Dora B. Montefiore 1917

Adult Suffrage

Source: The Call, 3 May 1917, p. 5
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

IN the “Times” of March 3rd, Mrs. Fawcett, the leader of those who demand a limited franchise for women, boasts that she has received by post a notice from, Sir West Ridgeway of his conversion to a limited form of woman suffrage, and stating that Mrs. Fawcett and her supporters might count on his assistance in carrying any well-devised scheme for extending, the suffrage to women who have reached years of discretion. Sir John Simon is reported in the “Times” of March 5th, as having said at a Suffrage Demonstration in Manchester that “it would be an intolerable wrong for men to endeavour to remedy the grievances they suffered under our imperfect franchise, unless they also opened the gate to women. . After the long night of agony we should turn to the mother and .the wife, to the bereaved mother and the widow, and appeal to them to join hands with us in making this country a place worthy of those who had died to save it.” The recent Commission on Electoral Reform recommended practical Manhood Suffrage on a six months’ register, and the political enfranchisement of women who already exercise the Local Government franchise (which is based on a property qualification) and who are over 35 years of age.

I have grouped together these three kind and patronising expressions of opinion as to the terms on which women should be enfranchised, because, for us Adult Suffragists, they are pregnant with the intentions with which men and women of the governing classes are inspired at this crisis in the suffrage demand. Propertied women, old women, broken women, women whose outlook on life has been narrowed down by carping domestic cares, by vicissitudes and losses, and who perhaps eke out a living in a ten-pound-a-year cottage by taking in lodgers or boarders, these are the women who are to be trusted to have a share in the government of the country. Any one who has ever had the misfortune to canvass a street or a district for a Local Government election will know the heartbreaking material from an intellectual point of view - that forms the voting strength of this brick-and-mortar qualification! These are the selected females whom Sir West Ridgeway no doubt considers have reached years of discretion. There is something sinister also in Sir John Simon’s rhetoric about the “bereaved mothers and the widows” who are to join hands “with us.” The “us” presumably being all men over 21 years of age, and also presumably, having attained, at 21 years of discretion.

So much for what the men are doing and saying in the matter. Now, let us, turn to what the Women organised for years to obtain the vote on the same terms as it is, or may be, granted to men are saying and doing, and we shall then have before us the measure of the betrayal of women which is contemplated in this country by all but Adult Suffragists. The leaders of twenty-seven Suffrage Societies (amongst whom I regret to see the name of Mrs. Despard signing for the Women’s Freedom League and EE. Smith for the Women’s Fabian Group) have sent up a resolution to Mr. Bonar Law to the effect: “That we, representing the undersigned Societies, recognising that a Bill based on the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference will confer the suffrage upon women, though not upon the terms for which we stand, urge the Government to introduce such a Bill without delay, provided that it contains as an integral part provisions for the enfranchisement of women.” The Societies who have sent in this resolution to the late leader of the Conservative Party, know that the proposed Electoral Bill demands practically Manhood Suffrage; they know that by the terms of their own constitutions (under which terms they have collected the funds for the continuation of their fight) they are bound to demand womanhood suffrage as the corollary of manhood suffrage, and yet they throw all principles to the wind, and acknowledge they will be content, as far as women are concerned, with the Local Government Register, and an age limit of 35.

This, of course, is carrying out the spirit and aspiration of the Conservative women in the movement, who, as we of the, Adult Suffrage Society always pointed out, desired the passing of a limited measure, in order to put a stop to the more democratic demand. Lady Frances Balfour one of the present signatories to the above quoted resolution) admitted this point when she said, in interview: “We want a limited Bill to pass, in order to keep back Adult Suffrage.” Mrs. Fawcett also, when she received from Mr. Lloyd George the reply that the only measure the late government could support would be a measure of Adult Suffrage, replied: “But some of us do not want Adult Suffrage.”

What I want to emphasize is that unless Socialists and other Adult Suffragists are alive to what is going on and are prepared to declare war on these ladies who are so eager to betray the interests of working women, we shall have Woman Suffrage measure in its very worst form placed on the Statute Book, and what should have been a broadening out of liberties will become a reactionary and treacherous betrayal. If the young men of the country are to be rewarded for their sacrifices in that country’s defence, then, by all the rules of the game, the young women, who have done their share towards defence, should also receive their political reward. Personally, I have never held that war services are of greater value than are peace services; and women long before this disastrous war was declared, were unobtrusively but thoroughly doing their duty to their country in every branch of industry, and agriculture in which they were allowed to take part. The war has revolutionised all social and economic conditions, in many cases much to the physical detriment of women of child-hearing age, but women are still in many cases insufficiently remunerated for work done, and a Government which pays some women eight shillings a week in munition works is one of the worst offenders.

When Sir West Ridgeway writes about enfranchising women who have reached years of discretion, we women would ask him, “What about the years of discretion of the men of the governing classes, who expect extra food to be grown, but who remove for military purposes the men who from boyhood have ploughed and sowed the ground? What about the years of discretion of those who put our shepherds into khaki, so that farmers are forced to send to the slaughter-yard the ewes in lamb, as they have no skilled labour to tend their sheep in the lambing season?” Instances of the mischievous ignorance and callousness of the military caste which is now governing and administering the affairs of our land could be multiplied a thousandfold, and we Adult Suffragists, who demand political enfranchisement for all men and women fail to admire the wisdom of the men legislators who have passed the magic milestone of 35, and who presumably therefore, have attained years of discretion.

And what of Mr. Lloyd George, who has publicly stated that an Adult Suffrage measure was the only measure he would support? Recently he sent to America on the occasion of the anniversary of President Lincoln an eloquent appreciation of that great statesman, and quoted extensively from Lincoln’s words of wisdom. Here are two other quotations from Lincoln which are of equal value and which support our Adult Suffrage attitude that Labour, the labour of men and women, and not vested interests in bricks and mortar, should be fully represented at the polls. On July 1st, 1854, Lincoln said: “No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which, if surrendered, will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them until all of liberty shall be lost. The struggle of to-day is not altogether for to-day; it is for the vast future also.” And on December 30th, 1861, he said in his annual message to Congress: “Labour is prior to and independent of capital; capital is only the fruits of labour and could never have existed if labour had not first existed. Labour is superior to capital and deserves the higher consideration.”

If the Labour Party in Great Britain stands by its principles in the present electoral juncture it will insist that the bases of the franchise shall be so democratically enlarged that no further bolstering up of the interests of capital through fancy franchises and property qualifications shall be possible. Let us Adult Suffragists build now, not for today but for “the vast future also”.