Votes for Women
Excerpts from the House of Commons debate in 1878


MR LEONARD COURTNEY. Mr Robert Hanbury has given Notice to move the rejection of this Bill, did, I believe, once vote for it, and I understand that he has explained the reason of his change to be this - that he thought there might be a political danger in the severance of political rights from the possession of the physical power; that, under certain contingencies, you would get women voting in a mass, and, perhaps, out-voting the men, which would cause a rebellion on the part of men, who, being endowed with greater physical power than women, would put down by brute force the people who would out-vote them.

... It is undoubtedly true that if we admitted women to the franchise, we should secure to them a degree of independence which many people are now slow to concede to them. We should recognize them as being self-dependent, self-sustaining, and independent members of the community, not bound to rely upon other people, and not necessarily having their existence connected in a dependent way with that of some other member of society. What would be the first effect of that on what I may call the economic position of the question? Is it not perfectly clear that the more you develop in women the idea of self-dependence and self-sustainment, the more certain is the improvement you effect in their economic position? You would introduce into general society a new moral notion that it is the duty of the parents of a girl to train that girl in some measure for a self-sustained and self-dependent existence - to train her so, that under the circumstances of the future she might, if necessary, be able to maintain herself as a boy is now trained to maintain himself. If you get that notion of the self-dependence of women, I shall consider presently at what cost that may be realized; but if you get that notion developed in society, the inevitable result is that you make it an obligation, an element of duty, on the part of the parents, to qualify their children to sustain the part which they will be called upon to take. The immediate effect of that on the economic position of women would, in itself, be a revolution, but a revolution of the most desirable kind.

... But now, it may be asked, if you have women thus self-sustaining, and living by themselves, earning enough to live upon and ruling their own affairs, will you not cause an absolute revolution in society? The women and the men will come together then on comparatively equal terms, and you will not have that sweet relation of dependence and support which is the characteristic of the present state of existence, I admit that revolution would happen; but is it a revolution to be deplored? Has not every stage of advance that has been made by woman to the position which she now fills in English society been accompanied with the same fears which are expressed with respect to her future advance? Every stage of advance which has been made has been accompanied with these cries of alarm. When you, in the first instance, gave her any duty, any separate rights, you were met with the suggestion that you were raising a rebel in your household and rending the bonds of society... Generation after generation, we have been enlarging the sphere of woman's thoughts, the range of her study, the circle of her ideas, and every generation there have been some people to raise this cry of alarm, and every successive generation has seen it falsified.

... Sir, this is like a proposal that might be made in China to enfranchise women from the servitude under which they are supposed to labour from going about with small feet cased in cramped shoes. I have no doubt that if it were suggested to a Chinaman that women should be allowed free play, even in the function of walking, you would get conjured up to your imagination a very fearful picture as to the result of the dependence of the sex in that respect being changed. What can be prettier than the fancy of the woman tottering towards you on feeble feet, until you open your arms and she falls within them to receive the support of your strength? Would not the foundations of society be upset if she could stand alone? That analogy is absolutely perfect with respect to the enfranchisement of women.

MR ROBERT HANBURY. Among all my acquaintances I do not know a single woman who takes an interest in the matter, or wishes to have a vote. One of the things most likely to upset Parliamentary government is to make the vote too cheap. We have found that to a great extent in our system of local government. The great difficulty we have to deal with is that people when they have got a vote will not use it... I know of no woman outside who asks for a vote...

[We] now feel that the greatest kindness we can do to the women themselves is to refuse them this vote, and put them out of the turmoil and struggle of political life, and not place them in that false position in which they would have to choose between the rights of men and the privileges of women.

... Whether we are Conservatives, or Radicals, or Liberals, we must all see that it is not only a measure that would revolutionize society, but that it would do worse than that, for it would entirely decompose it.

... I object to the Bill ... also because it is a mere piece of class legislation. It is a Bill which only affects the well-to-do, and which fails to affect the poorer class of women.

... The only people who would be enfranchised by this Bill are maiden ladies with property, so placed that, in spite of having this charm of property, they have not yet been able to acquire that position which is called - not very gracefully - by Miss Becker "the profession of marriage." ... No one could deny that we should be giving a vote to a class of women who are, perhaps, the least deserving of it. ... I think the Bill in this respect would do very serious mischief. So far from giving a vote to the best class of women, you would only succeed in giving it to the very worst.

... I should like to know where [Mr Courtney] gets his natural right, which denies and refuses to the best of women and the flower of womanhood a vote, and gives it to those who are the bane of society? our case does not rest upon the intellectual inferiority of women. The whole of our case rests on three things - first, feminine weakness; secondly, the difference of sex; and lastly, the temptations to which women are exposed.

...The women are not unrepresented at this moment. Their interests are the interests of men. They do not stand on a different footing from men. If a husband punishes them, or a question arises as to the property of married women, they have brothers and other relations who will advocate their cause...

...We are told that the vote has been already given to women in many local matters. Indeed, the concession, it is urged, has gone to the extent of conferring upon them the municipal franchise. For my own part, I do not place much faith in these arguments by analogy. Some people, if they have made two mistakes, wish to make a third in order to be consistent. I think we have gone too far in giving women the municipal franchise...

...We cannot get over the fact that... government rests in the last resort upon force, and the women whom the hon. Gentleman wishes to enfranchise do not contribute to that force by maintaining order at home, or by defeating the enemies of the country abroad. All the advantages women possess they obtain by reason of their weakness. If we are to carry out the principles of the hon. Gentleman to their logical conclusion, we should produce those results. In the first place, we should have women competing with men in every condition of life. They might compete, no doubt, but it would be impossible to get rid of the two differences I have mentioned - the difference of weakness and the difference of sex. I candidly believe that the mere fact of women competing with men would deprive the former of many of the privileges which at present gallantry, courtesy, and consideration always extend to them among all classes of the community. We all know from our own experience that the more women try to imitate men and to compete with them, the more does our respect for them gradually diminish.

...On behalf of 99 women out of every 100 in this country, I declare that the Bill is one of the most disadvantageous and most mischievous to them that could possibly be passed into law. A vote is a small thing in these days, when almost every man possesses one. Indeed, it is almost a mark of distinction now not to have a vote. But, although a vote is a small thing, the granting of it to women implies their mixing themselves up in public life, fighting in political struggles, and sacrificing the privileges of women, in the vain hope of gaining gradually the rights of men. Therefore, a vote, while a small thing in itself, does in reality represent great mischief.

Mr GEORGE PALMER ... I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that the strength of women consists in their weakness, or something of that kind. That argument is contrary, I think, to the facts with which most hon. Members are acquainted. We have all found out that the weak are those who are oppressed, and that those who are able to help themselves are taken care of. This rule, I believe, applies to the interests of women.

MR SERJEANT SHERLOCK (David Sherlock). ..The female possessing £10,000 or £20,000 a-year is not entitled to have a vote. That appears to me a gross anomaly; and, without professing any chivalrous object, I would put it on the ground of common sense, if property is represented by men, is it not unjust to exclude that representation when a woman happens to be the owner of the property? She has for all other purposes to discharge the duties connected with the property. She is subject to taxation.

... The limiting of the Bill to widows and ladies who are not married is perfectly intelligible. It does not endanger the domestic arrangements and the harmony that ought to exist in a family. If one were to give to the wife a vote and to the husband a vote, it might tend in many cases - it might tend in all - to the interruption of that harmony that ought to exist between them. Therefore, the exclusion of married women is right and legitimate; but in the case of an independent lady, who exercises all the rights of a proprietor, why she should not be represented in Parliament...

MR ROWLAND BLENNERHASSETT. We are told ... that this is a revolutionary proposal. Yet women belong to that section of the community who are most attached to old institutions and national associations, and would be the last people who would be disposed to work a revolution in the Constitution of the country. Then it is said if the enfranchisement of women does not work a revolution in the Constitution of the country, the granting of the franchise will work a revolution in the constitution of women; that the performance of the simplest duty of the franchise will transform women into political nomads; that their going to the polling-booth for a few minutes in every four or five years will entirely destroy the refinement of the women of England.

... we must remember that there are thousands - I may say millions - of women in this country who have to go out and fight the battle of life as best they can, and to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows... the lives of most women, as well as of most men, are not spent in a fool's paradise, but in a hard and cruel working world. What are the views of those women who are doing good work in the world, leading earnest and useful lives, and who are women of the highest intellectual attainments? One of the strongest and most convincing arguments in favour of a Bill of this kind is, that it has had the support of such women as Mrs. Somerville, Mrs. [sic] Mary Carpenter, Miss Cobbe, Mrs. W. Gray, and Miss Florence Nightingale. If opinions are to be weighed, and not counted, I wonder how many nonentities, who laugh at woman's rights, it would take to outweigh these names? These ladies have not been led to take an interest in the question by any theoretical or sentimental ideas on the subject. They have been led to devote themselves to the question by what they have seen of the unfairness of the present state of things on the lives and work of women. They know how women are affected by the unjust state of the law, and they know how hopeless a task it is for those who have no political power to get the law reformed.

...Lord Coleridge) made a speech in which he referred to the unfair state of the law as far as women are concerned. He said that if the House of Commons was as much aware as every lawyer was aware of the state of the law of England as regards the property of women, he did not think it would hesitate to say that the law was more worthy of a barbarian than of a civilized community. That is the opinion of a great and eminent lawyer, delivered many years after Lord Brougham had said there must be an entire re-construction of the law before women could obtain justice.

... [Mr Hanbury] said there was not a single case in which the interests of women were opposed to those of men, and he objected to women being looked upon as a class. Now, that seemed to me to be a most extraordinary statement... there is nothing more absurd than to say women are not a class. In reference to legislation, they are a class as far as they have special interests concerned which are affected by legislation...

... We are told that we are endeavouring to upset a state of things that has existed from the creation of the world; that we are going to destroy the relations between the sexes, which have endured for all time. The same thing has been said in regard to polygamy and of slavery over and over again. Slavery is almost co-eval with the creation of man.

... This demand for the suffrage is only part of the great movement which has been going on for years in this country, and which is opening out a wider range of thought and broader sympathies for the women of England. Let us look back to the state of things which existed in those distant states of society to which [Mr Hanbury] wishes to confine us. Once upon a time there was a grave question whether the spiritual and immortal nature of man was shared by woman, and whether the possession of a soul was not the exclusive attribute of the lords of creation. Chrysostom described woman as a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination, a painted lie. Many arguments advanced to-day will in time to come seem quite as ridiculous as this. ..

MR (Later Sir) JOHN GORST ... I am not one of the strong advocates of women's rights. I do not believe that women are much oppressed, or that their prospects, on the whole, are very bad, or that their interests are in an unsatisfactory condition. I do not myself feel that if we pass this Bill ... there will be any great revolution at all. A Bill was passed some time ago for giving them votes for members of Town Councils. That has not altered the character of the sex.

... I am willing to remove every legal disability from women, not because I wish to see women embark in pursuits for which they are unfitted, or because I am desirous of seeing them become the surgeons, lawyers, or legislators of the country; but because I think you may sufficiently trust to the intelligence and discretion of women themselves to embark in such pursuits as it is desirable they should adopt. I do not want to see women sit in this House. It may be said that it is impertinent for me to interfere with their discretion in the matter, and that I should, according to my own principles, express no opinion as to whether women ought or ought not to have seats in this House. But, be that as it may, I think it is a question which might with perfect safety be left to the decision of the women themselves, and that there is no occasion to impose upon them any disability; because I do not believe that you would find that women would ever embark themselves in pursuits and positions of life for which by their character they are un-suited. I have a high opinion of the intelligence and discretion of the female sex, and I do not think that they require all this legislation... We should give them perfect liberty, and they could then decide for themselves.

Mr ROBERT FERGUSON ..."Do women want to have the suffrage?" I am well aware that there are a certain number of women - earnest and intellectual women - who have strong feelings and aspirations in that direction; and I am bound to admit that they are themselves eminently qualified for the discharge of any duties which might in consequence devolve upon them. And if any of them can be described - I should be very sorry myself to use such an expression - as "social failures," [i.e. spinsters] it seems to me all the more just and fair that they should have as men have, the opportunity of distinguishing themselves in another sphere.

But, as far as my observation extends, there are a very much larger number of women who are most strongly opposed to this measure, and perhaps a greater number still who are profoundly indifferent. It has been said that those who do not wish need not qualify, and ought not to stand in the way of those who do. But we may be very sure that in places where party spirit runs high...very strong pressure would be put upon women who could qualify and did not... these women would be placed in an unpleasant position.

...When it appears to me that women in general desire to have the suffrage, I should be disposed to vote for it.

MR ALEXANDER BERESFORD HOPE. ...Mr Palmer threw in our teeth the fact that a man's personal conduct was no qualification nor disqualification for the franchise; but the difference is, that the peculiar franchise created by this Bill is one that gives a direct premium to women to follow the less creditable professions - to use the felicitous phrase of the ladies' Petition - instead of the higher and more honourable ones. This, I think, is of itself conclusive as against the Bill.

MR (later, Sir) JOHN. HIBBERT.... I remember when, in 1867, the late John Stuart Mill first brought the question before the House on an Amendment to a clause of the Reform Bill, and at that time only about 70 Members went into the Lobby to vote with him; but since then the number has been more than doubled. As I understand, it includes now between 140 and 150 Members.

What reason is there why [women] shall not have the privilege of voting for Members of Parliament? I confess that I can see no reason for taking this position, except it be a reason to say that they are objected to because they are women.

... Women are allowed to enter into trade. They carry on large businesses. I have myself known women carry on large cotton-spinning concerns in a very satisfactory and successful manner. They are owners of land, and they are in many ways called upon to perform the same duties which men are called upon to perform. we are told that if women had votes, they would be less attentive to their domestic duties; but I want to know whether the political duties which a woman would be called upon to perform, were this Bill passed, are so onerous that they can interfere materially with their domestic duties? Men have their business duties, and women would not be in a worse position than men. But then we are told that women cannot perform the duties which attach to the privileges of men. I have heard it used as an argument against granting these privileges that women cannot serve upon juries. I cannot see any reason why, in many cases, women might not satisfactorily serve on juries. There are many cases in which women-jurors would be able to give a more satisfactory and judicious verdict than men. It was said that women could not serve their country in war. I admit they could not enter the Army; but ... No man is compelled to serve in the Army, and that no woman could be called upon to perform duties which men are not obliged to perform is no reason for denying the suffrage to women-householders.

MR EDWARD GREENE ...this is one of those subjects which are already very well thrashed out, and the interest in which becomes less every year. ... I, for one, have never supported this measure... I am told that there are weak brethren who have voted for this measure thinking it would be in the interest of the Conservative Party; but I, for one, have such strong feelings on this subject, that my Party might stay on the Opposition side of the House till the Day of Judgment before I would vote for this measure, which I believe to be contrary to true principles.

...The hon. Member who has just sat down says he does not see any reason why women should not serve on juries... I read in The Women's Suffrage Journal that the system of placing women on juries in America, after a few trials, was abandoned, and had not been revived. Arguments are used on the other side about struggling women in want of work; but I want to know whether, if women had a vote, the House would in consequence provide work for struggling women?

...Is there any greater inconsistency than that involved in this Bill, which would allow a single woman to have a vote and deprive her of it directly she is married?...

I confess it seems to me utterly absurd that this Bill should pass. It is a short Reform Bill that will overwhelm the votes of men, and on that ground alone it is objectionable...

If you pass this measure, you cannot logically deny the right of women to sit in this House. No man has a greater regard and respect for women than I have. There are a vast number of women far superior to men; but, taking them as a body, they have not the same intelligence or the same power of forming a judgment on great questions that men have. Lord Aberdare, whose name will be respected on both sides of the House, has clearly shown that women were not intended to occupy the position of men. Otherwise we should not in the 19th century be without an instance of some country in which the experiment has been tried.

...I shall give my vote this afternoon against this measure. I do hope that hon. Members who bring this Bill forward and find their case waving will spare the House of Commons the time and Members the trouble of voting year after year on a Bill which I prophecy will never pass this House.

SIR HENRY JACKSON ...It is almost hopeless to say anything new on this subject. All the humour, I am bound to say, is on the side of the opponents of this Bill, and they never fail to treat this subject with a jocularity which they think takes the place of solid and serious argument and objection.

The question that really must be decided by to-day's vote is this - Is the disability of sex based on reason, justice, or expediency, or have those who assert that it ought no longer to be an impediment, made out their case? That, Sir, I take to be the real question which has to be answered by those who vote to-day; and, for my own part, I have no hesitation in saying we all lose by the infliction of disabilities. [It has been said that] in the beginning human beings were created male and female, and it was the will of the Creator to assign to each of them their separate sphere. The observation, though trite, was perfectly true; but who is to measure, who is to define or prescribe the limits within which the energy and power given by the Creator to the two sexes is to operate?

... It is said that everything woman requires is already done for them. I quite agree that great strides have lately been made in the way of opening careers to women; but whatever has practically been done has been done reluctantly. Nothing has been given at all, but everything has been obtained, as it were, at the point of the bayonet, and has been fenced about with restrictions. At the present moment, with the single exception of a limited entry into the Medical Profession, there are few careers actually open to women. Now, I shall always support every effort which seems to me to tend to the removal of these restraints. I shall do so as an act of justice to women, and because, by removing these restrictions on individual energy, I shall be doing the best service to the State and to the whole community.

... We all remember when ladies began nursing in hospitals; and when Miss Nightingale went to the Crimea, the same people who now turn up their eyes in horror at the notion of women taking any new part in life, were as much shocked at Miss Nightingale's course, and abused her for what we now look back upon with a sense of pride, and gratitude, and satisfaction. The Conservative instinct is so strong amongst us that there is nothing more difficult than to open out a new career for women. But we have seen how well ladies have done as hospital nurses. I have no hesitation in saying, from my personal knowledge, that any lady who has once had the advantage of the attendance of a lady medical adviser will shrink very much indeed from going to anyone else.

MR CHARLES NEWDEGATE .. This Bill appears to me to be founded upon sentimental nonsense. Anyone who has read the history of France will have observed that one of the great characteristics of the latter part of the ancien régime was that the educated classes lent themselves to extreme democratic notions - to a philosophy so absurd and so abstract, that it violated all those rules which the Creator has established for the government of man.

MR LEONARD COURTNEY ... It is said, indeed, that the Creator has made women weak; but some years hence we may have better views of what He has intended in that respect, and we may discover that the intentions and views we have attributed to a higher power are simply the result of notions inherited by us from our ancestors. To say that these were the intentions of the Creator, is to give our opinions a degree of permanency to which they can have no claim. ... I had the honour of presenting, at the opening of this Sitting, several Petitions of an extremely representative character. One was signed by Miss Taylor, Mrs. Grote, Miss Florence Nightingale, Miss Swanwick, Miss Bastock, and a great number of other ladies eminent in art, science, and philosophy - all desirous of a vote. I also presented a Petition from working women, shoemakers, sempstresses, and others. So that, going from one end to the other of the social scale, you will find everywhere a large number of women desiring a vote. I do not say every woman desires it; but does every man use the vote he has? What proportion of men do not vote in the Metropolitan boroughs? There is, however, this important consideration - that, where women have votes, they exercise their right in just the same proportion that men do. ... I am satisfied that the House will not fairly represent the opinion of the country until this Bill is passed. I think that that time is not so far distant as some Members seem to think, and I hope the minority in favour of the measure will go on increasing and increasing until this change is made. Question put. The House divided: - Ayes 140; Noes 220: Majority 80.

Source: Hansard. Debate edited by Helena Wojtczak