The Master of Peterhouse hosts a suffragist speaker at Cambridge Working Mens Club

A fascinating article via the British Newspaper Archive from 13 March 1886 for a number of reasons. The first is that we find a college master publicly declaring his support for women’s suffrage – at a time when within university circles the cause was not popular. The second is the fact that the meeting took place at Cambridge Working Mens Club – an institution that still survives to this day, and finally that the speaker was suffragist Jeanette Wilkinson – also a trade unionist who unfortunately died an untimely death the following year.

Thus we have a meeting that united working town and gown – both traditionally male spheres, where the guest speaker was a woman. As we found out with Keir Hardie’s speech at The Guildhall in the previous two blogposts, Cambridge workingmen seemed to be far more progressive politically than the waves of undergraduates that arrived every year.

860313 JeannetteWilkinson Suffragist Pioneer Working Mens Club talk.jpeg


The social and political position of women

“This formed the subject of an address delivered on Monday evening at the Working Men’s Club, Fitzroy Street, by Miss Jeannette Wilkinson, before a fairly large audience. The Rev. Dr. Porter. Master of St. Peter’s College, [Peterhouse] presided, and there were also on the platform in addition to the lecturer:

  • Mrs. Bateson [Anna Bateson – mother of Margaret Heitland who was longtime chair of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Society],
  • Mrs Tillyard, [Catherine Tillyard, journalist, columnist at the Cambridge Independent, and wife of Mayor Alfred Tillyard, editor of the Cambridge Independent]
  • Mr A. J. Tillyard
  • Mr Shuckburgh,
  • Mr Hammond.

“The Chairman, in his introductory remarks, said he felt very much honoured when was requested by her secretary to occupy the position he held that evening. He considered it a great honour that he was permitted to hear testimony to the importance of that great movement—a movement which he believed was likely to produce more beneficial results than any other of the present century.

“He first learned from his friend. Professor Fawcett, [Henry – husband of Millicent, and former Postmaster General] whom he considered was not only one of the most honourable and most enlightened, but also one of the most, far-seeing of our statesmen, to take an interest the question. Professor Fawcett saw long time ago the vast importance of this question, and he- was always during life a most consistent advocate.

“He (the speaker) was sorry that he had not lived to see the great success which had attended the movement. He remembered attending the annual meeting of their branch association and hearing most interesting report read Mrs Bateson upon the prospects of the movement. The results were most encouraging, because they were understated, for the movement was now in more prosperous state than it had been at any previous time.

“The bill had its second reading and had fair and reasonable chance of passing the House of Commons. No effort should be left unmade by the friends of the movement to overcome any obstruction that might be offered to the bill, and every exertion should be used secure the passing of the bill in the House of Commons this year, for their friends were of opinion that it would meet with a favourable reception in the House of Lords.

“Miss Jeannette Wilkinson then addressed the meeting, observing at the outset that if she said anything they did not like she hoped they would give her credit for not meaning to offend. At the same time, she reminded them that she visited Cambridge to say what she thought, and if what she thought did not please them, perhaps they would courteously tell her so afterwards, and give her their reasons why.

“First of all, What was woman’s suffrage ? She supposed they all knew; but it was strange the way in which people some times mixed up things. She reminded them that if a woman did get in the House of Commons she would have to go there the votes men well by the votes of women, and it would all probability have to be larger proportion of men than women. If a woman did reach that House she would have to prove not only that she was fit as a man to sit there, but great deal fitter (laughter).

“Then it was said, “What have women to do with politics? Their place is at home to look after their husbands and children,” without stopping to see whether they had any or not (laughter). That was all very well; but she objected to people speaking if all women must stop at home do that, and as il when a woman undertook those duties she could think of nothing else. If women had nothing to with politics, politics had great deal to with women. People said. “Why women want the vote? They are already protected the men;” but some of the protection which had been given she ventured to say was of a somewhat doubtful character (hear, hear).

“Women had to live under the laws the same as the men, and women had to obey the laws the same as the men, and if they studied the statistics that respect they would find, on the whole, that women were much more law-abiding than the men. That was to say they had not. so many women in prison, and not so many women breaking the laws as there were men.

“When they were asking for the extension of the franchise, one of the things taken into consideration was that taxation without representation was tyranny; but that was one of the things she did not understand. Of course, being a woman, she was not supposed to be logical; but if it was tyranny for a man to taxed without being represented, Why was it not tyranny for a woman to be taxed without being represented? And why should the tax gatherer invariably call at the woman’s door in the same way that he did at the man’s door?

“The lecturer then proceeded to deal with the difference of the incidence of the laws of the land to women and men. pointing out that many laws which more nearly concerned women than men were passed by men without women being consulted in the slightest degree with regard to the question, and arguing that women had in the past suffered disability from not having the vote, and she was not sure that they did not now.

“They were told that men were logical and practical, and that, women were emotional and sentimental. She believed the logic and reason had trodden rather hard sometimes on the emotion and sentiment, and maintained that if perfect home and social life was wanted they must have combination of the two, and she failed to see why it was not equally necessary a political life. She considered that the views of women should be represented at the ballot box as well as those of the men. If the women did not show that they wanted the vote much as some of them would like to see, it did not all follow that they did not want it.

“It was said that the agricultural labourer did not want the vote; but she considered they proved at the last election they did want if, and some people, she believed, were a little disappointed that they had little more thought about the matter than was supposed. The speaker contended that women were beginning to take an interest in political matters, and urged that if they could only arouse an interest in political and social questions among the women they would help to brighten the lives of thousands, who did not know much brightness now.

“They were told that the women would vote Conservative, if they had votes. The Conservatives would not mind that, and she would say to the Liberals that it was a most unfair doctrine to dictate how that vote should be used before they gave it. Personally, she believed there was much difference of opinion among women on politics as there was among men. If they were to go to the majority of working women, and say “Are you Conservative, Liberal, or Radical?” She thought it was very likely they would say “I do not know,” and all men were to answer truthfully, some of them would have to say the same thing.

“But if they were to ask the women whether they wanted better homes; whether they wanted cheap food for their children; and whether they wanted to give the children good education, she thought they would be able to answer quite well as the men; but when they talked practical politics as they called it, they had to put great deal into the concrete before they could make them understand their meaning.

“Then they were told that the women were inferior to the men. She was not quite sure about it. Some women were superior to men; but they did not ask for the vote because they had had a Shakespeare or a John Milton, and the women did not ask for it because they had had Mary Somerville or a Harriet Martineau. Women, like men, had wrongs to redress, and they wanted to say for themselves where the shoe pinched. That was the reason for their asking for the vote. After all, those who wore the shoe could tell better where it pinched.

“In conclusion, the lecturer referred to the bill now before Parliament, observing that it was not the intention of the promoters to drop it, whether it passed through this year or not, and urged her hearers to do as much as they could towards getting it carried. They could not, perhaps, do much; but, at any rate, they could do something, if it was only talking to their next-door neighbour about it (applause). The proceedings terminated after votes of thanks had been tendered to the lecturer and the Master of St. Peter’s for presiding.”



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