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After the Second Reading*

By Bertrand Russell

Related Articles and Pamphlets:

1. To the Electors of the Wimbledon Division of Surrey
2. After the Second Reading
3. Mr. Asquith’s Pronouncement
4. Liberalism and Women’s Suffrage
5. Should Suffragists Welcome the People’s Suffrage Federation?
6. Anti-Suffragist Anxieties

[In this note, Russell urges support for a limited women’s enfrancisement bill voted passed by Parliament in February 1908.]

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.


*  Bertrand Russell, “After the Second Reading,” Women’s Franchise 1 (Mar 12 1908), 429