E. Belfort Bax

Female Suffrage and Its Implications

An Address to the Central Branch of the SDF

(15 September 1904)

From Social Democrat, Vol.8, no.9, 15 September 1904. pp.533-545.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Essays In Socialism, New & Old, 1907, pp.533-545.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is impossible to separate the question of the suffrage from the woman question in general, which is as much as to say, the suffrage opens up the whole question as to whether women as a whole are to perform the same functions in society as men and hence to have the same rights. The question, it may be observed, mainly concerns political rights (in the widest sense), i.e., rights of sharing in the direction and administration of society – equal economical rights are, of course, conceded in general, equal advantages from equal labour in some form or other being a fundamental demand of Socialism. While as regards social and legal rights, as we shall point out presently, women are already in a position of privilege as regards men. It is, then, with legal and administrative rights that we are primarily concerned.

Now, it seems to me, that the question we are dealing with resolves itself into three: (1) Are we justified in barring any section of human beings as a whole, which, through general intellectual inferiority or otherwise, is recognised as relatively incompetent to fulfil certain functions, from those functions? (2) Have we the right to conclude that women are, in general, intellectually inferior to men, or otherwise incompetent to have a voice in legislation and administration? (3) Admitting them to be sufficiently competent, are there other grounds, justifying their exclusion at present from public life in this sense? As regards the first point, first let us examine what the conception “justice” means.

It may be quite true that concrete justice always implies a definite content, but nevertheless, all concrete and particular justice presupposes an abstract and general justice by which the former can be measured. Now, the abstract principle of justice is covered, I take it, by the notion of equality, as Aristotle found out long ago. But when closer viewed this “equality,” it is seen, must be a relative equality. It must be an equality determined by the total circumstances of a particular case and not merely by one or two of its most obvious and superficial aspects. It is this last consideration which decides its character or determines its content in any particular instance.

Judged by this standard, then, I take it there exists a right to debar in general the unfit from the exercise of certain functions within a given society – provided that the unfitness results from organic causes and is not merely the temporary and direct outcome of defective economic and social conditions within the society itself. This is generally recognised even as regards the franchise. For example, children, i.e., young persons up to a certain age, are by common consent excluded from the right to exercise the suffrage as being unfit by reason of immaturity. Even the most suffrage-thirsting democrat limits his demands to adult suffrage. Then, again, where you have within a society an alien population of an intrinsically lower race the right to exclude such a population from interfering in the regulation and administration of such a society by its votes or otherwise, would be admitted at least by many thoroughgoing democrats. And the more so now that the experience of this particular application of the man-and-the-brother doctrine in the United States has proved its unworkability. The reason is obvious – lower races stand in the same relation to higher races that children do to adults. Their minds are so far different from the former, that there is no basis of organic equality between the two. In this case, of course, of lower and higher races, while the attempt to amalgamate them in one commonwealth can only be productive of mischief, the true solution is that the organically lower race should be left to itself to work out its own social destiny. For instance, my solution of the negro question in America would be, while excluding the negro from the franchise in the white States, in those of the Southern States where he was in an overwhelming majority to hand over the government of the State entirely to the negro, to the exclusion, for that matter, of such white population as there might happen to be. The white American might not like this, but it would be the only just way out of the difficulty which his ancestor has created by forcibly importing the negro out of Africa. This, however, by the way. I have only wanted to show that the exclusion from political influence in the society, whether by vote or otherwise, of elements organically inferior, or, if you will, organically different, from that which has hitherto constituted the society, is not necessarily inconsistent with a democratic attitude which would level, in politics, all distinctions [apart] from economic differences; in other words, on class in the ordinary sense of the word.

Between fundamentally disparate things there can be at least no direct relation of equality. Now Socialism is a doctrine proclaiming the fundamental identity for a common socio-political life of the men of the progressive races, the apparent diversities being non-fundamental to such a common life. These diversities it traces mainly to economic and political causes – in the case of classes to economical causes solely; in the case of races within the circle of modern civilisation (with which, as above said, Socialism is alone directly concerned), largely to political causes, as well as to economical causes, the organic differences between these races, if we assume such to exist, being so slight as to be non-fundamental from the point of view concerned. But Socialism does not affirm that the negroid branch of the human family (say) is in the same case. For here we clearly have to do with an organic difference of a deep-lying, if not fundamental, character. The mind of the savage, of the Bushman, or even of the Kaffir, is to that of the progressive races as the mind of a civilised child to that of a civilised adult. There is plainly, therefore, here not even the basis of a common politico-social life. This fact alone (we observe, by the way) ought to bring home to us the cruelty and criminality of the imperialistic enslaving of such races, thereby destroying their own social forms-forms which are alone suited to them. It is, I say, a false conception of justice which demands for such races the franchise in an alien social organisation. True justice insists upon the duty of “hands off,” i.e., of freedom and development for them from within, along their own lines. For where deep-seated organic disunction obtains, justice must have a different content to where no such distinction obtains.

Again, as already said, within every community you have an order of human beings who by common consent are unfitted for the functions of regulating and administering the community, viz., children or young persons under age. Here also there is no basis of direct equality, the immaturity constitutes an organic distinction which in this case also gives justice with regard to them a different content to what it would have if this distinction were not present. There is a justice, of course, in their case, because there is a form of equality to be arrived at, but it is an indirect justice because the equality is indirect. There is justice, for that matter, for all living beings, for animals as well as human beings, but it does not consist in giving them all the franchise. I think it is clear, therefore, that we are justified in debarring any order of persons from the franchise if they, as a class, indicate an inferiority based on an organic difference which is likely to render their co-operation in political or administrative life a danger or disadvantage to the community as a whole. For let us make no mistake, the active franchise (so-called) means the first step towards the passive; and this again is the step to all other political functions; just as the Bar is the first step towards the Bench, and this again towards the highest administrative functions in the existing State. You cannot practically limit any order of persons to the first step alone, with a “thus far shalt thou go and no farther.” from the right of election to a legislative body, to the right of membership of that body, for instance, there is no logical halting-place.

Now the question arises, are we to regard women as possessing a deep-lying organic difference, involving inferiority, to men? If so, we shall be eo ipso justified in opposing woman-suffrage on the ground that the well-being of the community as a whole would be endangered thereby. “Equality in a reasonable sense,” as Möbius says, “can only mean that injustice is done to no one, that there is equal reward for equal achievements.” It does not mean necessarily, as above pointed out, that every one, irrespective of vital differences, should have the same rights. Have we, then, the indications of mental inferiority in woman? I must here enter a protest against the trick of certain Feminists in attempting to belittle the difference between men as a sex-class and women as a sex-class. The immense difference (I do not say, mind, inferiority) between the mind of woman and the mind of man is patent and obvious to all who have no interest in denying it. An attempt to ignore this self-evident fact – a fact open to the observation of everyone – seems to me waste of time to discuss. Deny the inferiority if you will, but do not deny the difference. Talk about there being no greater difference between the sexes than between one man and another and one woman and another, we can hardly regard as seriously meant.

References to the comparatively slight distinction between the sexes in animals does not affect the question. It would seem that the sex-distinction in man approaches the relative magnitude of the specific or variational distinction in the lower animals. Möbius explains this greater differentiation of the sexes in the human species than in animals by the long period of helplessness in the human offspring. Whether this is so or not I am not prepared to say. The point really at issue is, I take it: Does this distinction involve either general inferiority or inferiority in certain directions? Both those points I think must be answered in the affirmative. Of course, I cannot here argue the case in detail. The main line of proof for the general inferiority of women is given at length in the introduction to the well known work of Lombroso and Ferrero on the Female Criminal. To take the physical indications of inferiority first. I will not dwell upon the inferiority as regards size and development of physique generally, though this might also have its significance, but would point out that according to the researches of Bischoff and Rüdinger not merely is the female brain absolutely smaller than that of the man, but relatively smaller allowing for the difference of size in the organism. Rüdinger has dealt with the matter, and gives a series of plates and tables showing from a large number of instances that the important parts of the brain are themselves relatively smaller; and not only so, but what perhaps is more important, that the convolutions even in the new-born child are much simpler and cruder in the female than in the male. The differences are vastly accentuated in the adult, the formation of important parts of the brain presenting quite a different appearance in this respect between the sexes, approaching, as regards proportions, in the female to the pre-human type. The inferior sensibility to pain discovered by Lombroso in women is a well-known fact. The special character of the female sexual system and its functions by the amount of vital energy they absorb would, apart from anything else, naturally lead us to expect an inferior development. The same conclusion is pointed to by the earlier ripeness of the human female organism.

Now, let us look at another group of facts not referring directly to the structure of the female sex, but to its intellectual functioning. Where and when throughout history can we discern in any branch of original thought or imagination or emotional activity, women that have achieved anything noteworthy – in science, in philosophy, in political practice, in invention, in the fine arts (painting, poetry, music)? The few exceptions in one or two of these departments in which women have approached the achievements of third-rate men, only suffice to prove the rule. Now, how do you explain this? Oh, it is said, women have been repressed, and have had no opportunity of showing their latent capacities! But it is forgotten that they have by no means been discouraged in all departments; on the contrary, rather the reverse in the fine arts and certain lines of literature. Furthermore, male genius has shown itself, where it existed, in the teeth of the most adverse circumstances. “Ah, but,” it will be replied, “how many among men are not geniuses, and yet you don’t deny them the franchise on the ground of inferiority on that account!” This is to mistake the argument, which is only designed as a test. From the heights of the summits one may gauge that of the table-land beneath them. If one order of human beings produces a continuous crop of geniuses in every – the most divergent – departments, and another order does not, we may fairly conclude that the average of the order that produces few or no geniuses is also, as an average, inferior to the order that produces many. Again, as regards the undoubtedly considerable memory capacity of women when specially cultivated, a capacity which enables them to compete with men in cram-examinations, Möbius (Die Physiologische Schwachsinn des Weibes) points out that even this form of intellectual power is rapidly lost in women, especially after a few years of married life. He observes the same in every other form of mental activity in the case of women. However brilliant in the girl, it has no durability. These things, however, I admit, though undoubtedly indicating inferiority, might not be taken as sufficient to exclude women from public functions.

We will, therefore, pass on to a more serious form of inferiority. I refer to the special tendency of women to hysteria. In common language, the word hysteria (hysterical, &c.) is often used to designate any form of mental excitement or strong emotion. This, of course, is a misuse of words. I have heard it said that men “get hysterical” over political issues, over Parliamentary candidatures in this country, Presidential elections in the United States, &c. Such talk, however, is merely synonymous with saying that they get excited, but mere excitement of the passions or emotions does not necessarily imply hysteria. [1] The symptoms of true hysteria, in women, the exaggeration of trifles into issues of absorbing importance, the flushing, the stertorous breathing, &c., are familiar to common observation, and may be found detailed in any medical treatise on the subject. Now this form of nervous and mental disturbance, is, I submit, almost wholly confined to women. It is not to be denied, of course, that men, or rather boys, occasionally exhibit hysterical symptoms of the genuine type. But these cases are always comparatively rare. With women, on the contrary, hysteria is the commonest disorder. It varies, of course, enormously in degree, from being a mere tendency exhibiting itself in slight and unimportant nervous symptoms to cases in which it becomes positive insanity and even acute mania. It has been calculated, I believe, that at the lowest estimate one woman out of every four or five is more or less subject to hysteria in one or other of its forms. The Government report, published in Germany in 1902, on the employment of women in post offices and other public departments, shows how heavily this form of nervous and mental disease handicaps women in the exercise of very simple administrative duties in that country. I am not aware whether a similar report on the subject has been issued in Great Britain. The very word hysteria, from [ύζτερα] (womb), is a proof that the disease has been from time immemorial associated with the female sex; and this is none the less significant, whether or no we accept the opinion that the womb itself has an exclusive connection with it. Hysteria, then, being a form of mental disturbance especially affecting women, and by no means to be confounded with mere emotional excitement, which may exist and proceed from a variety of causes equally in both sexes, surely it would be advisable for those impartial male persons who clamour for the admission of women to all political functions to suspend their enthusiasm at least until they have looked this subject up in recent medical treatises.

Scarcely less important is the characteristic in women often remarked upon, namely, the curious absence so frequently seen of a sense of justice, as such. [2] This, which so often vitiates their moral character (using the phrase in its true and widest sense), is, I think, itself deducible from their inability to appreciate abstract considerations generally, or, indeed, to interest themselves in any subject which does not centre in an individual. They care, not for principles, but for persons; they hate and love, not causes, but men. That, under certain circumstances, a defective moral sense is very liable to be engendered by this tendency, is obvious – for the simple reason that a moral principle is a universal and abstract rule and no respecter of persons.

In concluding this portion of the subject, I will call attention to one singular inconsistency in Feminists. The physical weakness of woman is commonly held a sufficient ground for the possession of certain privileges and exemptions, but the mental weakness of woman, which may or may not exist, but of which there is at least prima facie evidence, is held to be no valid ground for denying her access to functions involving grave responsibilities. Now this is an instance of the strange perversity which feminist sentimentalism engenders. (When I use the word sentimentalism, I must remind you, I intend not as most people do, to denote an excess of sentiment beyond what I like myself, but a one-sided sentiment whatever its amount may be.) The Feminist cannot see that granted that he admits the first he is ethico-logically bound to admit the second. However, I know there are some who are prepared to adopt a logical attitude. A dear friend of mine, one of the most prominent English Socialists, observed to me recently that while he was absolutely convinced of the physical, intellectual, and moral inferiority of woman to man he was nevertheless in favour not only of political but of all other equality between the sexes, which for that reason he thought would do no harm. I am afraid we cannot all be quite so sanguine on this head. However, this is at least a consistent point of view.

And now let us deal with our last heading for discussion, which turns mainly upon this last point. I have sketched out very briefly a few of the grounds which might lead us to think that the organic difference between man and woman is of a very deep lying character and does involve the mental inferiority of the female sex, of a kind and degree justifying exclusion from political functions.

This, however, is a matter difficult to prove to everybody’s satisfaction. Let us, then, for the sake of argument, concede the point of intrinsic unsuitability, and enquire whether, even though a case were not made out on this ground justifying exclusion from the franchise, there might yet be other grounds which, at the present time at least, would render the concession of political functions to women unjust or undesirable.

In the Legal Subjection of Men (Twentieth Century Press, 1896) the privileges of women over men in the matter of law and its administration in this country will be found described in detail. These inequalities exist. But that is not all. Feminists only claim equality with men in so far as it has agreeable consequences for women. And this applies all along the line. Did you ever hear of “advanced” women clamouring for equality in the matter of military service or even for the right to become police constables? One often hears the Feminists’ wail over the economic inequality between men and women. They claim, and justly claim, equal wages for equal work, no preference to men over women. With this we are all agreed. But have you ever heard of a Feminist demanding equal penalty for equal crime? Because I never have. Oh, no! Here comes in the “poor weak woman” whine. The muscular weakness of women (in spite of, as is admitted, a greater constitutional vigour than in man) is held to be sufficient to relieve the woman of the larger part of the responsibility for her actions in so far as criminal law is concerned, and yet no protest against injustice is made by those whose voice is so loud otherwise in denouncing sex-inequality. As Mr. Collinson, of the Humanitarian League, has pointed out, one great difficulty in getting rid of brutality in punishments is the one-sided sexual nature of such brutality, viz., that it affects the male sex only.

The Feminists, in their eagerness to admit muscular inferiority in women, with a view to justifying sex-privilege before the law, forget that they are giving away part of their own case. The inferiority in the matter of muscular strength of the female sex, if it be conceded, must imply a strong presumption of mental inferiority. Oh! exclaims someone, physical and mental strength are seldom united in the same individual. Quite right, I answer. This holds between individuals of the same sex but not between one sex and another, and for the following reason. The sex-class Man, say, possesses a certain measure of inherent vital force (if you like), a certain average of potential; as energy, capacity, or power. This power may realise itself in any given individual as physical at the expense of mental, or as mental at the expense of physical, but, over the whole range of the male sex both balance one another. If, however, you admit in the case of women a consistent average inferiority in power over the whole sex, on one side of its manifestation, viz., the physical, the presumption is obviously strong that this expresses an inferiority in the total sex-capacity, mental as well as physical. The argument from the individual member of a class cannot be applied to the class as such, any more than the single instance can subvert the rule. For the above reasons I would advise woman’s-righters to choose the one side or the other. If they stick to the weakness of woman physically as ground for woman’s privileges and immunities, let them give up prating of equality otherwise. If they contend for equality let it at least be an even equality all round.

We come now to a last and very important fact, and that is that if we take our stand on universal adult suffrage, there being a vast majority of women in the population, we are simply handing over the whole administration of affairs to the female sex. At any time if the female sex chooses to vote solid it can upset the entire male vote. Now, I ask, are you prepared for this? And I think I need hardly say more on this point.

The conclusion I draw from the above facts alone, and apart from all other considerations, such as those previously indicated, is, that setting aside the question of the intrinsic suitability or unsuitability of the female sex for the exercise of political functions it is at least not just or equitable that women should exercise such functions – even the suffrage – (1) So long as women possess sex privileges as against men, or so long as they are not prepared to accept the whole duties and responsibilities of life in an equal degree with men; (2) That it is undesirable they should be given the franchise at all so long as the acquirement of the vote by women would possibly mean the political subjection of man, owing to the excess of the female population. I contend that so long as women have special privileges at criminal law, special favouritism at civil law, special exemption from military service, the right of maintenance, when married, by the husband, &c., it is neither just nor expedient that they should, in addition, by the concession of the franchise, be placed in a position to dominate men politically by sheer weight of numbers.


E. Belfort Bax


1. The mere shedding of tears per se, an ebullition of temper, a display of enthusiasm, however unusual in intensity, a wave of emotional sentiment (started, as so often happens, by collective suggestion), a one-sided or even “cranky” insistence upon a particular aim; all these things have usually no connection what ever with the special pathological condition termed hysteria. Excitement is only one symptom of hysteria. As well say that every person with a flushed face is suffering from scarlet fever as that every person who gets excited is therefore hysterical. Of course, as we all know, all the above symptoms are commonly stigmatised as “hysterical,” which in such cases is merely a term of abuse by those who are annoyed by them. Where there is any approximatively or even conceivably adequate external cause for the display of an emotion, recourse to a pathological explanation is unwarranted and gratuitous. Besides, there are many pathological mental conditions other than hysteria. If I am not mistaken, Hippocrates was the first medical authority to whom a description of true hysteria was attributed, and which is, I believe, surprisingly accurate even when compared with present-day manifestations of the malady.

2. Of course, on saying this, one is fairly bombarded with irrelevant insistence on the fact that men can act unjustly, a proposition which, of course, no one denies. The point here is that women, as a rule, cannot even understand the principle of justice as such, or irrespective of their liking or disliking for individuals concerned in a particular application of it. Many men are sometimes swayed by personal prejudice, but women seem almost invariably to be so.


Last updated on 14.1.2006