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 Liberalism and Women’s Suffrage (1908)*

By Bertrand Russell

BY MR. ASQUITH’S pronouncement of May 20th, women’s suffrage, for the first time in this country, becomes likely to form part of a Bill intended by the House of Commons to pass into law. It now rests with the friends of women’s suffrage in the House of Commons to introduce a suitable amendment into the promised Electoral Reform Bill, and with the friends of democracy in the country to use their utmost endeavours to force the acceptance of this Bill on the House of Lords. In spite of the continued opposition to Liberals on the part of the militant suffragists, the cause of women’s suffrage is now, at any rate for the moment, bound up with the fortunes of Liberalism. As temporary circumstances have tended to cause an apparent divergence of interest between Suffragists and Liberals, it may be well now to remind ourselves of the permanent reasons which should lead the two to cooperate. The reasons in favour of women’s suffrage are all such as ought to appeal with special force to Liberals. In the heat of political controversy, reasons of principle are too often lost sight of; I shall therefore make an attempt to recall them, and to show that they are such as no consistent Liberal can fail to acknowledge.

The grounds in favour of women’s suffrage are, in the main, the same as those in favour of democracy in general; but in some respects these grounds apply with special force to the case of women. It is plain that no man can call himself truly a democrat if he is in favour of excluding half the nation from all participation in public affairs. Yet we find that democracy, now-a-days, is usually conceded as no longer open to discussion, even by people who are strong opponents of the claims of women. Such people, it seems to me, have forgotten what the benefits of democracy really are; for if they remembered them, they could hardly fail to see that these benefits are to be expected from the enfranchisement of women just as much as from the enfranchisement of working men. I shall, therefore, make no apology for recalling some of the main arguments in favour of democracy.

The chief traditional argument in favour of democracy is that it is difficult for one class to judge of the interest of another, and rare for one class to care as much for the interest of another as for its own. The illustrations of this in history are too numerous to need citing: oligarchies have invariably been more or less ignorant of and indifferent to the interests of those whom they governed. It may be said that the relations of men and women are so close that this particular argument does not apply to the case of women. But I think this view is not borne out by the facts. There are, as everyone knows, many respects in which the laws are unequal as between men and women. And there are many evils from which women suffer which are quietly accepted as inevitable, because those who have political power are not those who have to endure the evils. Is it just, for example, that a working woman and her children should, through no fault of her own, be reduced to destitution if her husband takes to drink? Yet no one regards this as a political question.

But perhaps a more important argument for democracy is its educational effect on the voter, and its effect in improving the relations between different classes. To speak first of the educational effect: there is the direct education of being brought into contact with political questions, and there is the education of character resulting from responsibility and freedom. Of these two, the education of character seems to me the more important, but the other is by no means a small matter. Anyone who has watched an election must have been struck by the amount of knowledge on politics which the voters acquire from meetings and canvassers and discussions among themselves. The diffusion of such knowledge throughout the population not only increases the stability of a civilization, but also has the merit of making people aware of greater and more important matters than are to be found in their personal circumstances.

Closely connected with this purely political education is the education of character which I spoke of just now. It is good for people to feel that momentous questions depend in part upon their decision: it leads them to think responsibly and seriously, and it cultivates self-respect. One of the great arguments in favour of liberty is that those who have the direction of their own lives are in general intrinsically better than they would have been if others had regulated their lives for them. And this applies with at least as much force to the part of life which is political or affected by politics as it does to more private concerns. Therefore when it is said that women should be politically educated first before being given the vote, it is forgotten that the vote itself is the great engine of political education. This has proved to be the case with working men, who very generally had hardly any political education before they got the vote; and that it will prove so with women seems not open to doubt.

Another of the arguments for democracy is that it improves the relations between classes. When one class has power and another has not, those who have the power are not likely to feel as much respect for those who have not as for those who have. We all know the aristocratic attitude in politics, the attitude which instinctively ignores all interests except those of its own class, and feels that other classes are comparatively of no account. This attitude has been rapidly dying out under the influence of popular election. But in relation to women all men are in the position of aristocrats, and a contempt for the opinions or interests of women receives no political punishment. Considering how much closer are the relations of men and women than the relations of different classes, and how much better for both parties are equal relations than unequal ones, this must be regarded as a powerful argument in favour of giving votes to women. For it seems certain that the political enfranchisement of women would react beneficially on private life, engendering greater liberty and greater mutual respect in the relations of the sexes.

The chief arguments of principle in favour of women’s suffrage may, then, be summed up as follows. First, that from defect of imagination and good will no class can be trusted to care adequately for the interests of another class, and that in fact women’s interests have been unduly neglected by men. Secondly, that participation in politics widens people’s outlook, and improves character by cultivating self-respect and a sense of responsibility; and that these advantages are just as certain to accrue to women if they have the vote as they were to accrue to working-men. Thirdly, that it is easier to give due respect to those who have the same legal powers as we have, and that a feeling of equality between men and women is of immense benefit not only in politics but in private life.

I ought to add among the arguments of principle the argument of abstract justice. This argument is sometimes supposed to rest upon an antiquated philosophy of natural right, and is therefore now rather discredited. But it does not seem to me to require any such fallacious foundation. To inflict a special disability upon any class of the community is in itself an evil, and is calculated to generate resentment on the 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. In the case of the disabilities of women, no such gain is apparent, and the argument from justice must therefore be admitted.

Having now considered the main arguments in favour of giving votes to women, I will pass to some of the arguments on the other side.

(1) We are often told that women are unreasonable, that they are governed by their emotions, and that they are unable to understand politics. I don’t know that I need waste much time on this argument. “Reason,” in the mouths of those men who advance this modest opinion, generally means “wanting what I want,” and “being governed by emotions” means “wanting what I don’t want.” Queen Elizabeth considered the House of Commons incapable of understanding foreign politics, because their aims were not the same as hers. The House of Lords considers the House of Commons incapable of understanding the Land Question, because the House of Commons doesn’t recognize the paramount necessity of increasing rents. I suspect that women’s incapacity for politics is of the same kind, and that if they alone had the vote, it would be men who would be incapable and emotional.

(2) We are told that women would be priest-ridden, that they would vote always at the dictation of their religious advisers. In Catholic countries there may be some truth in this as things stand, though in Great Britain there seems no reason whatever to think it would be the case. But if it were true, it would only mark the neglect of women’s political education, which is due to their exclusion from the vote, and would presumably be remedied by their enfranchisement. If it were not remedied, that would mean that a minority are inflicting their policy upon the majority, and that those who fear priestly domination are nevertheless prepared to prolong their own domination because they are so certain that it is the better. But such a position is the negation of all democratic principles, and would, if logically carried out, be found to justify all degrees of intolerance, including religious persecution. This argument, therefore, even if it were not mistaken as to facts, would not be available for anyone who believes in popular government.

(3) Women, it is said, ought not to have the vote because they cannot fight. If this argument were pushed home, we ought to disfranchise all men who are too old to fight, or are in any way physically incapable; and we ought to disfranchise Quakers because they will not fight. But it is hard to see why the vote should be confined to those who can fight. The idea seems to be that you will have all the men on one side and all the women on the other, and that then the action of the majority would be defeated by an appeal to arms. But the supposition is so fantastic that it is hard to take it seriously, especially as the same people who make it tell us that it is unnecessary to give votes to women, because they would always vote with their husbands. The notion that in such a country as England an appeal to arms could ever be made successfully against the decision of Parliament is obviously absurd; and if this idea is not entertained, the question whether women can fight is of no importance.

(4) I come now to a very favourite argument. Women’s Suffrage, we are told, would promote quarrels in families and destroy the happiness of home life. Those who advance this argument apparently think that it is impossible to discuss without quarrelling, that a man cannot be happy unless all his words are received as oracles by a dutiful family, and that the ideal of home life is to avoid all conversation on every important subject. A husband and wife who cannot get on together unless they confine themselves to trivialities had better, I should say, learn a little mutual forbearance; and I should count it among the advantages of women’s suffrage that it would tend to promote a reasonable discussion of things outside the home.

(5) It is often said that women ought not to have votes because they do not want them. Those who say this, by the way, are loudest in condemnation of those women who have taken steps to let us know that they do want votes. But that is natural, for no one is so annoying as a person who disproves one’s favourite argument. Speaking seriously, the allegation that women do not want the vote is rapidly becoming untrue, although it is perhaps not yet untrue of the majority. But even if it is still true of the majority, it does not warrant the conclusion that women ought not to have the vote. In the first place, it does not warrant the exclusion of that large and increasing number of women who do want the vote. In the second place, all the arguments which we considered in favour of women’s suffrage remain valid even if women are indifferent, and when women have had the political education resulting from the franchise, they will see the advantage of the vote. The question, therefore, whether a majority of women desire the vote is not really relevant to the issue, though it does of course vitally affect the likelihood of their getting the vote.

(6) One bogey which is used to frighten timid people is the argument that there are more women than men in the United Kingdom, and that therefore we should be governed by women if we gave the vote to all women. Now in the first place very few advocates of women’s suffrage demand the vote for all women. In the second place, if it is urged that any measure of women’s suffrage would be merely a stage on the way to the enfranchisement of all women (which I should admit), it still does not follow that we should be governed by women. This assumes, like the argument that women cannot fight, that we shall have all women on one side and all men on the other; but I cannot think that either sex will make themselves so very obnoxious as to bring about such a result as that. And in the third place, even if we were governed by women, would it be so very terrible? At present we are governed by men, and the result, though perhaps not very admirable, is one which we all endure patiently. I fail to see why being governed by one sex should be any worse than being governed by the other. This argument, therefore, is peculiarly futile, for what it dreads would certainly not happen, and there is no reason to think it would matter if it did.

There remains one reason against the Suffrage, which certainly has more force than all the others put together: I mean the instinctive love of dominion. Most men like to be cock of the walk somewhere, and home is generally the only place where they get a chance. They dread that in an equal contest they might fail to maintain the lead, and they therefore insist that the matrimonial race shall continue to be a handicap. For this reason, many men who are willing enough that spinsters and widows should have votes are most unwilling that married women should, because they do not wish to lose the one corner where they have mastery. Against this state of mind it is useless to bring mere arguments. It has been partially overcome among educated people by novelists and playwrights; but among the uneducated it is still rampant. While it is the most serious obstacle with which advocates of women’s suffrage have to contend, it must also be said that one of the gains to be expected from women’s suffrage is that it will tend to substitute for the somewhat brutal desire for mastery a cooperation which cannot fail to develop the intelligence and the good will of both parties.

I would appeal to Liberals, therefore, in the name of all their professed principles, to support the demand which women suffragists make, namely the demand that women should have votes on the same terms as men. It is only through supporting this demand that we can hope to reach that complete democracy which ought to be our goal; and to resist such a demand from a section of the nation can only be justified by oligarchical principles such as no Liberal has a right to hold. The gains to the community to be expected from granting it are very great. First, an immense advance in the political education of women, and a broadening of their outlook on life. Secondly, a gain to liberty, and an improvement in the attitude of men towards women. Thirdly, in the long run, a greater care for questions of women’s work, of the rearing and education of children, and of all those increasingly important problems upon which the biological future of the race depends. The rise of women to equality with men, which has been rapidly advancing during the past half-century, is one of those great social improvements of which only a few occur in a thousand years. To let prejudice or an uncertain party advantage stand in the way of our contributing to this improvement is unworthy of men who have liberty at heart, and I most earnestly hope that few Liberals will any longer be guilty of such a treachery to all their professions.


*  Bertrand Russell, “Liberalism and Women’s Suffrage,” The Contemporary Review 94 (Jul 1908), 11-16