Cambridge University MP Sir Richard Jebb speaks out for Votes for Women. 1897.


A transcript from Hansard of Richard Jebb MP’s speech at Second Reading of the Parliamentary Franchise (extension to women) Bill.


Sir Richard Jebb – photo in The Life and Letters of RCJ – by his wife Lady Caroline Jebb, 1907.

The full transcript of the debate is here.

The then Mr Richard Jebb MP was recorded in Hansard (the Parliamentary record) as having made the following remarks.

“Mr Jebb (Cambridge University) in supporting the Bill, said he would confine himself to certain definite arguments for and against the principle of the Bill. Did women really want the vote or not? He remembered very well, in 1892, the last occasion upon which this question was discussed in the House, the present Leader of the House, as he was also then, in winding up the Debate, remarking that he did not know any way in which women could have manifested their desire for the franchise in which they had not manifested it, and he observed that when the agricultural labourers received the franchise in 1885 there was not then more evidence before the country of their desire for the franchise than there was now of such a desire on the part of women. No one knew exactly what proportion of women desired the franchise, but it was well known that a very large number of educated and intelligent women had been active in demanding it.

“In his opinion the demand among educated and thoughtful women had greatly increased even in the last five years, and at the present moment the number who desired the franchise as compared with the number who desired it in 1892 had very much increased. On what ground was the vote to be refused to women who had the qualification?

“Two grounds were mentioned, one of which was that women were of an inferior mental capacity to men. But that was no longer maintained. The other ground given was that women could not bear arms in defence of the country; but he submitted that, even in the ease of invasion, there were large numbers of men who would probably not be capable of rendering very efficient service. Possibly, if the garrison of Inverness were in need of a. librarian, for instance, he might offer himself for the post. [Laughter.] In the case of war, women, like men, would have their taxes raised, and he could not imagine that they should be refused the franchise on the ground that they could not bear arms.

“Then what was the force of the assertion that no legislation remained to be passed in the interests of women which would not have an equally good chance of passing, even if women continued to have no votes. It was an undoubted fact that much legislation in the interest of women had been passed in recent years, but it ought to be remembered that the attention given to that subject had been largely influenced by the fact that during the same period an active movement had been in progress for extending the franchise to women. But such a movement could not be relied on as a permanent force for keeping up the attention of legislators to the interests of women.

“He granted that legislators had in recent times had no desire whatever to refuse justice to women, but women were necessarily better judges of the needs of women than men could possibly be. It could not be denied that before the extension of the franchise to the agricultural labourer there was an earnest desire to do everything that was just for the agricultural labourer, but after he got the franchise the needs of his class were viewed for the first time from the point of view of that class; and the same was true of every successive extension of the Suffrage. If women had the Suffrage, legislators would legislate in the light of the directly expressed views of women on questions relating to the interests of women. [“Hear, hear!”]

“He had the honour of being a Member of the Royal Commission appointed to deal with certain educational questions. There were women members of that Commission, and one of the problems with which they had to deal was connected with girls’ schools, and the male members found they had very much to learn from the women members. Women’s Suffrage was especially desirable in the interests of those women engaged in employment which they shared with men, and in the interests of women who were candidates for employment as to their fitness for which men were at present the sole judges, and had the final power of excluding them. Large numbers of such women were not in a position to take any active part in demanding the Suffrage.

“The hon. Member who seconded the Bill referred to a large deputation of women which came up from the collieries to represent their views on the subject of female labour in collieries. Many of the women who had been leaders of the movement had taken that part, not only because they themselves desired the franchise, but also in the interests of women engaged in such employments as he had mentioned. It was true that the omission of the Lodger Franchise from the Bill would exclude numbers of women for whom the Suffrage was especially desirable, but he submitted that this was eminently a question in which it was desirable to proceed circumspectly, and the omission of the Lodger Franchise was not a reason for voting against the principle of the Bill. [“Hear, hear!”]

“It was said that women would be drawn out of their proper sphere. He did not see how voting would do that. They already canvassed and spoke on platforms, and candidates for Parliament were only too glad to get them as canvassers. It was further contended that domestic interests would be neglected; but did domestic life make larger demands on women than professional life on men?

“Then it was said that the relations between the sexes would be revolutionised. He was unable to see how that result was to follow. If anything they could do in that House was capable of subverting the fundamental laws of nature, the powers of the House were very much greater than he took them to be. A revolution in the relations between man and woman was not likely to occur until “human nature is other than it is now.”

“As to the suggestion that women would claim seats in Parliament if they obtained the franchise, there was absolutely no logical or practical connection between giving women votes and giving them seats in Parliament. Clergymen had votes, but they could not sit in the House. It might be said that the Bishops represented them. Were men then to be looked on as Bishops, and women as a, sort of inferior Clergy? It was said, again, that women would believe too much in the remedial power of legislation, and that if they had the franchise there would be some danger of increasing the tendency to over-legislation. What proof was there that women held that belief any more than men? And if they did, what reason was there to doubt that a little experience would cure them of the illusion?

“He now came to an argument which deserved respectful attention. It was that women were by nature more emotional and excitable than men. It was argued that a leaven of female voters in the electorate might be dangerous at times of crisis, when popular feeling ran high—as, for instance, at times when the issue of peace or war was in question. But what proof was there that women were on the average more emotional and excitable than men? It would certainly be difficult for them to be more so than some men, and he did not know by which process it was to be established that as a sex they were so. He should say that as a sex they were more practical than men.

“He would now introduce a few considerations on the other side. The calamities of war fell on women even more heavily than on men, because war desolated the home. At such a, crisis as that supposed, women would have an even stronger motive than men for using their influence against any rash or precipitate movement of public opinion. [“Hear, hear!”] At such a moment women would, probably, be often a moderating force. Another ease in which the supposed emotional temperament, of women was represented as a danger was the case of suffering caused by improvidence or vice. It was alleged that women would lean towards an excessive and misplaced clemency. Now it was to be noted that women were not more lenient, but usually harder and more severe, than most men in their judgment of certain delinquencies; for example, in their judgment of suffering incurred by thriftlessness—for women were accustomed to the details of economy, and were apt to resent the absence of thrift with just severity. Again, women are more severe than men towards all offences against the life of the family. And, further, a wider consideration applies here.

“The women who had been most active in claiming the Suffrage were familiar with the arguments which had been used against their claim. They would be especially on their guard against justifying the objectors by committing those errors which their opponents asserted that women, as a sex, would be sure to commit. And the less educated portion of the female electorate would be influenced in such cases by the example of those women to whom they would look as their natural leaders in such a matter. Further, the political responsibility of the Suffrage would of itself tend to steady and sober the judgment of women.

“If, on some public questions, some women had shown a lack of that quality, this had not been due simply to the temperament of woman, but also to the fact that hitherto they had not had the direct responsibilities of active citizenship. It was objected that, as there were more women than men in this country, the votes of men might ultimately be swamped by the votes of women. This argument assumed that men and women voters would form opposite camps. But how, he asked, was this argument to be reconciled with the other argument that there was no reason for giving women votes, inasmuch as all that they could want had already been done for them by male legislators? For, if that were the case, why should the votes of all women be arrayed against the votes of men? The two arguments contradicted each other, and the first, that all women would vote on one side and all men on the other, was flagrantly absurd.

“What were the probable advantages of Women’s Suffrage? An eminent writer had said that women were, on the whole, more conscientious than men. Without denying or affirming that, it might be said that the number of women who would vote with a real and intelligent sense of civic duty would probably be at least as large as the number of men who did so. When a woman had some definite duty set before her, she was at least as scrupulous in the discharge of it as the average man, especially if it demanded self-effacement and self-sacrifice. The new element which Women’s Suffrage would add to the electorate would probably have the quality of conscientiousness in a high degree. The result would lend to increase the importance of character in public life, and that was a result which they would all welcome.

“It had been said by the hon. Member for Hereford that in the State of Washington the Suffrage was given to women and then taken away. He could not help wondering that the hon. Member who used that argument against this proposal to give the Suffrage to women did not see that it cut both ways, because the reason for the withdrawal of the privilege at Washington might have been that the male voters found the female voters more fastidious than they desired. Then women knew a great deal about the life of the poor, and if they obtained the vote questions affecting the social condition of the masses would come to the front. Women would be opposed by instinct to violent or revolutionary changes, and to Measures involving confiscation of property. Let no one suppose that he meant that women, as such, would collectively lean to one of the great parties in the State rather than to the other. He could imagine nothing more absurd than to predict that the female sex, if enfranchised, would prove to be collectively Conservative or collectively Liberal.

“What might safely be predicted was that the general influence of women would tend to moderate extreme tendencies on either side in politics. ft would be no slight gain from Women’s Suffrage if, through it, mothers who had taken an intelligent interest in the public affairs of their country, and in the duties of citizenship, were thereby better fitted to educate their children in such thoughts and aims as would tend to make them patriotic and public-spirited men and women. When he weighed the objections which had been urged against Women’s Suffrage, and placed in the other scale the advantages which might reasonably be expected from it, he could feel no doubt to which side the balance inclined. He supported this Bill, not only because it was just, but also because he believed it to be expedient in the public interest. [Cheers.]”


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