Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Madness in the margins

I have a copy of Sir Almroth E Wright’s 1913 The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage in which an early or the original reader has pencilled copious notes. I don’t know the reader’s name, as I can’t read his (from the comments it certainly is “his”) signature. I am fascinated by the reader’s jottings for the light they shed on attitudes and beliefs of the time, and also for the more intriguing personal hints they give of a man whose relationships with women were, to say the least, troubled. What’s also interesting is that there are two sets of notes, the first dated 1913, and the second 1922, when a partial female franchise had been granted. The subject mattered so much to the reader that he revisited it four years after the first female franchise!

Here are some excerpts from the dialogue between these two anti-suffragists:-

Sir A: The grateful woman will practically always be an anti-suffragist.

Reader (R): (grateful woman underlined). Are there any? Certainly not amongst those who are loved and treated well – there might be if an opposite course were taken. This I do not know.

Sir A: But one wonders why it has not been proposed…to make of a woman…a judge, or an ambassador, or a Prime Minister.

R: This would I think be the eventual result [of giving women the vote] but before it was found out and put right what sort of plight would the British Empire have come to?!! (With a note dated 1922 “They can now be in the House of Commons, House of Lords, be magistrates, mayors, members of the bar.”)

Sir A: Woman’s mind…has a very imperfect sense of proportion; accepts the congenial as true, and rejects the uncongenial as false…

R: Some do not know what truth means except in so far as they recognise it to avoid it, and would much prefer by crooked and underhand scheming to obtain what they could much more easily obtain in a straightforward manner.

Sir A: It would be difficult to find anyone who would trust a woman to be just to the rights of others in the case where…her children, or…a devoted husband, were involved.

R: The husband might be devoted but that would not make her just to him! Quite the reverse.

Sir A: And one would wish that, in a world which is rendered unwholesome by feminism, every girl’s eyes were opened to comprehend…the fact that…you find individual man showering upon individual woman…every good thing which, suffrage or no suffrage, she could never have procured for herself.

R: And if the man after suffering a lifetime of ingratitude, humiliations, and indignities finally gives up the contest and becomes indifferent, who so astonished as the fair lady! They mistake kindness for weakness and abuse it; and cannot believe even when warned that there is a limit to the burdens when piled high enough and long enough to what the greatest devotion can stand and at long last indifference may supervene. Then they may pretend to want it back again, only to again discard it so often as he is foolish enough to be taken in.

Sir A: …when the woman who remains in England comes to recognise that she can…give a willing subordination to the husband or father, who, when all is said and done, earns and lays up money for her.

R: Yes, but one can hardly hope for such a miracle.


Sir Almroth Wright (1861–1947) was a medical scientist and anti-suffragist who, like many in the medical profession, argued that women were incapable of voting because they were emotionally unstable and mentally weak. Suffragette militancy was the product of hysteria or the morbid moods of women of a certain age, and the suffragettes should be treated as lunatics. Sir Almroth characterised the suffragettes as “ungrateful women” - disappointed wives, spinsters in a state of retarded development, the sexually embittered, and those who want to have everything for nothing. He argued that since it was men who made money, owned property and paid the bulk of taxes, women were simply trying to snatch their property from them by demanding the vote and access to the professions and universities. He also pointed to a covenant between men and women: “I will do you reverence, and protect you,” promises man, “…and you…will hold fast to an ideal of gentleness, of personal refinement, of modesty, of joyous maternity…’ ”.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave all men over twenty-one the vote, but enfranchised only women over thirty who met a minimum property qualification, and women graduates over thirty. Full equality came with the Equal Franchise Act 1928 which gave women over twenty-one the vote.

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