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 Should Suffragists Welcome the People’s Suffrage Federation? (1909)*

By Bertrand Russell

THE FORMATION OF the People’s Suffrage Federation, and its rapid success with most of the friends of Women’s Suffrage in the House of Commons and elsewhere, has come upon many Suffragists as a blow. It has seemed both a cause and a symptom of new years of delay, and a proof of treason on the part of Parliamentary friends. I do not myself share this view, which I believe to be the result of lack of knowledge as to the political situation. It appears to me, on the contrary, that the People’s Suffrage Federation, while in no way superseding the societies which work for women’s enfranchisement only, has a function to perform which must be performed by someone before the Suffrage can be won. In this question there are two matters to consider – namely, the attitude of the country and the position of the political parties.

To begin with the country: It is commonly said by those who regard the explicit advocacy of Adult Suffrage as ill-judged that the country is willing to acquiesce in the removal of the sex disability, but is still strongly opposed to a measure which would make women the majority of voters. To this it might be replied, in the first place, that a fairly large section of the country – notably the Trade Unionists and the Labour Party – considers the distinction of rich and poor more important, politically, than the distinction of men and women, and is therefore willing to enfranchise women if by so doing it will not increase the propertied vote, but not otherwise. But a more important consideration is that our enemies believe – as most of us do – that the removal of the sex disability would almost certainly lead, in no long time, to full Adult Suffrage. This is one of the main arguments used by Anti-Suffragists, and it is not answered by merely pointing out that Adult Suffrage is not what we are asking for, since it appears likely that Adult Suffrage would be the ultimate result, if not the intention, of our success. It therefore becomes necessary to meet the Adult Suffrage bugbear by argument, and to persuade people that Adult Suffrage, if it came, would not be disaster. Until people are persuaded of this few will give active support to any measure of women’s enfranchisement, though many will give a useless theoretical assent to the principle. It is not the business of a Suffrage society to advocate one method of giving justice to women rather than another; hence any society whose object is merely to secure electoral justice to women must remain neutral as between different Bills, each of which secures that men and women have votes on the same terms. Therefore, since it is necessary to our success that Adult Suffrage should cease to be a bugbear, we ought to rejoice in the formation of a society which, unlike the Suffrage societies, can explicitly preach Adult Suffrage. The ostrich policy of hiding our heads in the sand whenever Adult Suffrage is mentioned does not blind our opponents, and it is therefore necessary that someone should adopt a bolder course.

The party situation enforces the same lesson. A very large majority of the politicians who support the principle of Women’s Suffrage belong to the Liberal and Labour parties, both of which are immovably opposed to the mere removal of the sex disability without change in the qualifications. The Labour party, at their Congress in Hull about two years ago, pronounced for Adult Suffrage as against the single removal of the sex disability, and recently almost all their M.P.’s have joined the People’s Suffrage Federation. Mr. Asquith has declared that any Suffrage measure which he can accept must be on “democratic lines,” and this is the attitude of almost all the Liberal M.P.’s who are in favour of Suffrage. This attitude is largely the result of reports of their election agents as to the political effect of enfranchising women on the present basis, and it is therefore not likely to change. But it is unjust to suppose that those Liberal and Labour men who prefer a wider measure are not genuine supporters of the Suffrage: many of them are very genuine supporters, though there are no doubt other measures for which they care at least as much. Suffrage can only be obtained through a party, and it is a pity to antagonize the two parties in which we have the most support, merely because they desire to combine the removal of the sex disability with a change in the qualifications for a vote, which is a matter upon which, as Suffragists, we are not called upon to have an opinion. It is time to recognize that most people who favour Women’s Suffrage differ as to how it should be brought about, according to their party, and that it is not our business to take sides in this question, since legal justice, which is our aim, is equally secured in either case. It may seem as though the Liberal-Labour method were less practicable than the other, but it has many more advocates among Liberals and Labour men than the other has among Conservatives, and it cannot be said that Conservatives show any symptoms of friendliness to Women’s Suffrage. It should, however, be reckoned among the advantages of the advocacy of Adult Suffrage that a serious prospect of such a measure being carried by Liberals is more likely than any other imaginable cause to stimulate the Conservatives into the adoption of a less sweeping measure.

Finally, it should be remembered, as one of the uses of the People’s Suffrage Federation, that it enlists the active support of many people who will not work for a measure that concerns women only. There are many people – mostly men – to whom the principle that every adult human being should have a voice in the government is inspiring and worth much effort, whereas the principle that, given an adequate property qualification, sex alone should not disqualify leaves them cold, because they are not interested in women as such, but only in women as among the dispossessed. To such men – and it would be an error to regard them as unimportant or insincere – opposition to a measure which will enfranchise not only women, but some men also, appears, however unjustly, to show a lack of generosity and an inability to appreciate the broad grounds which justify the claims of women. And it is too often forgotten that the appeal to reason is the only ground upon which women can hope to receive any large measure of support from men.

For all these reasons, I would urge Suffragists to regard the People’s Suffrage Federation as a friend rather than as an enemy, and as able and willing to do a work which, while in no way replacing the work of the Suffrage societies, must be performed before they can hope to attain their goal.

B. RUSSELL


*  Bertrand Russell, “Should Suffragists Welcome the People’s Suffrage Federation?” The Common Cause 1 (Dec 9 1909), 463-4