Votes for Women
Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1871


Mr JACOB BRIGHT said ... there were 170 Members of the present Parliament who had, at one time or another, given their sanction to the principle of the Bill... Whatever measures had been generally supported by the large Parliamentary boroughs had found their way to the Statute Book. The great towns had recently decided in favour of household suffrage for men; and they had now decided, not with entire unanimity, but with a remarkable approach to it, in favour of this Bill for giving household suffrage throughout the country without any distinction of sex. Edinburgh and Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, Leeds and Brighton, Oldham and Sheffield, Halifax and Bolton had given an undivided vote in favour of the Bill...

... The great and oppressive inequalities in the laws as between the sexes supplied them with a practical motive of the very strongest kind to endeavour to obtain the franchise, from a knowledge of the fact that only those who could influence the legislative body had any chance of getting their grievances redressed... Women had discovered that whenever a class of persons hitherto debarred from the franchise were admitted within the political pale, a very decided change soon occurred in the legislation affecting them. Until working men got votes the House had looked with considerable suspicion on trades unions, and would gladly have suppressed them; but now they had legislated for them in a spirit of justice, and probably even of generosity... If women had the franchise the House would get to know their opinions and feelings, and legislation affecting them would be more successful. Had they possessed the franchise, would the Women's Property Bill have met the fate it did? It passed that House [but] the Peers destroyed the Bill and created another... That Bill came back with the principle knocked out of it ... and to this hour confiscation of property at marriage was the law for women in this country.

... A struggle was going on among women for a higher education. At Edinburgh University some half-dozen women of great ability, high character, and industry desired to become qualified as medical practitioner ... the Government was silent while half-a-dozen women were heroically fighting their own battle against a high-class trade union in that city.

... With a conscientious desire to lessen infanticide, the hon. and learned Member for Salford (Mr Charley) had introduced the Infant Life Preservation Bill. If it affected anyone, it affected women, and it was natural they should consider it... was not their demand a reasonable one, that they should be allowed to express their opinions at the polling booth?

...If either men or women should be without votes, it ought to be men; and his reason for that opinion was that men had ten times the means of influencing the Legislature of any country apart altogether from votes. They had physical strength, combative qualities, opportunities of meeting, and the almost entire control of the Press, the platform, and the pulpit; they were the masters of all the great professions in this country; they had the command of the purse... ...He now came to the pedestal or pinnacle argument, which was that women stood in too high a position to be subjected to the dirt and mire of politics; but everything in this world had its baser side, including religion, literature, and art, and we did not attempt to exclude women from them on that account. Those who used this pinnacle argument were members of aristocratic families, and belonged to that privileged order in which women stood on high social pinnacles; but he did not come there to advocate the claims of women who stood upon any pinnacle or pedestal whatever, he came to plead the cause of those who, less powerfully armed by nature, less favoured by law, had to do the rough work of the world in the face of obstacles more formidable than ever beset the path of men...

Mr EASTWICK in seconding the Motion, said ... he was surprised at the extreme and even dangerous importance which some attached to the enfranchisement, not of women, but of the comparatively few women who possessed the qualifications which entitled men to vote... [If unmarried female householders and lodgers qualified as males were placed on the voters' list they] would not equal one-fifth of the number of voters added by the last Reform Bill. The peril of this addition, if there were any, was still further diminished by the fact that women were not turbulent, corrupt, and revolutionary like men, and that any changes their influence might introduce would be of the mildest and most beneficent character.

... Another futile objection which he had heard in the last year's debate was that women could not be admitted to the suffrage without conceding to them also a seat in Parliament It was a sufficient answer to that objection that the clergy possessed the suffrage but could not sit in Parliament, and had never agitated for the privilege. A more absurd objection still was that the enfranchisement of a small minority of women would alter the character of the whole sex, who would invade the occupations, habits, and lines of thought which formed the peculiar domain of man, and sweeping like a torrent, as it were, [and] obliterate the boundaries which Nature herself had set up between the sexes. ...The municipal suffrage had been given to women, and the educational, without in the slightest degree detracting from the feminine softness of women, or disturbing their role in life's great drama as wives and mothers.

... He dismissed the thought that any very portentous changes, political or social, would be effected by carrying the measure; but then the question arose, if the measure were likely to be so inoperative, why press it at all? The answer was that it completed the representation of property and of intelligence.

... Lastly it appeared to him that to imply the inferiority of women by withholding from them the suffrage was detrimental to their character, whether that inferiority be, or be not, wholly and absolutely true; and an illustration of this was to be found in the results of the policy of the Spaniards towards the Indians in America. He had lately read [that] "The special code and ordinances sent out by the council of the Indies unintentionally, perhaps, but effectually, favoured the spread and perpetuation of the popular prejudices as to the real inferiority of the Indians, by speaking of them and providing for them as minors in all civil matters. Habituated for so long a period to contempt and pity, they have come to regard themselves as inferior beings, and their self-respect can never be restored except through a series of efforts as prolonged as those which have humbled them have been continuous." For these reasons he supported this Bill, but he also thought there was a special reason why this country should be the first to adopt the enfranchisement of women. That reason was the immense influence which the example of England must exert upon the 200,000,000 of Asiatics in India, among whom, with a few brilliant exceptions, women had been degraded to a state little better than slavery... If for no other reason, he should support this measure as a blow dealt at the slavery of women in the East, and as a reply to the besotted demand of the Chinese Government that schools for female education should be dissolved.

The Hon. EDWARD PLEYDELL-BOUVERIE said he believed that the municipal franchise had been given to women 'inadvertently'. He, for one, would be no party to any further extension of that measure. ... Mixing up women in contested elections would be to contaminate the sex - that sex which we were bound to keep in respect, and whose modesty and purity we were especially bound to hold in reverence... If we conferred the Parliamentary franchise on women we should not be able to protect those who were unwilling to take part in politics. Politics would be forced upon them - they would be driven to the poll whether they liked it or not - their lives would be made a burden to them during a contested election; and there was no woman who would not be assailed, bothered, annoyed, and persecuted to give her vote. Therefore, unless the great bulk of our countrywomen asked for the franchise - and it was well known that they did not ask for it - the House ought not to impose [it] upon them.

[He described an occasion in which 'unseemly sights' took place at a polling booth]. Women in a state of semi-drunkenness were hustled into public houses by men in the same state... Mr Alderman Lamb was reported to have said that - "He would ask whether any gentleman present would like to see his wife, daughter, or sister taking part in the disgraceful scenes which were witnessed at the last municipal election. Staggering women, supported by staggering men - not their husbands - were seen going up to vote, both sexes boisterous and obscene in their language." [In reply to] a question which had been often raised before by philosophers... "Why are half the human race excluded from political privileges?" [Mr Bright], in attempting to solve that question in the way he proposed, was in reality disturbing the whole foundations of society and obliterating the distinction of sex, and ignoring the functions of the sexes in society which have existed in all times and in every civilized community....

Mr HUNT asked whether it was proposed there to give the vote to married as well as to single women?

The Hon. EDWARD PLEYDELL-BOUVERIE believed it was. [The Bill] really tended to obliterate the practical distinctions which the experience, the wisdom, and the habits of mankind in all ages had established... if we conceded electoral power to women, how could we refuse them a share in legislative power, in judicial power, in administrative power? ... This was a state of things which the House ought seriously to contemplate if it intended to pass the Bill. [Mr Bright], no doubt, would be prepared to go that length; but he felt sure such a view was not entertained by the great bulk of the women of England... The great bulk of the women of England had an instinctive distaste for political privileges, for they were aware of the evil which would ultimately ensue to their sex if they entered into competition with men in all the rough pursuits of life. Women are weaker than men, at all events physically. If they had to struggle in the world on equal terms with men, they must inevitably be oppressed. They were protected now by the habits and ideas of society generally from oppression. There was scarcely any man above 40 years old who was not identified in his happiness and interests in life with one woman - or with more than one woman. The happiness, the interests, the hopes of his wife and daughter, here and hereafter, were far dearer to the head of the family than his own. His interests and theirs were entirely wrapped up together; and he maintained, that this was the real protection of women against oppression and injury, and not the electoral power which [Mr Bright] proposed to secure to them by this Bill. To his mind, [Mr Bright] struck at the very foundation of society - namely, the family. Was the head of the family the man or the woman? Was the head of the family to be the master of the family or was he not? Was it nature's intention, and was it our Maker's intention, or was it not, that when society was founded on the family the man should be at the head of the family and should rule?

... He knew that the logical results of what [Mr Bright] advocated were the socialist views of those who asserted that the existing foundations of society were altogether wrong, and that the laws of property and marriage ought to be entirely revised, they being at present an abuse of the rights and privileges of mankind. Marriage was represented by those writers as a state of intolerable bondage and slavery... In his essay On the Subjection of Women Mr Mill said - "The wife is the actual bond servant of her husband, no less, so far as legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called. She vows a life-long obedience to him at the altar, and is held to it all through her life by law." That was the complaint. In another passage Mr Mill said - "I am far from pretending that wives are in general no better treated than slaves; but no slave is a slave to the same lengths and in so full a sense of the word as a wife is." Again, Mr Mill said - "If married life were all that it might be expected to be, looking to the laws alone, society would be a hell upon earth." And again - "The law of servitude in marriage is a monstrous contradiction to all the principles of the modern world... It is the sole case, now that negro slavery has been abolished, in which a human being in the plenitude of every faculty is delivered up to the tender mercies of another human being, in the hope, forsooth, that this other will use the power solely for the good of the person subjected to it. Marriage is the only actual bondage known to our law. There remain no legal slaves except the mistress of every house." Was that a just representation of married life, and the relations between husband and wife among the great bulk of our countrymen and countrywomen?

... Mr Thompson wrote a book entitled An appeal of one-half the Human Race against the Pretensions of the other Half. In this work he said - "Even under the present arrangements of society, founded as they all are on the basis of individual competition, nothing could be more easy than to put the rights of women, political and civil, on a perfect equality with those of men. It is only to abolish all prohibitory and exclusive laws statute, or what are called 'common,' the remnants of the barbarous customs of our ignorant ancestors, particularly the horrible and odious inequality and indissolubility of that disgrace of civilization - the present marriage code." Again he said - "Woman is, then, compelled in marriage by the possession of superior strength on the part of men; by the want of knowledge, skill, and wealth; by the positive cruel, partial, and cowardly enactments of law; by the terrors of superstition; by the mockery of a pretended vow of obedience; and, to crown all, and as the result of all, by the force of an unrelenting, unreasoning, unfeeling, public opinion, to be the literal unequivocal slave of the man who may be styled her husband . A domestic, a civil, a political slave, in the plain, unsophisticated sense of the word, in no metaphorical sense, is every married woman." ... Such were the views on which were founded the operations of those persons outside the House who asked for an extension of the franchise to women owners of property.

... [Mr Edward Pleydell-Bouverie] thought he had shown to the House by these extracts that there was a school who ardently supported [Mr Bright's] measure, but who aimed their shot higher than he, and made an attack upon the very foundations of society. There was a Book far more esteemed by our countrywomen, if not by our countrymen, than the writings of Mr Mill, and it said - "Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." [from the Bible]. Now they were told that all this was to come to an end, and that women were to engage in men's pursuits - to be politicians, to become Members of that House, and to take part in the administration of the country. His hon. Friend the Member for Cork (Mr Maguire) had just written an entertaining book, in which he contemplated what would occur 30 years hence, and described a House of Commons, most of the members of which were women, the whips being two remarkably engaging and captivating young ladies. This was a condition of affairs to which he, for one, strongly objected, for he maintained that the pride and glory of woman were her modesty and her purity. Women could not be brought into contact with the rough occupations of men without defiling their modesty and purity. He did not know whether his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester was a classical scholar, and had read the Sixth Satire of Juvenal respecting the state to which society was reduced in Rome after the women there had been struggling for what they called their emancipation. He did not, of course, say that a similar state of things could be brought about in a civilized country in the present day; but, still, the tendency of human nature would be the same as it was in the time of Juvenal, and he believed that the great English divine of 200 years ago was right when he said that "fear and blushing were the girdle of virtue." In the polling-booths and in the House of Commons, in the market and in the Exchange, women, if they engaged in an equal struggle with men, must go to the wall. They were the weaker part of the human race, and in competition with men they must be worsted...

Mr SCOURFIELD said.. He was firmly convinced that the great mass of the women of this country did not desire to have this so-called privilege conferred upon them; and he did not see why, because a small set of demonstrative women persisted in setting up what they claimed as the rights of their sex, the House should force upon the more numerous and more retiring portion of the female community what they did not wish for, and would, if given to them, probably repudiate.

No doubt everybody had a right to petition - no doubt everybody had a right to press their opinions upon others - no doubt they had a right to appoint a paid secretary - but they had no right to force upon their whole sex what only a very limited portion of them asked for or even understood what it meant. This giving in to women was only putting in the thin end of the wedge... As a means of testing whether the women of England really wished for the power of voting, he would suggest - and commend the suggestion to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer - that every person signing a Petition in favour of the extension of the franchise to women should be instructed to accompany the signature with a photographic portrait; and that Mr Darwin, or Professor Owen, who could distinguish the sex of animals from very trifling signs, should be retained to decide from an examination of the pictures as to the sex of the person represented - for he could not help suspecting that many of the signataries were not women, but men in women's clothing.

THE PRIME MINISTER, Mr GLADSTONE The Government, as a Government, abstain from taking any part whatever in this discussion ... we wish in this country that our legislation should be founded on mature and on free consideration of subjects by the public, and we believe lieve that that consideration would be prejudiced by a too early announcement of the views and intentions of the Government.

... Now, Sir, my main reason for declining to vote for this Bill is that, although I do not think our present law perfect, I am unwilling to adopt, by the second reading of the Bill, the principle of a measure for its amendment until I have some better prospect than I have at the present moment as to the satisfactory nature of the particular Amendment proposed. ... I entirely agree with [Mr Edward Pleydell-Bouverie] in his opposition to these revolutionary measures...

... I am inclined to say that the personal attendance and intervention of women in election proceedings ... would be a practical evil not only of the gravest, but even of an intolerable character. ... married women, if they possess the qualification, ought not to be excluded from any privilege conferred upon single women. ... I have never heard any conclusive reason why we should not borrow a leaf from the lawbooks of Italy, where a woman is allowed to exercise the franchise if she is possessed of a qualification, subject to the condition that she shall only exercise it through a deputy, some friend, or relative specially chosen for the purpose.

... My right hon. Friend rests upon the old law of the human race, the law under which to the woman falls the domestic portion of duty, the care of the household, and to the man the procuring of subsistence. But that great world-wide and world-old fact is one which the Return of every Census shows to be undergoing serious modification. The number of absolutely dependent women is decreasing from year to year, while the number of self-depending women, especially in the great towns of the country, is rapidly increasing.... If it be true that there is a progressive increase in the number of self-dependent women, that is a very serious fact, because these women are assuming the burdens which belong to men... ...It is to me a matter of astonishment to observe in London the distribution of employment as between men and women. I scarcely ever see in the hands of a woman an employment that ought more naturally to be in the hands of a man; but I constantly see in the hands of a man employment which might be more beneficially and economically in the hands of a woman.

... So far as I am able to form an opinion of the general tone and colour of our law in these matters, where the peculiar relation of men and women are concerned, that law does less than justice to women. [Mr Edward Pleydell-Bouverie] has said truly that some enthusiasts or fanatics are set on modifying or subverting the law of marriage. I confess I am one of those who think that we struck a most serious blow at the law of marriage when we passed the Divorce Act; and I have never yet been able to satisfy my mind as to the reasons why, in framing and passing that Act, we chose to introduce into our legislation a new and gross inequality against women and in favour of men. The subject I am on the verge of is rather painful and not necessary to enter upon in detail; but I may say that in the whole of this chapter of legislation, especially where the irregular relations of men and women and their consequences are concerned, the English law does women much less than justice, and great mischief, misery, and scandal result from that state of things.[He refers to adultery being sufficient grounds for a husband to get a divorce but not a wife].

...I may be told that it is not to be supposed that women would in any circumstances, even if in a majority, exercise any preponderating influence on public affairs. They will not and they cannot. It seems to me a self-evident proposition...But the question whether it is possible to devise a method of enabling women to exercise a sensible influence without undertaking personal functions and without exposing themselves to personal obligations inconsistent with the fundamental principles of their condition as women, is a question which, in my opinion, is very worthy of consideration. Although, therefore, I am unable to give a vote for a Bill...

LORD JOHN MANNERS said that up to that morning no single Petition had been presented against the measure; while a considerable number had been presented in its favour...

Mr BERESFORD HOPE... was astonished to hear his noble Friend allege as any argument that no women had petitioned against the Bill...He honoured the women for not having done so, because that innate modesty which was the great attribute of the sex prevented them putting themselves forward on such occasions. Their not petitioning was, indeed, an argument against the change, for it proved that women shrank from thrusting themselves forward into the noisy turmoil of politics. No doubt women had sometimes petitioned Parliament - they had even crowded that Table with Petitions on a certain question which should have been the very last to attract their attention So far from that fact being a reason for conferring this franchise upon women, as showing that they took a deep interest in the proceedings of the House, he thought that the disgusting appearance of the Petitions to which he alluded greatly strengthened the arguments of those who were conscientiously opposed to the principle contended for by the advocates of the present measure. He was opposed to the Bill, because he wished to protect women from being forced forward into the hurly-burly of party politics, and obliged to take part in all the disagreeable accompaniments of electioneering contests and their consequences.

The fact of the class of self-dependent women increasing so much was in his mind a reason for withholding the franchise from them. There were a few women who obtained a great influence in society by their genius and their capacity for work, and he honoured them for it. They had, however, as much power already in their way as the exercise of a vote for Members of that House could give them. ... The very nature of women called for sympathy and protection, and for the highest and most chivalrous treatment on the part of the men; but, instead of this being accorded for the future, it was now proposed to thrust them into a position which they were by their sex, by their condition in life, and by their previous training totally unqualified to grapple with.

... If this Bill should pass, and the number of emancipated women were found to produce no appreciable change in the quality of the representation in the House, then he would say that they had made a great disturbance to gain something very small indeed; but, on the other hand, if it were found to cause any serious alteration in the character of the representation ... he believed that the alteration would be shown in the deterioration, and not in the improvement, of the quality of Parliament.

...Reason predominated in the man, emotion and sympathy in the woman, and if the female vote made any noticeable difference in the character of our constituencies, the risk would be that they would have in the House an excess of the emotional and sentimental element over the logical and reasoning faculty. Though emotion and sentiment were admirable qualities in their way, he maintained distinctly that reason ought to govern emotion, and not emotion govern reason.

... The character of the legislation of a woman-chosen Parliament would be the increased importance which would be given to questions of a quasi-social or philanthropic character... We should have more wars for an idea, or hasty alliances with scheming neighbours, more class cries, permissive legislation, domestic perplexities, and sentimental grievances. Our legislation would develop hysterical and spasmodic features, partaking more of the French and American system than re-producing the tradition of the English Parliament. On these grounds he should vote against the second reading of the Bill.

DR. LYON PLAYFAIR...The law deals with women as capable citizens, and taxes them for the support of the State. If sex be no ground for relieving them from the burdens of citizenship, sex can form no justification for refusing to them the rights of citizenship.

...[politics] is the science of governing all the people of a State in a fair relation to each other, and in a manner conducive to their happiness, by giving them security for their property and security for their persons. But if that be the object of politics, is it fair to exclude from its study and participation more than one-half of the whole people simply because they were not born males? [Mr Edward Pleydell-Bouverie] told us that we must not expose women to the rough practices of elections, as they would be damaged by the contact. He raised women like a piece of fine porcelain on a high pedestal to be gazed at and admired, forgetting that the great mass of them are good sound earthenware, excellent for everyday use, and no more liable to be broken than the ordinary ware of which man is composed.

... I admit that women have an immense amount of indirect influence on political affairs. If anyone doubt it, let him look at the influence which they have lately exerted throughout the country in opposition to certain Acts which have outraged their feelings.... The Acts to which I have alluded were repugnant to a large body of women, and they have carried on an agitation against them with such influence and power that many seats in this House are rendered insecure unless their occupants are in harmony with this opposition. If the women who feel so keenly on this question are right, then it is clear that their views ought to have been more thoroughly represented in this House before we passed Acts which have affected them so deeply.

...There seems to be a great alarm in the minds of hon. Gentlemen that ... honourable ladies, as well as honourable gentlemen, may, in time, sit together on the benches of this House. They tell us that the logic of the franchise involves the right of being a representative. I confess that I am not appalled by this distant contingency. I am not sure that at the present moment there is any disqualification for a female becoming a Parliamentary candidate...

... Let us honestly admit that much of the opposition to granting political rights to women rests on the traditional ideas of her inferiority and subjection to man. She is not one-half of the genus homo, but a mere rib taken out of man, and always to be considered in relation to this rib theory of her existence. Her raison d'etre is to subserve man's interests in life, to minister to his passions, to promote his comforts. ... The exclusion of women from the political system has taught the nation to underrate them publicly and socially. Women have had less than their share in education, in parental bequests, in lucrative employments; but notwithstanding this inferiority, they have all their share in rating and taxation.

Mr HENRY JAMES... The natural consequences of this measure, to be gathered from its terms, and from the clearly expressed hope and intentions of its supporters, are that any woman, either married or single, may be returned to this House; to balance the Constitution they must be allowed to sit in the House of Lords - and I presume to occupy seats on the Episcopal Bench. A still further consequence would be that women must serve on juries, and perform all and every other of the duties of citizens.

... I am well aware that in quickness of apprehension, in other powers, too, such as that of acquiring languages, women are equal, perhaps superior, to men. But if you ask me whether they possess an equal political capacity, I reply emphatically that they do not. The want of it proceeds from many causes, but principally from that excess of sympathy in the mental constitution of women which shuts out from their mind logical power and judicial impartiality. Let a woman range herself on one side of a question, or be identified with particular interests, and it is nigh to impossibility to persuade her that there is any error on the side she advocates, or any right in that she is opposed to.

...In this House we discuss matters connected with the Army and Navy, with commerce, diplomacy, and law. As society now exists, what practical knowledge can any woman have of these subjects? Are they to enter the Army and Navy, to take their seats in the counting-house, to receive diplomatic appointments, or to assume the wig and barrister's gown? As society now exists, women can have no direct knowledge of these subjects. Is it not evident that they must be guided by the second-hand information of others, and not from practical experience?

... It is said, and that saying is always applauded - "If the Sovereign who rules us is a woman, how can you refuse the right to vote to those who are of her sex?" ... But Her Majesty herself ... when it pleased her to take beneath her roof one of her own age, a stranger and a foreigner, happy was it for this country that she ever leant upon him for guidance, counsel, and support - simply because she was a woman and he a man.

... A few restless itinerant ladies - my Lady A here, Miss B there - pass from town to town, delivering their often-repeated and well learnt speeches. But what support do they receive from those they address? I have carefully perused the periodical which advocates the cause of women's suffrage, and I never find that any woman, except these well-seasoned lecturers, rises to take part in these political displays. Following a woman's nature, the audience remains silent; this silence is regarded as acquiescence, and a triumph in favour of woman's suffrage is immediately claimed... ... I cannot believe that either now, or ever, we shall attempt by legislation to alter that position which nature has ordained, which ages have ratified, and which women have accepted as their true and best condition in life.

Mr HUNT ...[Mr Edward Pleydell-Bouverie] used what has been called "the hobgoblin argument." He said this was the first step towards socialism. If I thought that would be the effect of this measure, I should be very loth to give it my support. I confess I have always thought the female part of the population showed great reverence for law and order, and was more deeply imbued with religious feelings than the rest of the community, and I believe there could be no more certain means of checking the growth of socialism than by giving greater power to women.

...All the objections against the Bill seem to spring from the customs of this country in regard to the education of women. .. The hon. and learned Gentleman says they are unacquainted with subjects such as the Army and Navy, and other subjects upon which women in this country are supposed to have no opinions. But is not this House concerned in a great many social questions on which the opinions of women might be most usefully brought to bear? Does not Parliament concern itself with the good management of hospitals and poor-houses, and are not women admirably qualified to deal with such subjects as these? There are many questions as to which it is impossible that both sexes can have an equally clear insight. Some questions have come before this House, notably of late years, in regard to which it would be impossible for men to understand the feelings of the other sex...[e.g.] the Contagious Diseases Act. Who could say that men are capable of entering into the feelings of women on this question? ...It has been said that women were going about in an itinerant manner, lecturing in support of their own views. But I say, in any case, they have a right to their opinions. But why do they go about? It is because they have no legitimate mode of enforcing their opinions, and, therefore, they are compelled to resort to itineracy as the only means open to them.

...With regard to another question which has frequently of late years been before the House - that of altering the marriage law - is not that a question in which women are entitled to take an active part? Is the opinion of women of no value upon that? During the present and in other Sessions this House has passed a Bill containing an alteration of the marriage law which I believe to be repugnant to 99 out of every 100 women in the country. And I ask again, is not this a question upon which they have a right to be heard. Can we assume to ourselves the right to alter the whole state of the marriage law, while more than half the population of the country are regarded as having no voice in the matter? ... I shall with great pleasure support the second reading of this Bill.

Mr NEWDEGATE said he was conversing with an American gentleman, and he asked him - "Are you prepared in the United States to adopt this proposal for female suffrage, which is now agitating this country?" "No," he replied; "I was a strong advocate for the enfranchisement of the coloured population; but as to this agitation for women's rights, which would shake the very foundations of society by disregarding the natural relations between the sexes - no!" said he, and he spoke, Sir, very plainly, "we are not such fools as to do that."

Next day the Daily Telegraph (anti) said that the Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone, was giving way because 'The women-agitators have either terrified, seduced or convinced him'. The paper lamented that 'We hear the demands of the noisy few, but not the objections of the quiet many'.

The Daily News (pro) commented on Mr Edward Pleydell-Bouverie's belief that giving women the vote would disturb the whole foundation of society by suggesting that 'society must be very unstable if the fact of a few tHousand women recording their votes ... suffices to unsettle them'.

The Saturday Review (anti) remarked: 'Because we have already a great number of incompetent voters we are by no means anxious to add a large proportion of others equally incompetent.' For good measure, it threw in the opinion that women were 'more frivolous, less elevated and in every way less calculated for political power than men.'

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