Opponents of the cause

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

“But how much worse,” he continued, “would these evils be intensified if the bickering and contentions became public; if they appeared on opposing platforms and denounced each other.”

The anti-suffrage position was more complex than total opposition to women’s role in the public sphere, and it is important to recognise the variety of voices and arguments advanced. In July 1908 the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was founded in England, and an Irish branch was formed the following year in Dublin. Many of the league’s principal organisers, while opposed to the parliamentary vote for women, did see them having a role in the public sphere more in keeping with their nurturing, caring traits. In England, Mrs Humphry Ward, despite insisting on defining herself and being defined by others by her status as her husband’s wife, cannot be dismissed as a mere reactionary in terms of women’s rights. She kept her family financially afloat through her earning power as a novelist, and in early life had been to the forefront in establishing the first women’s college in Oxford, Somerville College. Mrs Maud Bernard saw nothing incompatible between her membership of the Irish branch of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League and the fact that her daughter would be recorded in the 1911 census as an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin.

Members of the league argued for women’s distinctive role in public life, an argument used by suffragists themselves throughout the campaign from 1866. According to this argument women should bring their nurturing, caring qualities into public life and civilise politics.

For anti-suffrage activists this was best done at local political level. In 1898 Irish women had won the vote for all local government bodies although they could not sit on county councils until 1911. However, while arguing that women had a role in local politics, league members adamantly opposed their attaining the parliamentary vote. Like all anti-suffragists, they argued that women and men had different roles in society and did not need equal political rights. In the words of Angela Dickens, grand-daughter of Charles Dickens, speaking in Dublin on April 21st, 1909: “What was called the irresponsible vote – the vote of the man who does not know and does not care – was already sufficiently large. Woman, if she devotes her time to domestic work – what time had she for the study of Imperial politics?”

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