persons convicted of perjury, subornation of perjury, bribery, treating or undue influence, or by those attainted of felony, or outlawed in a criminal suit." If you exclude aliens - and no country permits the subjects of a foreign Power to exercise the Parliamentary franchise - the disabled people divide themselves into two classes - those convicted of crime and those who are under some incapacity of mind. It is quite clear that no one would propose to rank women among criminals, and it would seem that they are ranked amongst the incapable. Now, Gentlemen who approved of the Municipal Franchise Bill of last year are in the most dangerous position possible. They are in the position of the faithful who have to enter into Paradise over a bridge narrow as a sword's edge. They must put themselves within the doctrine of Blackstone, that women are under some grave incapacity for exercising the political franchise, and yet demonstrate that the disability is of such a kind that it in no way applies to municipal elections.

With regard to the admission of women to Parliament, I would feel that if there were no other, that that is a matter in the hands of the constituency. If there are those dangers with regard to the admission of women to Parliament, which my hon. Friend professes to fear, the question, according to all political rules, ought to be left to the constituencies to decide.


SIR HERBERT CROFT said he should not like to see ladies exercising the franchise any more than he liked to see ladies going about ... delivering lectures on the rights of woman. His own constituents were fair, graceful, and feminine; therefore they did not want a vote, and they had not sent him one single Petition on this subject, and, therefore, he should vote against the Bill.

Mr JACOB BRIGHT There is only one matter ... to which I will allude. Mr Bruce said - "We cannot stop here; and if women have votes you will have to admit them to this House." Now I doubt whether anyone believes that they will be admitted to this House for many long generations to come, unless a total and unforeseen change should take place in the country. To show the feeling of the great constituency which I have the honour to represent, I may state to the House that I have just received a telegram, telling me that the Manchester Town Council have to-day agreed to petition Parliament in favour of this Bill by a majority of 42 to 12.

The House divided: - Ayes 124; Noes 91: Majority 33.

Source: Hansard. Debate edited by Helena Wojtczak