30 Bertrand Russell – On Anti-Suffragist Arguments

Anti-Suffragist Anxieties

THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST women’s suffrage were, until lately, by no means easy to discover. For, though much had been written and spoken in its favour, opponents still felt themselves securely entrenched behind the ramparts of prejudice and custom, and did not think it necessary or prudent to venture on the open ground of explicit discussion. Now, however, owing to the activities of the Anti-Suffrage League and the writings of an eminent Professor,1it has become possible to discover what are the reasons for opposition which it is thought wise to avow. It must be confessed that they do not make a very formidable array, and that many of them are old friends which have done duty against every reform since the ancient Britons first ceased to dye themselves with woad. But such as they are, they deserve examination. In this examination, Professor Dicey’s book will afford a useful text.

We will begin, as the Professor himself does, with minor arguments which have not much persuasive power in themselves, but serve to raise a prejudice or a presumption which may make the reader more receptive when he comes to the really serious objections.

“The concession of Parliamentary votes to women,” we are told, “must be in the United Kingdom, either for good or bad, a revolution” (p. 10). Certainly we must admit that it shares this distinction with the Budget and flying-machines and wireless telegraphy and most other things. But that alone would not, at first sight, have any bearing on the question whether this revolution was for good or for bad; yet it is supposed that, if it were not for bad, it would have been made long ago. Thus Professor Dicey asserts that Mill, in The Subjection of Women, “in effect inculcates the neglect of the lessons to be derived from historical experience embodied in the general, if not universal, customs of mankind” (p. 7). This is the familiar argument of “the wisdom of our ancestors.” But there is a special fallacy in speaking of “lessons to be derived from historical experience.” For the only thing that history teaches is that men, as a rule, have not in fact allowed power to women. This is part of the larger “teaching,” that the strong have almost everywhere been ruthless, and the weak have almost everywhere been oppressed. But how can history teach us that this state of things ought to continue? The world we read of in history is not so perfect a paradise as to make us feel that the institutions upon which it rested must have been wise. Are we merely to imitate the long record of war and cruelty and extortion which constitutes “the general, if not universal, customs of mankind?” The “lesson” to be learnt is – so in effect we are told – that we ought ourselves to commit every crime commonly committed by our ancestors. But if such a lesson is to be inculcated, it is rather the fault of the historian than of the history.

And, considered more scientifically, if the custom of keeping women in subjection were in fact “universal,” no inference could be drawn from history as to its good or bad effects. In order to argue inductively as to the good or bad effects of an institution, there must be examples both ways: it must be possible to compare the effects of its presence with the effects of its absence. Otherwise, it is impossible to disentangle, by mere history, the good and the bad in all human societies, and say which of them is due to this universal custom. Now owing to the existence of women’s suffrage in some countries, we can, to some extent, make such a comparison. This comparison, however, Professor Dicey has very wisely abstained from making. There is no hint or suggestion, throughout his book, that women’s suffrage, where it has been tried, has been found harmful. Only a very careful reader can discover, from Professor Dicey, that any countries at all exist where women vote, and even the most careful reader could not discover how numerous they are. For one who professes to learn from history, it is odd to ignore entirely the most relevant history there is. But this history is only to be learnt, as yet, by travel or conversation, not by the unearthing of dusty archives; it would be, therefore, beneath the dignity of the historian to notice what, as yet, forms no part of “polite learning.” We may suspect, however, that if any moral against women’s suffrage were to be derived from the countries where it is practised, the Professor would not have ignored their existence so completely. And having learnt this “lesson of history,” we can pass on to other aspects of the question.

We are told that there is no such thing as a “right” to vote, that a vote is conferred for the benefit of the community, not of the individual, and that the philosophy of natural right was long ago exploded by Burke and Bentham. As a matter of abstract ethics, this is of course true; but if it is argued that therefore there is no harm in injustice, and no truth in the contention that justice requires women’s enfranchisement, then there is a far too hasty and crude application of theory to practice. The argument from justice does not require any fallacious foundation in the philosophy of natural rights. 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. It may be admitted that this evil, in some cases, is more than balanced by compensating advantages; but it remains an evil, and any gain for the sake of which it is to be endured must be very great and very certain.

And when it is said that a vote is conferred for the benefit of the community, not of the individual, there is a false antithesis which is very misleading. The community is only the sum of the individuals; and if a vote confers a benefit on the individual woman, then the enfranchisement of women would confer a benefit on half the members of the community, which goes near to proving that it would confer a benefit on the community.

The Professor makes a distinction between civil and political rights, and states that while women ought to have civil rights, they ought not to have political rights.2 But the distinction, as he states it, is too subtle to be comprehensible to the lay mind. Civil rights, he says, consist in the right to govern oneself, and political rights consist in the right to govern others. But in that case, men, by the possession of political rights, have the right to govern others, i.e., women, and women therefore cannot govern themselves. This is, of course, the fact at present. By factory acts, by marriage laws, and so on, women are controlled in innumerable ways which may be good or bad, but in any case have been imposed by men, in virtue of men’s political rights. The pretence that a person who does not possess political rights can possess the same control over his or her own circumstances as the person who possesses political rights, may, for aught I know, be enshrined in legal theory; but whoever considers facts cannot maintain it for a moment.

Anti-Suffragists, however, are persuaded that, as it is, women secure whatever is good for them from the bounty of Parliament, which is perfectly ready to offend the electors in order to remedy the minutest grievance of the voteless. It is astonishing what noble and self-sacrificing virtue our legislators display; but oddly enough, one finds on examination that, taking Professor Dicey’s own evidence, they only began to display this virtue after the agitation for women’s suffrage had achieved a certain strength, when it became undesirable to leave good arguments to those who complained of the injustices inflicted on women. “The desired innovation or revolution is, we are further told, needed to deliver English women from, or guard them against, grievous wrongs. But we now know from happy experience that such wrongs may be, as they in fact have been, removed or averted by a Parliament consisting solely of men, and in the election whereof no woman had a part.” 3 Why now? Because now the suffrage agitation has made men conscious of some of the more glaring injustices from which women suffer. But many injustices remain; and, what is perhaps the greatest injustice of all, none of them count as injustices unless they appear to be such to those who profit by them. Parliament, we are told, will give women “relief from every proved wrong” (p. 27. Italics mine). But to have to prove the wrong to those who inflict it, and who have every motive, both private and political, for paying no attention to the proof, is a severe preliminary to relief. Abdul Hamid, it is said, is about to publish his memoirs, and doubtless he will state that he was always ready to grant to the Armenians relief from every proved wrong, but as for an occasional massacre, that was necessary in the interests of the community, for citizens have no abstract right to life, and therefore ought only to be allowed to live if the Sultan judges that their lives are useful. Garnished with allusions to Burke and Bentham, a very eloquent apologia might be constructed on these lines. But, to do Professor Dicey justice, he is compelled, after all, to admit that women’s interests do not receive that attention which they would receive if women had the vote. After conceding that trade unions have received better legislative treatment since working men have had the vote, and that the case of women is parallel, he says: “Nor can any impartial critic maintain that, even at the present day, the desires of women, about matters in which they are vitally concerned, obtain from Parliament all the attention they deserve” (p. 22). While giving due respect to his candour, we must maintain that, with this admission, his whole argument collapses.

The contention that the vote will raise women’s wages is discussed by the Professor by means of one of those false antitheses which do duty so constantly among opponents of reform. “The plain answer to it,” we are told, “is that the prediction, if it means (as every working woman does understand it to mean) that a vote will in itself raise the market value of a woman’s work, is false. The ordinary current price of labour depends on economical causes” (p. 38). I do not know how many working women Professor Dicey has examined as to the sense in which they believe that a vote would raise wages, but I greatly doubt if they are quite so simpleminded as he believes, or so ignorant of the conditions which really determine wages. The contention that “the ordinary current price of labour depends on economical causes” has been used, ever since the industrial revolution, by the opponents of trade unions and labour legislation. Yet the wages- fund theory, upon which this contention formerly rested, has been relegated to the lumber-room of obsolete errors, and every extension of the franchise has been followed (at a respectful distance) by a modification of the orthodox economics. The plain fact that the “economical causes” which determine the price of labour are themselves intimately dependent upon political causes, is entirely overlooked, at each fresh stage, by those who maintain that political power cannot help the wage-earner. Yet the whole history of trade unionism and of methods of taxation is an illustration of this obvious truth.

All such more or less indirect ways in which the vote may raise wages are, however, classed by Professor Dicey as “bribery.” “There is,” he says, “another sense in which a vote or political power may, I admit, have its pecuniary value. It may be used by women, and still more by a body of women, to wring money, or money’s worth, from the State. A Ministry in want of support may bid high for the votes of women. But such traffic in votes is nothing better than sheer bribery” (p. 40). This is surely the most strangely unreal alternative. The more correct account of the matter would be that a class which is suffering injustice cannot, unless by some unusual combination of circumstances, secure the attention of Parliament or the recognition of its wrongs, without that power of insisting upon its needs which only the vote can give. The Professor’s view seems to be that Parliament should consist of 670 philosophers, who, without regard to the wishes of their constituents, decide, out of the plenitude of their wisdom, what boons they may prudently grant to a grateful nation. Any other method of securing legislation is apparently regarded as corrupt. But if so, corruption is of the essence of representative government. The whole effect of representative government on the choice of candidates, on the selection of questions to be dealt with by legislation, on the matters to which members are forced to give their attention – all this would have to be condemned as corruption. The legitimate weight which a member naturally gives to the representations of those who will be most affected by any proposed change would also have to be counted as corruption. If any of these things are not considered corrupt, then it will follow that, without corruption, women’s suffrage will tend to raise women’s wages. For, whatever may be said by some belated adherents of the “classical” political economy, it cannot be denied that legislation and government action can affect wages – by helping or hindering collective bargaining, by increasing or diminishing the opportunities of employment, by varying the methods of raising revenue, or by the effect of raising or lowering the wages of government employees. If women had the vote, they would, in all these respects, be in a better position. In the first place, candidates would be likely to be selected who were sympathetic to their claims. In the second place, the measures that would be to the fore at elections and in Parliament would be more likely to be such as afforded a prospect of improving the economic position of women. In the third place, members would become much more aware of the needs and wishes of women, if the women in their constituency could approach them with the status of voters. If such influences are corrupt when brought to bear by women, they are corrupt when brought to bear by men, and the only pure government left in the world is that of Russia.

Professor Dicey shares with other Anti-Suffragists the fear of introducing some undefined quality called “feminine emotion” into politics. Experience alone can dispel such fears, and as far as experience has gone at present, wherever women are seen taking part in public life, they show a remarkable absence of any so- called “feminine emotion.” The actions of women poor-law guardians are decided by their economic opinions, socialist women taking one line, women who believe in C.O.S. doctrines taking another. Women on Educational Committees and teachers consider the needs of the children in a serious and practical way. Organizations of working women take most level-headed views of industrial and social reforms.

On the other hand, it seems to be forgotten how emotional men can be. Religious revivalism, attacks of Imperialism, Mafficking celebrations, panics, all show that excitable forms of emotion are not confined to one sex, or to one class.

But it is time to turn our attention to the arguments upon which Professor Dicey lays most stress. There are four of them.

“Woman suffrage must ultimately, and probably in no long time, lead to adult suffrage, and will increase all the admitted defects of so-called universal, or in strictness manhood, suffrage” (p. 55).

We will not reply by denying that adult suffrage must come, since, on the contrary, we hold that it ought to come, if possible without any intervening period during which some women only are enfranchised, and we agree that “every reason and every sentiment which supports the cry of ‘Votes for women!’ tells, at any rate with nine people out of ten, in favour of adult suffrage” (pp. 56-7). But we will ask: What are the “admitted defects of so-called universal, or in strictness manhood, suffrage?” There is only one defect which we are prepared to concede as “admitted” about “so-called universal” suffrage, and that is, that it is not universal; and this defect will not be increased by adult suffrage. Let us see, however, what are the defects which are supposed to be “admitted.” In the first place, we are told that large constituencies are worse than small ones. “A huge constituency is, just because of its size, a bad electoral body. As the number of electors is increased, the power and the responsibility of each man are diminished. Authority passes into the hands of persons who possess neither the independence due to the possession of property nor the intelligence due to education” (pp. 58-9).

This objection to large constituencies appears to be widely felt, and to lead many people to oppose adult suffrage. Yet it is difficult to see on what it is based. The existing constituencies are of very varying size, and it is notorious that those in which corruption is most prevalent are among the smallest. This is, indeed, only what might be expected, since a given sum spent in bribery will go nearer to securing election where there are few electors than where there are many. If Professor Dicey were right, it would seem a pity that rotten boroughs were abolished. Yet we do not find it recorded that the elector of Old Sarum possessed either “the independence due to property” or “the intelligence due to education.” It is to be supposed, however, that he means to argue against women’s suffrage on the ground that women are poorer than men and are not given so good an education. This ground seems scarcely compatible with the view that women suffer no serious injustice at present. To be handicapped, as compared with men, both in property and in education, seems scarcely a trivial injustice. The Professor’s argument is therefore the familiar argument of possessors of power: that certain things, which only power will give, are necessary to the wise use of power, and therefore only those who already have power are fit to have it. It follows that all injustices should be perpetuated, and all wrongs must be eternal.

There are, of course, other reasons which lead people to oppose adult suffrage. The Professor makes a great deal of one of these objections, namely that, since adult suffrage would produce a majority of women, it would place government in the hands of the physically weaker half of the nation, and so lead to instability. This argument we shall consider shortly. Other objections, though not urged by Professor Dicey, deserve a passing mention. The objection based upon the view that it is essentially the possession of property that confers a right to the vote belongs to another order of ideas. But it may be said in passing that no ground exists for protesting against the disfranchisement of women on the ground of sex which does not apply equally against the disfranchisement of the poor on the ground that they have no property sufficient to qualify for a vote. Objections to a majority of women, other than that derived from a possible appeal to force on the part of men, are simply variants of the denial that women ought to be placed on an equality with men. The objection is, in a word: “By all means let some women have the vote, provided you can be sure that it will make no difference, and that no grievance suffered by women will be removed by it. But if you allow women to become the majority, we, the Lords of Creation, may be outvoted, and may be forced to discontinue some of the injustices dearest to our hearts. This is a disaster not to be contemplated for a moment, and therefore it would never do to admit all women to the vote.” This, however, is merely the argument of the tyrant, who is prepared, if necessary, to conceal his tyranny, but is not prepared to abandon it. And against such an argument there would seem to be no weapon but moral exhortation, directed to extort a recognition that others also have their rights.

After some vague generalizations about the character of “Woman,” which may be summed up in the two remarks that women have less tenacity than men (p. 60), and that it would be a misfortune if British policy were determined by the fighting suffragists (p. 62) – I suppose because of their sad lack of tenacity – we come to the second great argument against women’s suffrage. This is, in its entirety, as follows:

The grant of votes to women settles nothing. If conceded tomorrow, it must be followed by the cry of ‘Seats in Parliament for women!’ ‘Places in the Cabinet for women!’ ‘Judgeships for

women!’ For the avowed aim of every suffragist, down from John Stuart Mill to Mrs. Pankhurst, is the complete political equality of men and of women. The opening of the Parliamentary franchise to women is the encouragement, not the close, of a long agitation.

It is difficult to know how to treat this argument, except by the exclamation “How awful!” For in fact there is no argument. It is our old friend, the thin end of the wedge, with the usual absence of any attempt to show that there is any harm in the thick end. All the same arguments might have been used – probably were used – against the enfranchisement of working men. Yet – though working men have always been eligible to Parliament and the Cabinet – they still form a small minority in Parliament, and their admission to the Cabinet has not been found to promote revolution. Such changes as are dreaded by Professor Dicey will happen very gradually, and whatever objections there may be to them at present will diminish as women acquire the political experience due to possession of the vote.

We are told next that women ought not to have the vote because they do not want it. To this, it would seem a sufficient answer to deny the fact. The number of women who desire the vote is increasing every day, and, though no means exist of ascertaining whether it has yet become a majority, there is a practical certainty that, if not yet the majority, it soon will be. But the proper answer is that the question is not so much whether women desire the vote, as whether it is for the good of the community that they should have it. And, oddly enough, this answer is given by the Professor himself, but it is given in rebutting the contention that women ought to have the vote because they want it. He has failed to perceive the double application of his words, which are as follows:

My conviction as to the true nature of a Parliamentary vote led inevitably to the conclusion that the expediency, or what in such a matter is the same thing, the justice, of giving Parliamentary votes to English women depends on the answer to the inquiry, not whether a large number of English women, or English women generally, wish for votes, but whether the establishment of woman suffrage will be a benefit to England? (P. 8)

The question, therefore, whether or not a majority of English women desire the vote is, on the Professor’s own showing, irrelevant.

The strongest argument against women’s suffrage is the argument that all government is based, in the last resort, on force, and therefore the vote ought to be confined to those who are able to use force. The argument is, that if all women are enfranchised, they will form a majority of the electorate, and laws may be enacted, by their votes, to which a large majority of men are vehemently opposed – laws, for example, dealing with temperance or with the suppression of vice. Such laws men might refuse to obey; and the majority, being mainly composed of women, would be unable to enforce its will. Hence the government would be unstable, and might be upset by a successful revolution. The only way to avoid this is to confine the vote to those who can fight, i.e. to men.

This view seems to involve a radical misconception of political facts. In the first place, it is scarcely conceivable that any law would be passed if it were strongly opposed by a large majority of men. We have to remember that, when women are first enfranchised, they will find a political system established which has been made by men, where the parties are divided according to the divisions of opinion among men, where all the candidates are men, and all the questions mainly discussed at elections will be such as have been considered important by men. The inertia of this state of things will make it impossible to change it suddenly. There will not be any sudden emergence of a large women’s party, advocating the supposed special interests of women. Most women would, at first, obtain their political knowledge through the views expressed by men. Gradually, as they acquire more political knowledge, they will no doubt become more independent. But as they become more independent, they will also become better judges of what is feasible and prudent: they will realize that legislation which is detested, beyond a certain point, by a large section of the community, is unwise legislation, and they will avoid such action as might produce a conflict between men and women. An exact parallel to what is probable may be found in the rise of the Labour party. There is much more apparent opposition of interests between labour and capital than between women and men; yet, although urban working men have had the vote for over forty years, a large majority of them still prefer to vote for one or other of what Socialists call the capitalistic parties. And as the Labour party grows in numbers, it grows also in wisdom, so that it cannot be seriously maintained that the Labour party affords a menace to public order. Yet the argument that government is based upon force, if it were valid, would have applied as much against admitting working men as against admitting women. For the “force” that is meant is not actual prowess with the fists, but the power of placing an army in the field; and it is obvious that if the richer third of the nation were to engage in a conflict with the poorer two-thirds, the richer third could hire mercenaries who would utterly annihilate the poorer two-thirds. Yet this does not happen. Why? Because neither the rich nor the poor are so wholly reckless as theorists suppose. Rather than plunge the nation into civil war, the poor moderate the burdens they inflict upon the rich, and the rich confine their protests to letters to the press and diminution of charitable subscriptions. So it would be if women were the majority of the voters. Both sides would have enough forbearance and enough common sense to avoid any such sharpness of opposition as could possibly shake the stability of the government.

In fact, instead of saying that government is based on force, it would be quite as true to say that force is based on government. In a civilized community, an armed conflict with the executive is too serious a matter to be lightly undertaken, and the powers of the executive are such that a conflict can hardly ever be successful. On the other hand, respect for the rights of minorities is, in England, so ingrained in our political traditions, that it is inconceivable that they should be disregarded to such a degree as would produce any temptation to armed resistance. And in the particular application to women’s suffrage, one is tempted to wonder whether those who speak of a possible conflict ever remember that it is men and women they are speaking of. When we consider the closeness of the relations of men and women, the daily and hourly need of cooperation between them, it seems the merest fantastic nightmare to imagine men ranged in one camp and women in the other. Long before this had happened, the necessities of private life would have compelled some sort of adjustment. The man’s desire for his dinner, and the woman’s need of her husband’s support, are sufficient safeguards of the public peace in this respect. Thus the argument that government is based on force, and ought therefore to be in the hands of the strong, may be dismissed as one which takes no account of the actual facts of human life. A sex-war might provide material for a farce, but could not be conceived in sober earnest.

It might, on the contrary, be urged with more truth that, since the strong will always have a preponderating influence by virtue of their strength, it is specially important that the weak should have such protection as is afforded by the vote. The vote will still leave them in a position in which they will have to pay respect to the wishes of the strong, but it will do what is possible to remedy the inequality due to natural causes. Indeed the whole progress from barbarism to the civilized state may be represented as an increasing protection of the weak against the strong. We no longer permit a man to steal a woman’s property by means of his superior physical strength, but we still allow him to steal her means of livelihood by excluding her from professions and trades. The protection of the weak against the strong, so far as direct use of physical force is concerned, is undertaken by the police; but indirect attacks, made by means of law and custom, cannot be prevented except by the protection of the vote. The comparative weakness of women, therefore, so far from affording an argument against giving them the vote, affords an argument in favour of giving them every protection against injustice which the laws can provide, and, as the chief protection, the right to a voice as to what the laws shall be.

The objections which are explicitly urged against women’s suffrage are, of course, not those which weigh most with most men. Men fear that their liberty to act in ways that are injurious to women will be curtailed, and that they will lose that pleasing sense of dominion which at present makes “no place like home.” The instinct of the master to retain his mastery cannot be met by mere political arguments. But it is an instinct which finds less and less scope in the modern world, and it is fast being driven from this stronghold as it has been driven from others. To substitute cooperation for subjection is everywhere the effort of democracy, and it is one of the strongest arguments in favour of the enfranchisement of women that it will further this substitution in all that concerns the relations of men and women.


1 Letters to a Friend on Votes for Women. By A. V. Dicey, K.C., LL.D., HON. D.C.L. (Murray, 1909)

2 See pp. 32-4 and 79-80

3 Pp. 78-9. My italics


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