Harry Quelch 1910

Social-Democracy and Ladies’ Suffrage

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XIV, No. 7, July 15, 1910, pp. 291-294;
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The formulation of the demands of the Suffragettes in a Bill introduced on June 14 last by Mr. David Shackleton, and for which the Government have promised the opportunity for a second reading before the end of the present Session, affords occasion for a restatement of the Social-Democratic position on this question.

Let me say at the outset that I entirely accept, endorse, and support the whole programme of the Social-Democratic Party, including “the establishment of social and economic equality between the sexes,” and have always, consistently and persistently, advocated Adult Suffrage — a vote for every man and woman on every possible occasion.

It is necessary to say this because, having actively opposed the unjust proposals of the Suffragettes, to create another privileged class of voters, I have been misrepresented by them as being opposed to the extension of the suffrage to women altogether.

So far from that being the case, I have always held it to be a fundamental principle of democracy that every man and woman who is subject to the law should have an equal voice in making the law. But that does not make me any the more favourably inclined towards a measure which will give votes to some women, and those the most advantageously situated and the most privileged of their sex, while leaving the majority of women unenfranchised. On the contrary, it only makes me more hostile to any such proposal; which, to my view, is distinctly anti-democratic and reactionary. I believe that every woman should have a vote; but if any discrimination is to be made, it should be in favour of the women who have neither privilege nor property; not against them, and in favour of those who have both.

As a case in point; some time ago there was a proposal to enfranchise Peers. I was astounded when a well-known leader of the Labour Party announced his intention of voting for it; on the ground that, as he was in favour of Adult Suffrage, any measure which gave votes to any section of the community at present outside the suffrage should have his support. It seemed to me, on the contrary, that it was his duty to vigorously oppose any further extension of the power of politically privileged peers, until the franchise was extended to every workman, entirely independent of any property qualification, and on the basis of simple citizenship.

This attitude has been described as that of the dog-in-the-manger; as that of one who, because he cannot get all he wants, will not take the part which is offered. It seems to me, on the contrary, the position of one who, being refused the food he asks for, declines to swallow the poison which is offered him in lieu thereof. When at the Labour Party Conference at Hull I successfully opposed the “Limited” Suffrage proposal, and carried an Adult Suffrage amendment against it, Mr. Victor Grayson suggested that I was like a hungry man who, because he couldn’t get a six-course dinner, refused a crust of bread and cheese. My answer to that was, and is, that the proposal is to give the bread and cheese to the person who already has the six-course dinner.

In the January number of the “Social-Democrat” Mr. H. L. Woods argued that woman suffrage is not a sex question. But the Suffragettes base their demand entirely on the ground of sex. They contend that, possessing every qualification — especially that of property — which should entitle them to the franchise, they are debarred solely and exclusively on account of their sex. By raising this issue they at once provoke the question whether, as a sex, women suffer from organic disabilities, or enjoy privileges which properly debar them from the exercise of the Parliamentary franchise. This at once raises the whole question of sex differentiation; which is not social — and, therefore, superficial and conditional — as is class differentiation; but is physiological, fundamental, and ineradicable.

I think the case for women’s suffrage rests on much stronger ground than this very debatable one of sex-equality; that of personal responsibility. Whatever may be the differences — inferiority or superiority — between men and women, there is the personal responsibility of the woman as well as of the man before the law, which should entitle the one to political equality with the other.

To me, therefore, as a Social-Democrat, any question of the extension of the franchise must be regarded from the point of view, not of sex, but of class. Every vote given to the plutocratic or aristocratic class is a vote taken from the working-class. Every vote given to a plutocrat — male or female — or to a peer or peeress, cancels the vote of some proletarian and increases the political power of the bourgeoisie exactly to the extent that it diminishes that of the proletariat.

I have been accused in this connection of “letting class-prejudice blind my eyes to justice.” I should hope that is not the case. But it must be borne in mind that we, as Social-Democrats, are engaged in a class struggle, the object of which is the realisation of justice for those who, to-day, are suffering from class injustice and struggling against class privilege. Is it any part of our duty to strengthen the forces arrayed against us, and to put arms in their hands? Should we not rather strive to keep them disarmed, at least until we have secured arms for the disinherited class?

The “great divide” in society, the social cleavage, the social antagonism, is not between men and women but between classes; it is not sexual, not physiological, but economic. It is not a sex rivalry, but an antagonism of class interests. The interests which middle and upper class women are concerned to serve by political action are not those of working-class women, but those of the men of their own class. The interests of working-class women are those of their own fathers, brothers, husbands; not those of the plutocratic and aristocratic women, who exploit them.

In the economic struggle the women of the working class have to suffer side by side with the men of the working class. In a strike or lock-out the women are frequently the worst sufferers. How idle, then, to pretend that they can have any political solidarity with the women of the class against whom, in the strike or lock-out, their men are fighting!

On the other hand, the interests of the women of the master class are identical with those of the men of that class. Their social privileges; their luxuries; their fine dresses; their magnificent equipages; their stately homes; their sumptuous surroundings; their jewels and ornaments; the silks and satins, the purple and fine linen in which they clothe themselves, are all purchased out of the surplus value screwed out of the unpaid labour of the working class — men and women. In a strike or lock-out, therefore, their interests lie in defeating the workers, and it is idle to suppose that they would use their votes against their own class, any more than they now use the immense wealth and influence they already possess against that class.

I do not deny that there are some women of the bourgeoisie — just as there are some men — who sincerely desire the well-being, and even the emancipation of the working class. But these are the exceptions which prove the rule. There are, without a doubt, some of such women in the Suffragette movement. That fact, however, does not alter the character of that movement, and these women are doing an infinity of injury to the cause they sincerely desire to serve. The Suffragette movement, as a whole, is anti-proletarian, anti-Socialist and anti-democratic. It would be like looking for grapes from thorns and figs from thistles to suppose it to be any other. We hear of one woman with an income of eight thousand a year devoting four thousand each year to this Suffragette agitation. Is it reasonable to suppose she would do that if she supposed it was in the interest of the “lower orders,” the working class? At a recent meeting the sum of 5,000 was collected, including single sums of 1,000. A little while ago I attended quite a small Suffragette meeting at which 600 was collected. Can anybody recall any Socialist meeting — or any other held to directly promote the interests of the working-class — where anything like these sums have been subscribed? Certainly not. It should be only necessary to call attention to these facts in order to show the essentially bourgeois character of the whole movement.

But, I am reminded, quite a number of working-class women of all grades are taking part in this agitation, and were represented in the great demonstration on June 18. That is quite true; more’s the pity; and more shame to those who are thus exploiting and making cats-paws of them. I have seen nothing more pathetic than this demonstration of misplaced confidence on the part of working women, unless it has been the sight of working men tramping to vote for their Liberal or Tory masters, or other working men going, with downcast faces, to blackleg their fellows in strike. The working women who are supporting this agitation are being as cruelly and wickedly imposed upon as were the working men who fought for the bourgeois Reform Bill of 1832.

There are two points of view from which franchise reform may be regarded — one the static, or conservative; the other the dynamic, or revolutionary. The first regards society as finished and stable; consisting of various classes, each of which has a right to representation in legislative and administrative bodies merely by virtue of the fact that it is a constituent part of existing society. From the other point of view, the suffrage is not merely a question of the representation of all existing classes, but is, and primarily, a weapon in the struggle — to be used by one class for, by the other against, its social and economic, emancipation. This latter is the Social-Democratic standpoint. With us the Parliamentary franchise is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end. From that standpoint the Suffragette movement cannot be supported, because it means strengthening the forces against us. But neither can that movement be supported from the other standpoint, which regards adequate representation of all classes in a static society as a mere measure of justice. The “Limited” Bill would only increase the privileges of the privileged, and therefore stands condemned even from that, the most conservative standpoint. It is neither an instrument for progress, nor a measure of abstract justice; it would only intensify existing inequalities.