[The following text is based on the online version available from Victorian Women Writers Project at India University (see bibliography). — George P. Landow.]OLITICIANS consider that a subject enters an important phase when it becomes publicly recognised as a “Question.” During the last five years the proposal to give votes to women has very distinctly grown into the “Question of Female Suffrage.” Few of the most sanguine advocates of the cause would have ventured, in 1865, to hope that by the close of 1872, it should stand where it now obviously does in public opinion, or that 355,801 persons should have petitioned in its behalf.
The last Reform Bill, by lowering the franchise for men, has affected the claims of women in several indirect ways. In the first place, by admitting to the exercise of political judgment a class whose education is confessedly of the narrowest, and whose leisure to study politics extremely small, it has virtually silenced for all future time the two favourite arguments against the claims of women; that their understandings are weak, and their time too fully occupied by domestic cares. The most strenuous asserter of the mental and moral inferiority of women cannot urge that the majority of the new voters have more power to understand, or more leisure to attend to, public affairs than even the inferior class of female householders; not to speak of such women as Miss Nightingale and Mrs. Somerville, Miss Martineau and Lady Coutts. Rather, on the contrary, may it be maintained that the picked class of women who would be admitted by Mr. Bright’s Bill to the franchise are needed to restore the just balance in favour of an educated constituency against the weight of the illiterate male voters now entrusted with the suffrage.
Again, by the introduction of the ballot the threat of a supposed practical difficulty to be found in the recording of female votes has been permanently set at rest; while the triumphant success of female candidates at the School Board elections has demonstrated how warmly the general feeling of the nation welcomes the accession of women to a share in the guidance of important public affairs. Lastly, by identifying the duty of ratepaying with the right of voting in the case of men, the Reform Bill has made more glaring than before the inconsistency of enforcing rates upon women while refusing to them the avowedly corresponding right.
At the present moment our proper course appears to be this: to form committees in every town in England for the purpose of directing attention to the subject, and affording information and aid to all friends of the cause. Local petitions, as numerous as possible, will afford the best machinery for carrying on such a plan; not because of their direct influence on the Legislature, (which is notoriously incommensurate with the labour of their preparation), but from their convenience as tangible methods of enrolling allies and interesting new associates. Already, in this last session, some 843 petitions, with the signatures of 355,801 men and women, were presented. The parable of the unjust Judge will probably not be found inapplicable to a masculine Legislature, when “poor widows” (and also rich ones, and other single women), by their “continued coming,” become wearisome. Women are not prepared to break any pailings, material or metaphorical, albeit they have been taunted with the indifference they thus betray for their rights; but it is just possible that keeping the peace and signing petitions to Parliament may eventually be thought almost as well to prove their fitness for a voice in the Legislature of their country. Women are often asked, Why they desire the franchise? Have they not everything already which they can possibly desire: personal liberty, the right to hold property, and an amount of courtesy and chivalrous regard which (it is broadly hinted) they would bitterly regret were they to exchange them for equality of political rights? Why should those epicurean gods, who dwell in the serene empyrean of drawing‐rooms descend to meddle with the sordid affairs of humanity? What a pity and a loss it would be to the toiling world could it never look up and behold afar such a spectacle of repose as a true lady now presents! We can easily dispense with more legislators; but what is the world to do without those mild Belgravian mothers, those innocent young “Girls of the Period,” those magnificent grandes dames who are the glory of our social life?
Let us briefly answer these questions, once for all. We do not believe that one particle of womanly gentleness and dignity, nay, not even the finest flavour of high‐bred grace, will be lost when women are permitted to record their votes for representatives in Parliament. We consider the fear that it might be so among the idlest of chimeras. What will be lost, we are persuaded, will be a little of the frivolity, a little of the habit of expressing opinions without having conscienciously weighed them, a little of the practice of underhand and unworthy persuasion, which have been hitherto faults fostered in women by their position. Women can lose nothing, and have much to gain by entering a field of nobler interests than has hitherto been open to them. It was deemed well said of the old Roman, that nothing human was alien to him. It will be well when all women learn to feel that none of the wrongs and sins and sufferings of other women can be alien to them. The condition of women of the lower orders is beset with hardships; and it is for the very reason that a lady is freed from those heavy trials, that she should exert every power she possesses or can acquire, first to understand, and then, if possible, to remedy them. How these evils are to lightened; how the burdens of the poor toilers are to be made less intolerable; how wives are to be protected from brutal husbands; how, above all, the ruin of the hapless thousands of lost ones is to be stopped:—how these things are to be done, may need more wisdom than all the men and women in England together may possess. But it is quite certain that if women had heretofore been represented in Parliament, such evils and wrongs would never have reached, unchecked, their present height, and that whenever women are at last represented, some more earnest efforts will be made to arrest them.
But it is not only for the sake of women of the suffering classes that we seek for female influence on politics; nor for that of happier women whose sphere of usefulness might thereby be enlarged, and their lives supplied with nobler interests. We believe that the recognition of the political rights of women, as it will be a signal act of justice on the part of men, so it will also prove an act beneficial to them no less than to us; and that when a generation has passed after the change, it will be said, by all alike, “What did our fathers mean by forbidding women to have a voice in politics? If it were nothing more, their influence must always be the safest ballast to keep steady the Ship of State. ”
Finally, to sum up our meaning in the most concise terms we can find, we desire that the political franchise be extended to women of full age, possessed of the requisite property qualification, for the following eight reasons:—
1. Because the possession of property and the payment of rates being the admitted bases of political rights in England, it is unjust that persons who possess such property, and pay such rates, should be excluded from those rights, unless from the clearest and gravest reasons of public interest. Such interest, however, we believe, requires, not the exclusion, but the admission of women into the franchise.
2. Because the denial of the franchise to qualified women entails on the community a serious loss; namely, that of the legislative influence of a numerous class, whose moral sense is commonly highly developed, and whose physical defencelessness attaches them peculiarly to the cause of justice jastice and public order.
3. Because, under a representative Government, the interests of any non‐represented class are confessedly liable to be misunderstood and neglected; and nothing but evidence that the interests of women are carefully weighed and faithfully guarded by the Legislature would nullify the presumptive injustice of denying them representation. Such evidence, however, is not forthcoming; but, on the contrary, experience demonstrates that the gravest interests of women are continually postponed by Parliament to the consideration of trifling questions concerning male electors, and, when introduced into debates, are treated by half the House rather as jests than as measures of serious importance.
4. Because, while the natural and artificial disabilities of women demand in their behalf the special aid and protection of the State, no proposal has ever been made to deal with their perils and difficulties; nor even to relieve them of the smallest portion of the burden of taxation, which they are compelled to bear without sharing the privileges attached thereto.
5. Because women, by the denial to them of the franchise, are placed at a serious disadvantage in competition for numerous offices and employments; especially women of the middle class, whose inability to vote tends extensively to deter landlords interested in politics from accepting them as tenants, even in cases where they have long conducted for their deceased male relatives the business of the farms, shops, amp;c., to whose tenure they seek to succeed.
6. Because the denial of women of the direct exercise of political judgment in the typical act of citizenship, has a generally injurious influence on the minds of men as regards women, leading them to undervalue their opinions on all the graver matters of life, and to treat offences against them with levity, as committed against beings possessed only of inferior rights.
7. Because the denial of the direct exercise of their judgment has a doubly injurious effect upon the minds of women, inclining them to adopt, without conscientious inquiry the opinions which, they are warned, must be always practically inoperative; and beguiling them to exert, through tortuous and ignoble channels, the influence whose open and honest exercise has been refused.
8. Finally, we desire the franchise for women, because, while believing that men and women have different work to do in life, we still hold that, in the choice of political representatives, they have the same task to accomplish; namely, the joint election of a Senate which shall guard with equal care the rights of both sexes, and which shall embody in its laws that true Justice which shall approve itself not only to the strong, but also the weak.
Cobbe, Frances Power. Why Women Desire the Franchise. ondon : National Society for Women’s Suffrage., 1877. Victorian Women Writers Project. Web. 11 July 2014.
Last modified 11 July 2014