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Two 1908 Notes on Women’s Suffrage Bills*

By Bertrand Russell

In the first note, Russell urges support, in Feb 1908, for a limited women’s enfrancisement bill, while in the second, he responds to Asquith’s May 1908 support for a less limited bill.

I. After the Second Reading

THE WOMEN’S ENFRANCHISEMENT Bill, having passed its second reading by a triumphant majority, has been relegated to a Committee of the whole House, and there, for practical purposes, it ends for this session. It therefore becomes necessary to ask ourselves how we are ever to get beyond a second reading. If the Government were to take up our measure, it would presumably become law. But the Government merely reflects the opinions of members of its party in the House. If the members who voted for the second reading were willing to put pressure upon the Government to give facilities, the Bill might become law this session. But we know that most of them are not willing. Just as the Government reflects the opinion of its party in the House, so the House reflects the opinions of the electors, and of those who, like the women who belong to political organizations, have the power of influencing the votes of electors. Thus it is only by agitation in the country that we can hope to avoid an endless series of second readings which come to nothing.

In all political agitation there are three bodies to be considered: the Government, the House of Commons, and the nation. (I say “the nation” rather than “the electors,” because I believe that women, even without the vote, can find many means of making their desire for the vote effective.) Of these three, only the Government ultimately can give us Women’s Suffrage. But the Government follows the lead of the House of Commons, and the House of Commons follows the lead of the nation. If the feeling in the country were such that members would feel their seats endangered if Women’s Suffrage failed to become law, we may be sure that members would do their utmost to secure its enactment.

Thus it is not to the Government nor yet to the House of Commons that we must look for the impetus which is to bring us success, but to the nation. Pressure on the Government, or on individual members, may be a very effective form of propaganda, and as such may be valuable; but until we can bring sufficient pressure to bear to effect our object, it is chiefly for the sake of propaganda that it is worth while to exercise pressure. One of the advantages of taking part in by-elections is that by this method propaganda among electors is intimately combined with pressure upon candidates. But it is plain that there can be no effective pressure upon candidates or upon members or upon the Cabinet, except in so far as we have a vigorous popular movement at our back.

The apparent disadvantage of propaganda in the country, as compared with direct operations at headquarters, is that it seems slow, and makes great demands on patience. But it is not so slow, in the long run, as a succession of private members’ Bills, each as barren as its predecessors. And our movement has now reached that point where it grows like a snowball by the help of its own momentum. In a few more years we may hope to be such a power in the country as no Parliament and no Government can afford to neglect. And when that time comes, we shall have no difficulty in getting our reform passed into law. Meanwhile, let us realize that it is not primarily the Government or the House of Commons that we have to convert, but the nation. In this task we may go forward with good hope, in view of the extraordinarily rapid progress of recent years.

II. Mr. Asquith’s Pronouncement

MR. ASQUITH’S PROMISE to the deputation of Suffragist members is the most important event which has yet occurred in the history of the movement. The effect of his promise is that, provided we can retain our majority in the House of Commons, Women’s Suffrage will – barring unforeseen accidents – become incorporated in a Government Bill. It is therefore to all intents and purposes as good as if the Government had directly taken up the enfranchisement of women. Unless the House of Lords rejects the suggested Reform Bill, there is therefore every likelihood that women will acquire votes before the next General Election.

The two points which seem of most importance for those who wish to further the cause of Suffrage are, first, that such a measure as Mr. Asquith foreshadows will be rejected by the Lords unless they feel there is a really strong movement behind it, and secondly, that a Women’s Suffrage Amendment, if it is to fulfill Mr. Asquith’s conditions, must not merely propose to extend the present franchise to women, but must be so drafted as to enfranchise the majority of working women.

As regards the first point, it is evident that the likelihood of the Lords accepting the Bill depends upon the force behind it, and that this will be the united force of the Suffrage Movement and the Government. Whatever, therefore, strengthens either increases our chance of success during the present Parliament, and whatever weakens either diminishes pro tanto our chance of success during the present Parliament. This consideration points to the necessity for the utmost activity in Suffrage propaganda, and to the unwisdom of making such propaganda, in future, actively hostile to the Government.

As regards the second point, it will not, of course, be the business of the Suffrage Societies to draft the Amendment to be proposed, since the nature of this Amendment must be decided, when the time comes, by our friends in Parliament. But it will be the business of the Suffrage Societies to support whatever Amendment our friends in Parliament may introduce, rather than to stickle for the precise formula which would express our avowed objects. To many of us a wider extension than would be afforded by the present qualification would be very welcome; to all, presumably, it would be better than nothing. For the present, therefore, if we wish to further women’s enfranchisement, it would seem desirable to keep an open mind as to the exact shape in which it is to come.

Success is now at last in sight. All that remains is that we should do our part in retaining the friendship of the House of Commons, and in extorting the respect of the House of Lords. The Government no longer needs to be intimidated, but the Lords may; and therefore now, as before, the road to victory lies through the creation of an overwhelming public opinion in our favour.


*  Bertrand Russell, “After the Second Reading,” Women’s Franchise 1 (Mar 12 1908), 429; “Mr. Asquith’s Pronouncement,” Women’s Franchise 1 (May 28 1908), 565