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Feminism & the Vote

Sushila Ramaswamy |

Albert Venn Dicey (1835-1922), initially, under the influence of J.S. Mill’s liberalism, supported suffrage for women in Great Britain. However, following his opposition to Irish Home Rule in the 1880s, he began to see women’s suffrage as detrimental to liberal politics.

He questioned the rightness of the liberal practice of consenting to whatever was demanded by many citizens. Following his insistence on maintaining the Union, he distinguished political from civil rights and argued that a vote is a right of a citizen and not of an individual, and that the right to parliamentary vote is not a right, but a power or function given to the voter for the benefit, not of himself, but of the public.

Dicey refused to accept that women could be considered as a class in themselves. At one stage he advocated restricted suffrage for married women as their interests rarely clashed with that of their husbands.

Like Hegel he had an idolized view of the family and did not consider women as individuals in possession of political rights. He was willing to grant only civil rights to women.

He even went to the extent of claiming that universal suffrage for all, including women, would lead to a situation when the Parliament would have more women than men and the latter would be reduced to a minority.

Despite his brilliant constitutional insights and pioneering work in political culture wherein he established similarities in the political ethos of Britain and the USA, although the former is a parliamentary system and the latter a presidential one, he was not in sync with the spirit of his times on the issue of women’s suffrage.

Replying to Dicey’s contention that there was no ‘right’ to vote per se, Lord Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) quipped that to ‘inflict a special disability upon one class in the community is in itself an evil and is calculated to generate resentment on one side and arrogance on the other’.

The suffrage agitation had made men conscious of some of the glaring injustices that women suffered. Russell countered Dicey’s point of women being ill-equipped to work with men and pointed out that economic causes that determine the price of labour were closely dependent on political causes.

He reiterated many of the arguments that were made in an earlier article that he wrote in which he argued that a true democrat would support women’s suffrage.

Women must have the vote as they would be the best judges of their interests. He pointed out that the law treated men and women unequally. Women suffered from many evils, which they endured silently because they did not have the political power to overturn the unequal laws.

Like J.S. Mill, he stressed the educative value of the vote as voters acquired greater awareness and knowledge on politics. Vote enabled people to think responsibly and seriously, and that enhances self-respect.

Those who argue that women must be educated first to receive the vote forget that vote itself was the ‘great engine of political education’. This was proved right in the case of working-class men and it would be proven right with women also.

Enfranchisement would benefit the private lives of men and women, fostering greater liberty and greater mutual respect between the sexes. Russell pointed out that those in power dismiss the others as unreasonable and incapable.

He was convinced that women’s lack of political education would be remedied by enfranchisement. To deny women the vote because they cannot fight would mean the disenfranchisement of men who were too old to fight or physically incapable.

By this logic, we must disenfranchise the Quakers who will not fight. Russell found the argument that England had to appeal to arms and to set aside Parliament as absurd.

To argue that women’s vote would promote quarrels within the family and destroy happiness within the home was to presume that no discussion without quarrelling was possible and to do away with all conversation within homes. He was convinced that once women received the vote, they would realize its usefulness and advantages.

He queried, would it be terrible if we were governed by women? Men did not want their wives to have the vote as that would mean an end of their mastery within their homes.

They did not mind single women and widows securing the right to vote. Russell concluded that women be allowed the vote on the same terms as men and women’s suffrage would make real democracy possible.

He mentioned the gains women’s suffrage would have on the community: (1) women’s political education and a broad outlook in life; (2) gain in liberty and improvement in the attitude of men towards women; (3) greater focus on questions seen as women’s work, of rearing and education of children.

He argued that men opposed suffrage because they feared the curtailment of their liberty to act in ways that were injurious to women. Walter Lyon Blease (1884–1983), a liberal party politician responding to Dicey’s anti-feminism, based his argument on two points that J. S. Mill made: “The need for enfranchisement in order that women’s interests might be protected, and the essential function of complete citizen rights in providing people with the opportunity fully to develop their characters and capacities”.

He saw the women’s suffrage movement as part of the impact Enlightenment that liberalism had on the development of British political institutions. Blease, tracing the origins of feminism, underlined the writings of Wollstonecraft in detail. He gave a detailed account of the struggle of British women to gain freedom from the seventeenth century.

Echoing JS Mill, he stressed on marriage as a partnership and to the silent domestic revolution wherein for the first time in history men and women were companions to each other.

He pointed to the failings of the Liberal government in its apparent ‘ignorance of the meaning of liberty and of the first principles of statesmanship’ that prompted women to adopt militant methods to advance their cause, an argument that Fawcett (1912) reiterated.

Keir Hardie, a leading figure of the British Labour Party reiterated JS Mill’s arguments for equality between the sexes and saw political enfranchisement of women as its logical corollary.

Women’s true position would be known only with the removal of restraints and disabilities and if they had the freedom to compete with men in every sphere of human activity.

He acknowledged that at present there was no way of knowing a woman’s capabilities and conceded that nowhere was a woman treated as a free and equal companion of man.

He observed that women’s suffrage was not a party issue as there were opponents and supporters in all the parties. He instructed women to keep the issue alive, make it an election issue till they secured the vote and was convinced that if that happened, women would secure the vote.

It is instructive that defenders of women’s suffrage in response to Dicey used the arguments that JS Mill laid down in his Considerations on Representative Government (1861) and The Subjection of Women (1869).

In the latter Mill criticized women’s legal subordination as inherently unjust and injurious to society. In Considerations…, Mill argued for universal but graduated suffrage on the following grounds: (1) sex was irrelevant to the grant of political rights; (2) women must have equal voice as goodg government was the concern of all and affected everyone’s welfare.

Women require it more than men, being physically weaker, and hence ‘. . . more dependent on law and society for protection’; and (3) women were no longer in personal servitude.

Invoking his famous harm principle Mill argued that the question of securing political rights was not that one could govern. It was, however, to ensure that one was not misgoverned. If this was the reason for men to secure the right to vote then it applied to women too.

Dicey and many others like him forgot that rights were earned and never given. The nineteenth century was one of struggle. Slavery was outlawed in 1833 in Britain.

However, despite being the most advanced nation of its time both politically and economically, Victorian England was societally stifling. Women eventually secured the right to vote due to the heroism and sacrifice of the suffragettes, their contributions to the war effort and their ability to do the jobs that till then were considered as men’s work, and the Russian Revolution.

In 1918, women above 30 years and all men above 21 years got the suffrage. Women acquired a political voice. Till then, politics was a man’s world. A decade later, in 1928, all women above 21 years of age got the vote and were on par with men.

Finally, democratic franchise became a reality in the 1930s in Britain with constitutional safeguards of property rights, mass literacy, electoral reforms, majority middle class and affluent working class.

The writer is Associate Professor in Political Science, Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi. She can be reached at [email protected]