Opponents of the cause

Mrs Humphry Ward from 'The Critic: An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art and Life'

Mrs Humphry Ward from 'The Critic: An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art and Life'

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

IN 1867 THE ALL-MALE House of Commons at Westminster rejected John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Franchise Reform Bill to allow women the vote on the same property terms as men. This anti-women’s suffrage statement at the highest level of the establishment was repeated over the next five decades. The same anti-female suffrage tone was reflected in the dominant discourse of the period. The churches, medical profession and the legal profession all promoted an understanding of woman’s role in society as wife and mother with a limited, if any, public role. However, it would be a mistake to see the anti-suffrage voice as solely male. Both men and women wrote and organised against female suffrage in the period between 1866-1918.

The rejection of Mill’s amendment led to the establishment of formal suffrage societies in England and Ireland. In turn, a strong anti-suffrage voice crystallised, and found expression in both prescriptive literature, and at certain flashpoints, most notably with the growth of militant suffragism in the early twentieth century, in formal anti-suffrage societies. Humour was frequently used to ridicule and minimise the demands of suffrage activists; they were depicted as mannish, hysterical, unhinged, the polar opposite of the domesticated woman in the home who was central to the correct ordering of society on gender lines.

Anti-suffragists upheld the ideology of separate spheres and the notion of complementarity rather than equality. Men and women had different roles in the world and different traits to enable them to fulfil these. Men operated in the public sphere of work and politics; women’s role was as wife and mother within the domestic sphere, although even there male authority was pre-eminent.

Society, Rev Gregg said in 1856 in a sermon in Trinity Church in Dublin, “does best when each sex performs the duties for which it is especially ordained”. Opponents of female suffrage emphasised women’s role as guardians of moral values and transmitters of these values to the next generation as wives and mothers. Every mother, The Nun of Kenmare wrote in 1874, “is forming the future generation”. Mothers were the “regenerators of the world”. She feared this vital role would be damaged by exposure to the political world, and the circulating “liberal opinions”, a reference to the suffrage campaign.

In the Irish Monthly in 1913 journalist Nora Tynan O’Mahony ringingly declared against the vote; it could never compensate women for the loss “of the love and reverence of men and the clinging trustful confidence of little children”.

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