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”.
She wrote of the “degenerate days of militant suffragettism and similar foolishness if not actual wickedness”. The harshness of political life was not compatible with the essentialist meekness, humility and self-sacrifice accorded to women under the ideology of separate spheres. A “true mother”, O’Mahony wrote, “has no thought of self”. For anti-suffragists, involvement in political life would tarnish women and consequently threaten the ordering of a stable society.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, there was a strong ecclesiastical voice in opposition to women’s suffrage. The churches, Catholic and Protestant, supported the image of the morally and spiritually superior woman located within the home but bound by patriarchal authority.
The common law concept that a married woman’s legal existence merged into that of her husband was being steadily dismantled by the married women’s property acts, but it was still influential and underpinned a central anti-suffragist argument that a wife did not need the vote as her husband’s vote expressed her political view.
There was widespread fear within society at the prospect of the female vote. Political parties feared how women would cast their vote. Another fear was that the vote would in turn bring demand for further equality. The spectre of shifting gender roles, and consequently society turned upside down, can be seen in many of the writings and pronouncements against votes for women. If women received the vote they would be entitled to sit in parliament, bringing further unwelcome and fear-provoking change.
Moreover, the female vote would strike at the heart of the family, damaging the relationship between husband and wife and putting the future of children, and consequently society, at risk. Crucially it might subvert the patriarchal order. Rev David Barry, writing in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1909, addressed the possibility of a woman “casting her vote for the candidate that is opposed . . . to her father and husband”. A woman was, Barry wrote, supposed to be “shielded by her male relatives from most of the hardships and disabilities of citizenship”.
In the domestic sphere the final word was that of the husband. Why then, he wrote, should she “be accorded an autonomy in outside affairs that is denied her in the home?” Barry’s picture of a husband and wife with opposing political views makes clear his patriarchal view of marriage. A wife who disrespects her husband’s authority threatens the unity of the “domestic kingdom” and in that way “children are disedified”.
“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?”