Arguments used to deny women the right to vote
- Fear of change.
- Public opinion for many centuries maintained the consensus that women were not interested in politics and were unfit for political life, even though women had ruled whole countries successfully in the past, either as queens in their own right or as regents during the minority of their sons. It was said that women were absorbed with trivial, domestic matters.
- Closely linked was the idea that a woman's place was in the home while the public spheres of work, the military and the government were the proper domain of men.
- There was a standard ideal of womanhood which most women felt obliged to copy. The 'ideal woman' was widely represented. She was subordinate and pleasing to men, obedient, humble, modest, pure, delicate, refined, gentle, soft, charming, beautiful. It was said that such qualities would be out of place in the boisterous world of politics and good women would only be made rough and coarse there.
- There was also, of course, a standard ideal of masculinity to which most men conformed though it posed difficulties for some and there were those who disagreed with the whole notion. Masculinity was associated with power, strength, initiative, courage and dominance. Many men disdained the prospect of submitting to powerful women, competing with them or even sharing power with them.
- The power of the clergy would be increased because of their reputed influence over women.
- Women in politics would be open to corruption and bribery. It was said that most women did not really want the vote themselves and that only a minority of bitter, unattractive, frustrated women bothered about it.
- Women were too emotional and unstable because of their biology. They were in many ways inferior to men.
- Many said that the interests of women were safe in the hands of men and that women could influence men indirectly by persuasion and charm.
- It was held that interference with male authority would undermine the natural order of things. It would undermine the family, the bedrock of society.
- It was said that women did not risk their lives in war and might vote against war.
- Colonial peoples would not respect an imperial Britain which gave votes to women.
- Proposals to give the vote to women were often considered comical. Women, and especially men, who made them were held up to ridicule.
Suffragettes - who have never been kissed
Postcard. John Hassall, 1912
A suffragette's home.
After a hard day's work!
Postcard. John Hassall, 1912
- Select any one of the above arguments. Say how reasonable you think it was:
- a. by nineteenth century standards
- b. by the standards of your generation.
- Divide the above arguments into three groups according to whether, in your experience, they are today:
- a. still in use
- b. sometimes hinted at
- c. completely out of date.
- Now that women have the right to vote, which of the above arguments do you think was the most unfounded? Give reasons for your answer.
- Which of the above arguments surprised you most?
- Do you think the postcards illustrated above were effective propaganda for the attitudes to women's suffrage they supported? Give three reasons for your opinion.
- Evaluate the postcards as historical evidence for attitudes to the role of women in 1912.
- Organise a class debate based on the arguments for and against women's suffrage. Suggested motions:
- a) That the arguments against votes for women still make sense
- b) That society benefited greatly from women's suffrage
- c) That attitudes to women in politics have changed
- d) That women have betrayed the suffrage movement
- e) That men should be represented by men and women be represented by women
- f) That women should return to the domestic sphere and leave the public sphere to men.
- Role play an imaginary conversation between two people on different sides of the argument about women's suffrage.
- Compose a newspaper interview with a nineteenth century character who is in favour of women's suffrage.
- Compose a newspaper interview with a nineteenth century character who is against women's suffrage.
- Design a poster or postcard to persuade the public to support women's suffrage.
- Design a poster or postcard to persuade the public to oppose women's suffrage.