Research in the Parliamentary debates on women’s equality with respect to political representation reveals some of the extraordinary attitudes of the time.
In 1867, Mr J. Stuart Mill raises the subject of woman’s suffrage for the first time in the House of Commons. He attempted to pass an amendment in the 1867 Representation of the People Bill to change the word from ‘man’ to ‘person’, thereby allowing women the right to vote. His vote was defeated with 196 votes against, and 73 votes for.
Responses to Mr Mill’s address included Mr Karslake who believed that
“woman, in his humble opinion, would be almost debased or degraded by [the vote]. She would be in danger of losing those admirable attributes of her sex – namely her gentleness, her affection, and her domesticity. As not a lady in Essex had asked him to support the proposition in favour of a female franchise, and believing that women in other parts of England were equally indifferent on the subject, he came to the conclusion that the women of this country would prefer to remain happy as they were, being content with the happy homes and advantages they now possessed…” (Hansard’s Parliamentary debates, vol. 187, 20th May 1867, col. 833)
Sir George Bowyer seemed quite undecided on the subject due to the fact that women owned property on which they were taxed;
“Yet that property, being held by a woman was not represented. This he thought unjust, and though, generally speaking, women do not occupy themselves with politics – nor was it desirable that they should do so – he maintained that, being taxed, they ought to be represented.” (Hansard’s Parliamentary debates, vol. 187, 20th May 1867, col. 833)
By the early 1900s both the suffragists (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) and the more militant suffragettes (Women’s Social and Political Union) were campaigning in earnest. Petitions, marches, demonstrations and meetings were held. Women were arrested, and hunger-strikes began in prisons. The public were uneasy at reports of the forced-feeding of women prisoners, which lead to the 1913 Prisoners’ (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act. The act was passed to ensure that no woman died while on hunger-strike in prison. Instead, they were released until recovered and could then be returned to prison to serve out their sentence. The similarities of the act to that of a cat playing with its prey was not lost on the public, and it became better known as the Cat and Mouse Act
Due to the many campaigns for the woman’s right to vote, debates in Parliament became more frequent, making fascinating reading.
Viscount Helmsley, debating in the Conciliation bill of 1912, believed that women should have no such right, asking;
“Where are the women merchants and the women bankers? Where are the women directors of great undertakings? Nowhere to be seen at the head of the great businesses of the country. … I maintain that to give women a share in the Government of the country before they have, apart from any legislation, taken in the natural course of events a share in the control of those large undertakings is certainly to be premature if nothing else, and certainly to be putting women in a Parliamentary position which they have not attained by their own exertions in any other department of public life.” (Hansard’s Parliamentary debates, vol. 36, 28th March 1912, col. 644)
Assumptions about the roles of the genders in society aid Mr. Lane-Fox in voting against woman’s suffrage;
“The strongest reason, in my opinion, why we should not grant the vote to women is that it means the beginning of taking women away from the home into what must necessarily be the rather dirty game of politics. Everybody must know that men are incompetent to manage their own homes. There are some things women can do much better than men. A man without a woman to look after his home and his children is absolutely incompetent. The home cannot go on. … everyone must admit that the sphere of politics is not one in which we should wish to see women solely and exclusively engaged, and that must be a strong argument against giving them the possibility of coming to this House.” (Hansard’s Parliamentary debates, vol. 36, 28th March 1912, col. 681-2)
Mr. Murray Macdonald was a strong supporter of woman’s suffrage;
Woman has “the right to vote in the election of representatives on the local government bodies. She has the right now to administer the law, but is precluded from the right to determine the nature of the law which she is thought competent to administer. I hold strongly that she ought to be entrusted with the final act of citizenship – the right to determine the nature of our legislation.” (Hansard’s Parliamentary debates, vol. 36, 28th March 1912, col. 683)
World War One between 1914 – 1918 leads to a reduction in the suffrage campaign, as women are called on to fill the ‘male’ roles in employment while the men served abroad.
Following the war, political representation for women was gradually expanded, initially allowing women over 30 the vote. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act was passed, giving women the same voting rights as men.
We have a wealth of primary resources on the passage of women’s rights through history, including Parliamentary debates, voting figures, and Acts. Visit us on level 7 of the library to find out more. We’re open Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm. Alternatively, we can be contacted by email or at 0141 330 3176.