Keir Hardie July 1905

Social-Democrats and the Suffrage

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. X No. 7, July, 1905, pp. 378-380, from Socialistiche Monats-Hefte;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Keir Hardie has an article in the latest number of the “Socialistische Monats-Hefte,” which, as a strange misrepresentation of our attitude to the “Votes for Women” movement, may be of interest to our readers. For that reason we reproduce it here:

To us English people there is nothing new in the Women’s Suffrage movement being persistently represented in a false light by the leaders of the Social-Democratic Party, as well as many other persons. They speak and write exactly as if those amongst us, who support the demands of the women for the immediate granting of the franchise, were opposed to Universal Adult Suffrage, or, at any rate, were endeavouring to defer its introduction. Both assertions are untrue. I will here explain why I and a great majority of the Labour Party are for the immediate granting of the franchise to women on the same conditions as it is at present held, or may in the future be held, by men.

To-day no woman can vote in a Parliamentary election. She may possess all the necessary qualifications which would entitle a man to vote; solely and simply by her sex is she excluded from the exercise of the franchise. It is this sex disqualification which we are directing our efforts to clear out of the way. Once that is done, each further extension of the franchise in the future will equally apply to both men and women. If that is not done there is always the danger that women will have the same experience as in the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, and will remain ignored in any fresh extension of the suffrage.

The opponents of the Women’s Suffrage movement, in order to stir up opinion against it, now declare that an extension of the franchise to women on the same terms as the existing law will only benefit propertied women. That is a complete, and probably wilful, misrepresentation of the facts, as a simple examination shows. At present any man may have the vote who owns a house or rents a dwelling for which not less than 4s. a week rent is paid, and also any male employees or servants who occupy a house or dwelling for which they do not pay rent directly, but the rent of which is reckoned as part of their salaries. At the present moment there is a case pending before the High Court with the object of deciding the disputed point as to what shall be understood to constitute a house in this connection. In many parts of England a single building is divided into dwellings of one or two rooms each. There may be six or eight such dwellings in one house, having a single common entrance from the street. But each occupier will have a key to his own dwelling as well as a key of the street door. Such a room or rooms is regarded as a dwelling-house in the sense in which the term is used in the Electoral Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884. From that it follows, therefore, that each occupier of such separate dwelling is thereby qualified to vote. If this kind of franchise were now extended to women, a married woman, who possessed no property qualification, would not be entitled to the suffrage, but a married woman who had such qualification would be able to vote. It is on that ground that the opponents of the Women’s Suffrage movement base their contentions that only propertied women would be able to vote. They, therefore, carefully ignore the fact that for every propertied woman who in this way would acquire the franchise, no fewer than 20 working women would gain the same right. Every widow who owned a small house and has had no poor law relief, every married woman who occupied a separate dwelling, would be enfranchised, as would also every woman lodger paying a net rent of 4s. a week. Two years ago I spent some time in ascertaining the number of working women who would be enfranchised under the present suffrage. The Independent Labour Party, who from the outset have supported the demands of the women in this matter of the franchise, instituted a census in various parts of the country. It is on the information thus obtained and my own general knowledge of the working-class districts that I base the estimate I have given. Although, therefore, the granting of the franchise to women on the same terms as it is now possessed by men would enfranchise 20 working women for every propertied woman who would get the vote, the Social-Democratic Party not only intervenes as the opponent of this reform, but also, in the name of democracy, spreads abroad in England and foreign countries entirely misleading statements. Happily, in this instance, as so often in other cases, it is only a negligible quantity.

The Women’s Suffrage movement has caught hold of the popular imagination in Great Britain in a way that no other movement has done in the last half century. Its influence already shows itself distinctly in the elections. Wherever the Women Suffragist speakers appear, such meetings assemble as no other party or movement can get together. Before this Parliament comes to an end an attempt is to be made to simplify the present system of registration, and then the Labour Party will strenuously fight for Adult Suffrage. But we do not conceal from ourselves the fact that our task will be rendered considerably easier if, in the meantime, we have got rid of the sex disqualification, which alone excludes women from equal political rights with men.

The leaders of the militant section of the women’s movement are all Socialists, and have, most of them, been Socialists for many years. This fact alone should have secured for the demand of the women suffragists the sympathetic support of the Social-Democratic Party. It appears to me, however, that most of the opponents of the immediate extension of the franchise to women are influenced by the sex sentiment, the most prominent representative of which in this country is Mr. Belfort Bax. However that may be, the opposition to the suffrage campaign of the women, and especially to their methods, by trying to discredit these, is unworthy of the Socialist movement, and, I repeat, will be ineffectual against the rising tide which will bring women the franchise.