Dora B. Montefiore April 1909

“Why I am Opposed to Female Suffrage”

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XIII No. 4 April 15, 1909, pp. 150-155;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Under this title Mr. Belfort Bax has an article in the March number of the “Social-Democrat.” As my hands are more than full just now with daily active work for the cause of Adult Suffrage, I do not know that, under the circumstances, I should have troubled to read the article in question, but the editor of the “Social-Democrat” was good enough to send it to me in galley proof asking me to write a reply, so I propose to jot down replies to one or two points raised. For the rest, the whole question of the position of women in the Socialist movement, including, of course, their political enfranchisment, is treated in a pamphlet I have just written for the use of the Women’s Circles of the S.D.P., in which pamphlet I reply more at length to Mr. Bax’s oft-repeated staccato shriek of “women being, as a sex, organically inferior to men.” He now states in the present article that the reason the majority of men do not join him in this shriek is, “that their conviction is a secret conviction,” that many men have “the unconscious desire to avoid stating the real ground of their opposition to female suffrage,” and adds: “Some, if hard pressed, will try to shuffle out of admitting it, perhaps even to themselves.” Others, according to Mr. Bax, “do not wish to appear rude and arrogant to the ladies.” Now, these various classes of men known to Mr. Bax, and who, no doubt, have confided to him their secret hopes and fears, have the sincere sympathy of Socialist women like myself, because they must, at the present time, feel themselves but strangers and pilgrims in a froward and naughty world, which insists on taking for granted, both in scientific works, on the platform, in the pulpit, and in the press, women’s human claims to equality with men, irrespective of their sex functions. Mr. Bax does not say if these timid friends of his are Socialists, or whether they belong to the ranks of the titled and distinguished personages in the Anti-Suffrage Organisation, of which he is such a bright and particular, star. I take it for granted that they are not Socialists; because, as he himself admits, “the feminist dogma,” having found much favour with Socialists everywhere, officially the demand for feminine suffrage has been embodied among the planks in the immediate political platform of the Socialist Party. As it is only, therefore, with Socialists that I have to deal, the few remarks that I have to make in my reply to Mr. Bax will be made from the Socialist standpoint, and will be addressed to Socialists alone. What, it appears to me, differentiates the Socialist interpretation of social conditions from that of the two orthodox political parties is that Socialism considers the woman first as a human being, and only secondarily as a creature of sex; that is to say, that as a human being her first natural instinct and function is nutrition, or the obtaining for herself of food, clothing and shelter. Her second instinct and function is reproduction. It is not, therefore, as a “feminist dogma” that the woman question has taken its right place in the Socialist demand, but as a “human dogma,” and as part of a great evolutionary demand for the social, economic and political freedom of every human being.

Mr. H.G. Wells, in his book, “First and Last Things,” writes: “One of the most important and debatable of these ideas is, whether we are to consider and treat women as citizens and fellows, or as beings differing mentally from men, and grouped in positions of at least material dependence to individual men. Our decision in that direction will affect all our conduct from the large matters down to the smallest points of deportment; it will affect even our manner of address, and determine whether, when we speak to a woman, we shall be as frank and unaffected as with a man, or touched with a faint suggestion of the reserves of a cat, which does not wish to be suspected of waiting to steal the milk.” That, it seems to me, expresses the difference of view and conduct between a Socialist, who, because of his Socialist interpretation, looks upon women as first of all human beings, and therefore entitled as such to every opportunity of equality, and of those Anti-Socialists, who, being still obsessed by ideas of personal property, consider women as in the first place creatures of sex, which sex is part of that property. Mr. Belfort Bax gives as his supreme reason why women should not be admitted to political equality with men that, in England at least, “women at present constitute an almost boundlessly privileged section of the community.” Would he have thought so, one is tempted to speculate, if he had been in the place of the elderly woman who, having married an Englishman and brought up a family of English children, and then on the death of her husband, having married a man of German nationality, when she applied for her old age pension was told she was not entitled to it, because she was not a British subject? If she applied in Germany, she certainly would fail to get a pension there; but if the case had been reversed, and an English widower had married a German woman, he would certainly have not forfeited his English pension. Yet English women, according to Mr. Bax, are “boundlessly privileged.” Then, as regards the law passed a few years ago for the feeding by the Poor Law authorities of necessitous children living “with their father.” That being the wording of the law, the children of widows, of deserted wives, of wives whose husbands are in prison, or in hospital, are not entitled to be fed. The feelings of these mothers who often work at 2d. an hour, and for 18 hours out of the 24, cannot perhaps be realised by Mr. Bax, whose eye is filled with the “boundless privileges” of the women of England. Under the Unemployed Workmen Act no married woman whose husband has registered at the Distress Committee can also register; so that, though such a woman is ready and willing to work, she has no means of bringing her claims before the public; again, out of the many thousand women who have registered for work on the Distress Committee, only two or three hundred in London have been given work; yet English women are “boundlessly privileged.”

Mr. Bax makes the assertion that “No feminist has the smallest intention of abandoning any one of the existing privileges of women.” If, by this, he means privileges before the law, I traverse his assertion; for if by “feminists” he means those Socialists who are working for the social, economic and political equality of men and women I can assure him they ask for no privilege, only strict equality. This, they are quite aware, can never be obtained under the tortuous and overwhelming mass of English common law. Such a patched, bedraggled, mouldy and evil-smelling garment can never be repaired; it must be cast on one side, and its place must be taken by the new and purer texture of social revolution.

Mrs. Lida Parce, of the University of Chicago, writes: “Two things are essential to this revolution: The socialisation of industry, which will give woman a free chance to work in a social capacity, and the ballot, which will enable her to remove those special and artificial disabilities which have been placed upon her by male legislation.” A fair field and no favour, that is, in effect, what Socialist women are demanding in every country of the world: and when that is understood, I do not think it will be necessary to carry out Mr. Bax’s suggestion to myself and to my “feminist friends,” to move that a special note be appended explaining that the terms connoting “equality” in the S.D.P. programme are to be taken as “words of limitation.” Such an explanation is not necessary among comrades, though it might be possible among the angel men and the brute women of patriarchal times. One word in conclusion. Misstatements of facts never help to strengthen a case; and, as one of those who went to prison for speaking in the Lobby of the House of Commons, I must protest against the statement in Mr. Bax’s article that our imprisonment (for there were ten women suffragists in at the same time as myself) was pampered, “with all sorts of privileges thrown in, such as hot water to wash in, and easy chairs.” We underwent the same regime as do the drunkards, thieves and prostitutes, who are swept up daily from the London Police Courts in “Black Maria,” without, as far as I know, having enjoyed a single privilege. The furnishing of our cells was a plank bed, 2 ft. wide, a mattress made of cocoa-nut fibre, and two thin blankets; the stool had no back to it, the utensils were made of tin, and the daily work of keeping them bright occupied several hours. At six o’clock in the morning, when the cell door was thrown open, we had to get our supply of cold water for the day. If we were ill during the day, as I was before leaving the prison, we had to lie on the cement floor of the cell, as neither the plank bed nor the mattress were allowed to be taken down during the daytime. Our clothes were the ordinary half-cleansed prison garments of the unfortunate class of women to whom I have already alluded. Our food was exactly the same as theirs; our treatment by the wardresses and officials, accustomed to deal with these derelicts of Society, would, I believe, have thoroughly satisfied Mr. Belfort Bax that in our case at least we were not pampered. When I have since been asked at meetings by men comrades if I do not advise the unemployed and their leaders to follow the tactics of the Suffragists and risk arrest and imprisonment, in order to bring their sufferings before the public, I have always replied to the same effect, “I cannot advise men to follow our example, because there is one phase of imprisonment for men which is more degrading than imprisonment for women. Men, when in prison, may be flogged for a breach of prison discipline, women can only have dark cells and bread and water.” As flogging is an outrage to the dignity of humanity, I will never be a party to advising men agitators to risk going to prison. A breach of prison discipline may be something as trivial as not cleaning your utensils to the satisfaction of the warder or wardress, or it may be placing your “books of devotion” on that part of the shelf where your tin mug should stand; it is very easy, therefore, for an ill-disposed prison attendant to get up a case of a breach of prison discipline; and a man who went to prison for an ideal might leave prison tingling with rage and embittered for life by the fact that his dignity as a human being had been outraged. One of the first pieces of work for men and women Socialists, I hold, is to do away with flogging in prison for men, and with imprisonment in dark cells in irons for both men and women.

Dora B. Montefiore