Thursday, 21 March 2013

The anti suffrage argument: A changing picture

I gave a tour of the People’s History Museum (PHM) last Friday as part of Wonder Women: Radical Manchester; a series of events that explores and commemorates women’s history (or herstory). One of the most interesting things about the objects we looked at during the tour, was how they show a change in the argument about why women should not have the vote. For instance in George Cruickshank’s 1853 The Rights Of Women or the Effects of Female Enfranchisement the satirist made clear points about why women should remains disenfranchised. Women, argued Cruickshank, were only interested in the superficial, and could not deal with the complexity of political argument. Consequently the women in Cruickshank’s print fawn over the handsome candidate ‘ladies’ Sir Charles Darling, while ignoring the great political economist and ‘gentlemen’s’ candidate Screw Driver.

Image courtesy of the People's History Museum

In the galleries there is another print that reflected women’s supposed inability to cope with complexity of political debate. Here the women fawn over the candidate ‘Fitzbland’ whose popularity – like darlings – is based on looks rather than political acumen. The unknown artist proposed another argument against votes for women, namely as a sex women did not have the physical capacity to survive the maelstrom that was Victorian politics. This is show by the speakers need to lean on her chair while addressing the group, and further witnessed by the woman who has fallen asleep.

Image courtesy of the People's History Museum
By the 1900s, however, arguments against women voting had to some extent changed. In John Hassall’s A Suffragette’s Home (around 1912) a working class man comes home from a day’s labour to find that his suffragette wife has gone out campaigning, leaving his children abandoned, his house un-cleaned, and his tea not made. Gone was the argument that women were incapable of dealing with masculine world of politics, and instead the suggestion that were they to become active participants in the democratic process, there would be no time to fulfill their household chores.

Image courtesy of the People's History Museum

The reason for the change is I think to do with the nature of the demand for the vote. Crudely speaking, mid-19th century suffrage campaigners focussed on a middle-class intellectual argument that men and women were equal. And as such women had a moral right to vote on the same terms as men. The prints counteracted this, suggesting that men and women were inherently different, and the latter had neither the capacity to understand the nature of political argument, nor cope with its physical rigour. In the latter part of the 20th century there was a growing argument that women needed the vote, not because they had a moral right to it but because it would improve their lives. This was an argument linked especially to working-class women, and one laid out by A. Maude Roydon in ‘Votes and Wages’.

Image courtesy of the Working Class Movement Library
It is perhaps unsurprising that the arguments had changed. When working class women who often combined their domestic roles with long-hours in tough jobs, became ever-more vocal in their demands for the vote, anti-suffrage campaigners could hardly claim that the female sex had not the physical capacity to deal with politics. Thus the argument changed, to one suggesting that voting and the demand for it impacted on women’s moral duty to raise and support her family. The objects on display at PHM show that just as the pro-suffrage campaign changed its arguments and its tactics over the course of demands for female suffrage, so too did the arguments which opposed it.

This blog post was written by Chris Burgess, Collections Access Officer at the People's History Museum.  You can find out more about Chris' work by reading his blog Unlocking Ideas or following him @UnlockIdeas.  The tour was a sell out and we are hoping to shortly have a repeat date, leave a comment below if you would like know when that will be.