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Essay: Women’s suffrage

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  • Published: 14 July 2022*
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  • Tags: Suffragette essays

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The beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign might appear to the lay man as an opportunity for the female sex to have a voice owing to the fact that she was the first queen regnant in a hundred and twenty-three years of monarchy in Great Britain. Never the less this voice applied solely to the queen as she was the only woman during the era who was not bound by any legal or social encumbrance. To say the struggle for women’s emancipation, begun in the Victorian era will be an over accreditation of the period. Since the beginning of time, women have been labeled in a manner that has rendered them inferior to masculinity. John Stuart Mill in his book The Subjection of Women published in 1869 elaborated that, the adaptation of this system of inequality never was the result of deliberation, or forethought, or any social ideas or any notion whatever of what conduced to the benefit of humanity or the good order of society. It arose simply from the fact that from the very earliest twilight of human society, every woman (owing to the value attached to her by men.) Combined with her inferiority of muscular strength was found in a state of bondage to some men.

The society had been built in a light that whether theoretically or evidentially argued rendered women second class citizens. Power and privilege were reserved for men.19th century Britain can be identified as one of the societies in which the gradual female challenge against this inferiority complex can be most felt. The impact of gender ideologies and separate spheres was immensely saturated in this society. The ideal Victorian woman was expected to exhibit attributes that were deemed soft and refined. She was to submit to the glorious ideal of masculinity. She was to be the” angel in the house”. This phrase was derived from Coventry Patmore’s poem written in 1854, Angel in The House.

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.

This excerpt reveals the level of submission women were expected to have hence making it clear how taboo it will be for a woman to disappoint these expectations. The woman was to be the one who takes care of the children, manages the servants and comforts her husband after he had returned from a hard day at work. These ideas were based strictly on the physical and “assumed” mental and emotional capability of the sexes. According to this, women were best suited for the domestic sphere while the physically and mentally strong men were best suited for the public sphere. As historians, when we carefully study aspects such as the literature and art of the period, we can identify the conscious effort of the society to portray women as soft and to keep them in the domestic setting. Three paintings by George Elgar Hicks can be sited as clear examples of this effort. Paintings entitled Companion of Childhood, Companion of Manhood and Companion of Old Age as their titles suggest are very clear regarding the role women were expected to play.

It is important to note that these ideologies strongly represented middle class values. The rapid rise of the middle classes during the 19th century was accompanied by a lifestyle that was deemed necessary to portray the idea of middle-class “gentility”. This scope moved hand in hand with the image of th angel in the house. Middle class girls were given education on subjects which were known as “accomplishments”. They were to be educated in a manner that prepared them to take up the role of the angel in the house. This included good manners, how to take care of their husbands and children and how to manage her servants. Skills such as the ability to play the piano and to speak illustrious languages in the likes of French were highly recognized therefore making a woman who had all these skills “accomplished”. They were taught reading, writing and arithmetic but simply to broaden their knowledge to an extent. To an extent because a woman who became too engulfed in the pursuit for knowledge was deemed a blue stocking. She was considered unfeminine and a threat to the natural order of masculine superiority. It is fascinating to discover that the color blue till this day is associated with masculinity in many societies, hence the name blue stocking. Such a woman was considered difficult to marry. Medical doctors reported that a woman who studied too much was at risk of becoming infertile. This mentally imprisoning upbringing became more and more unattractive to intelligent women as time went on but by then women were not allowed to attend colleges of higher education. The first institution that offered higher education to women was built in 1849 by Elizabeth Jesser Reid. After some time, the old prestigious institutions opened their doors for females to attend lectures, Cambridge being the first but disappointingly they refused to award female graduates with degrees. Some intelligent girls were also unfortunate to have fathers who refused to let them pursue higher education for fear of them not finding good husbands.

With female education limited to the scope of the accomplishments, not many jobs were available to these refined ladies. It was considered humiliating for a middle-class girl to be seen working in a shop or factory as these jobs were attributed to the working class. Considering this, unmarried middle-class girls could only take up jobs such as teaching in a small girl’s school or be employed as a teacher in the home of the upper classes and wealthier middle classes. They were known as governesses. Their job was to pass on their training in the accomplishment to these privileged children. Regarding other professions, women were refused entry into work in the fields of law, medicine, engineering and the likes. A historical study of a cartoon by punch magazine named Lady Dentist reveals how women were portrayed as weak and incapable. In the cartoon five women (female dentists) are seen to be offering dental services to a man. The quote “hold on I will ring for more” was been set as the caption. This implies that five women working together were not competent enough to be in such professions let alone one. After a tiresome struggle, women were finally allowed to become doctors. Even at that, there were only 200 female doctors by 1900. The first female doctor was Elisabeth Garett, whose inspiration was derived from Elisabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor of the United States of America. After a struggle, her father decided to financially sport her in her bid to achieve her goal.

Coverture, this was the name given to the position of married women in terms of rights in the 19th century. This meant that once a woman was wed, she loses all rights she used to enjoy as a single woman. She was now wholly the property of her husband and as such he could treat her however, he deemed fit. Her being became his and he could abuse her without having to face any legal consequences. All earnings by the woman were legally her husband’s and all property be it inherited or acquired automatically belonged to the husband. In cases of divorce, the law gave the man the right to divorce his wife on account of adultery, but a woman would not divorce her husband on the same grounds. An adulterous man was not a cause to write home about, but an adulterous woman was considered a woman of easy virtue and be shunned.

She would have to proof severe domestic violence and even at that once she had obtained a divorced, she would lose custody of her children as by law they were property that belonged to the husband. This injustice gave drive to Caroline Norton, a middle-class woman who sought to divorce her husband on grounds of cruelty and him taking advantage of her relationship with her friend lord Melbourne. He attempted to sue Lord Melbourne for his greedy financial gain. It was only after the case had been settled that she learned the law regarding the custody of the children. The father had full custody of the children and this was not affected by the innocence of guilt of the father in court. Norton did not accept this in good faith, with the help of other radical member of parliament and friends she contested this law and secured the passage of the infant custody act in August 1839.The act read that if a woman could prove blameless in the causes of her marital failures such as adultery, she could have custody of her children under seven years of age. This was indeed a stepping stone regarding the fight for women’s rights.

Caroline’s struggle did not end there, on 2nd June 1855, she wrote a letter to the queen in which she cited an incident mention by lord Ellenborough of a man who bequeath all his wife’s earnings and property to his mistress. On account of his death, his will was carried out and every all the property was stripped away from the widow. She went on further and spelled out the depth of independence the English wife had on her husband. The English wife was only not unable to own property, but she did not even own herself. One woman who made it her priority to criticize this system was Barbara Leigh smith Bodichon. She was the daughter of a radical and due to her illegitimacy acquired an inheritance from her father to enable her to live independently. Bodichon was deeply aggrieved by the law and how it failed to protect the earnings and properties of the married woman. She was the leader of a group of middle-class women who campaigned for equal rights for women regarding education and employment. They were known as the Langham Place Group.She also published literary works such as Women and Work which campaigned for the extension of opportunities for women in higher education and spoke against how society was set up to render women dependent on men. Another important work of hers is A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women; Together with a Few Observations Thereon. It clearly outlined the ways in which the legal system was inconsiderate to women.

After the rights to divorce and own property had been won, majority of attention had been shifted towards franchise for women. This was sparked by the extension of franchise to men who were house holders in 1867.Majority of middle-class women including Bodichon were property owners and were there greatly displeased by the fact that they payed equal taxes with these men yet they did not have the vote. One woman amongst Bodicon’s group who was to become a force to reckon with was Millicent Fawcett, the sister of Elisabeth Garret. She together with other women prepared a petition which was presented to parliament by John Stuart Mill, a radical member of parliament who was strong advocate for women’s rights. Mill’s efforts to push the point regarding franchise for women was unsuccessful on 3 occasions, in 1866,1867 and 1868. In 1870, a bill was proposed by Jacob Bright, another supporter of women’s suffrage. He based his argument on the fact that the house holder franchise act had given the vote to a larger group of uneducated men yet elite women who were householders themselves and payed equal tax were not given the vote. He cited this as social injustice but unfortunately bill was unsuccessful.

Millicent Fawcett made a conscious effort to shred all the arguments that rendered females inferior in the society. She wrote newspaper articles in which she highlighted the misrepresentation of women in the society and the injustices they had to endure. In an article published in the Times on April 1872 she wrote “Every day the reports of our police courts and of our criminal tribunals still repeat the tale of savage and cowardly outrages upon women: and every day we have reason to marvel, not without a mixture of indignation, at the leniency with which some of our judges treat offences of this kind.” The article had concluded, with deep disapproval, that an Englishman, “within certain limits, may beat his wife as much as he pleases”. Fawcett quoted the same newspaper, four months later, observing that “recent trials have revealed a prevalent indifference to the maltreatment of women, which is a heinous disgrace to English nature”. At this point, several groups of women were vigorously campaigning for women to be given the vote despite disputing arguments from husbands who argued that if women had a say in law, they would not concentrate on taking care of their families, members of parliament who felt the success of their battle to receive higher education and own property was enough and even the church that argued that biblically, man was created to rule “over” woman not “with” woman. Other arguments included the fact that the campaigned for women’s suffrage was mainly a problem of the minority of middle-class women, most of the working class were not interested as they were too busy taking care of their families or as men put it, “it is only the noisy few that are demanding women’s rights”.

In 1880, William Gladstone won the general elections and the Liberals had majority seats in parliament. This was a ray of hope to women suffrage groups because they believed the Liberals were more open to the issue of women’s franchise. To their dismay, Gladstone in 1884 proposed a bill to extend franchise to all working-class men. This bill was passed and once again the idea of franchise for women, had been neglected despite the fact that the left-wing members of the Liberal party encouraged Gladstone to give women the vote. Millicent Fawcett had written a letter to Gladstone in hopes to convince him of the sensibility of their claim to the vote but Gladstone had his personal secretary reply a month letter and wrote, “He (William Gladstone) is most unwilling to cause disappointment to yourself & your friends, whose title to be heard he fully recognises; and he can assure you that the difficulty of complying with a request so referred does not proceed from any want of appreciating the importance of your representation, or of the question itself. His fear is that any attempt to enlarge by material changes the provisions of the Franchise Bill now before Parliament might endanger the whole measure. For this reason, as well as on account of his physical inability at the present time to add to his engagements, he is afraid he must ask to be excused from acceding to your wishes.”

This failure was indeed a great setback for the suffrage groups, their income declined massively and there was a notable decrease in membership leaders split over political affiliation with the argument that it was wrong to bank on the Liberals the 1890s there were seventeen individual groups that were campaigning women’s suffrage. These included the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage, the London Society for Womens Suffrage, the Central Committee for Womens Suffrage and the Liberal Womens Suffrage Society. After several attempts and failures to secure votes for women, these groups made the excellent decision on 14th October 1897 to join forces to form the Nation Union of Womens Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).Millicent Fawcett was elected president and they became known as the suffragists. These women continued to lobby for the vote steadily adhering to the philosophy of keep knocking till the door is opened. Although their progress was slow, they recognized the steady progress of their efforts.

On 27th February 1900, the new labor party was formed, and it is with them that Emmeline Pankhurst, another notable campaigner for suffrage movement begun her vehement approach in the battle for women’s suffrage .she hoped that the new Labor party would support the campaign for women’s franchise. Pankhurst while at a conference with the Labour party in 1902 suggested that “in order to improve the economic and social condition of women, it is necessary to take immediate steps to secure the granting of suffrage to women on the same terms as it is or maybe granted to men. This suggested was considered controversial and was therefore thrown out. This defeat pushed Pankhurst to leave the labour party and established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).She sought to recruit working class women to participate in the struggle for the vote, “We resolved to limit our membership exclusively to women, to keep ourselves absolutely free from ant party affiliation, and to be satisfied with nothing but action on our question. Deeds, not words, was to be our permanent motto.” (5). As their motto suggests, the suffragettes engaged in a more radical approach for the struggle of women’s franchise.

As historians read and study the various articles written regarding women’s suffrage such as articles written by Millicent Fawcett and the other leaders, it is evident that the women saw a broader picture that just mere votes for women, their consistency in underling the outrageous social challenges women had to endure such as the contagious disease which was initially passed in 1866, this gave police officers the authority to arrest any women they suspected of being a prostitute around ports and army towns and subject them to a compulsory check for sexually transmitted diseases. If found diseased, the woman would be forcefully locked up. Women had to endure this and many inhumane actions against them with the backing of the legal system. In many countries today, campaigners use the phrase, your vote is your power to urge citizens to vote at that time.in light of this, it is evident that these women identified the problems and realized vote for women was a means to an end. The vote will give them a voice to speak on the problems the face in the society.


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