Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 8 - English Women and their Affairs

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WHILE women in the United States are in advance of those in England in the professions and in opportunity to earn a living in any calling which they may select and for which they have talent and training, English women are vastly their superiors in political knowledge and experience. It is expected in Great Britain that every woman of intelligence shall be at least passively interested in politics, and a very great number are actively interested as well; the higher their position and the wider their influence the more it is demanded of them that they shall do their part in public affairs. Their duty is not confined to what is called "influencing" votes, for where the father, husband or brother is a candidate, the wife and daughters and their women friends and relatives frequently go upon the hustings, hold meetings and make an energetic house to house canvass.
    The latter is a method of electioneering that is considered peculiarly effective, and it is one of the means most highly approved by those two great political organizations, the Liberal Club and the Primrose League. In addition to speaking and visiting and persuading householders, women canvassers loyally display the party colors of their candidate. In short, among the higher classes, a canvass means for the English woman, very frequently, quite as much labor and anxiety as for those whom we have always regarded in England as the voting population. In [-73-] Great Britain women householders vote everywhere for boards of guardians, the officials who have charge of parish business; a parish corresponding somewhat to a ward in an American city, each having its own public library, caring for its own poor, and collecting its own rates. Women not only vote for this important office, but are themselves eligible as members of such boards and there are several hundred now filling this responsible post with great ability. The experiment has been so successful, women showing such fitness and capacity for the work, that their numbers upon parish boards are being constantly increased, and in several instances the management of affairs has been largely left in their hands. Women householders also vote in municipal elections in London, for what are called the "County Council" and its counterpart in other cities, a body corresponding in its functions, to the board of Aldermen in an American city. With other duties the County Council of London supervise the repair and cleaning of streets, public improvement in which the British government is not involved, sanitation and other matters pertaining to the well-being of the public.
    The police of London, it should be explained, are controlled by Parliament-one of many illustrations of the odd mingling of its local and imperial functions. In the annual elections for County Council, which are held in November, women selected by both Conservative and Liberal committees make a house to house canvass for several weeks before the election; and, where voters are difficult to convince, they make not one, but several visits. They also attend public meetings during a canvass, which are far more turbulent and lawless than anything that is ordinarily permitted in the United States, notoriously lax as our election methods are known to be. Speakers are interrupted not only with rude questions, but with missiles [-74-] of a still more unpleasing nature, an expression of disfavor rarely ever resorted to by an American audience, however they may object to the principles and oratory of the speaker. An instance was related where a woman of high rank, who had always espoused the Liberal cause, saw fit to canvass for a Conservative candidate in the great election of 1895. She went into a hall in one of the smaller towns where a meeting was held, and was hissed and hooted until she was forced to take her seat. The animosity which she had roused did not expend itself there, and she had, finally, to retreat to her carriage by a back door and thence to the railway station through an obscure street. Before she reached the station, though the horses were driven at the bent of their speed, she was overtaken and a heavy bottle came crashing through one of the carriage windows filling her lap with splintered glass. Had she leaned forward she would have been seriously hurt, or possibly killed.
    All of these difficulties, however, are of slight consequence to plucky English women, who consider it their duty to do their part in the elections since partial suffrage has been granted them and is likely to be extended, whether they desire it or not.
    Only householders can vote, and these only in municipal elections, but it is agreed that, since the property of women is taxed to pay for public improvement, they are entitled to have some voice in the disposition of funds which they have been forced to contribute. Having conceded this much, arguing from the same premise, it is difficult to understand how they can be legally debarred from Parliamentary suffrage. In the latter part of 1897, however. the Liberal party boldly endorsed equal Parliamentary suffrage and stands pledged to its fulfillment.
    The polling places are always in reputable quarters; the elections being held in the Town Hall of each [-75-] parish. Police are stationed at the entrance and exit, who, however stormy and turbulent the preliminary meetings may have been, are rarely called upon to interfere during the polling. No loungers are permitted near the polling places and there is very little excitement of any kind. The woman voter passes in at the door, gives her name and residence to the officer in charge; the name is then looked up on the registration list, as is the law in the United States, and if it correspond to that which has been officially recorded, the woman voter is furnished a ballot. She then retires to a desk and places a cross marked plainly in ink after the name of her chosen candidate. The ballot is then folded and stamped with her number and deposited, folded with the number uppermost, in the ballot box which is locked and sealed, to be opened and the ballot counted when the polls are closed.
    While the Liberal party has taken the initiative in publicly declaring itself in favor of Parliamentary suffrage for women, many of the Conservative leaders are pronounced in its favor, Lord Salisbury and Mr. Balfour having openly and repeatedly expressed their approval, and having been for many years loyal adherents of the cause.
    Strangely enough, the most active enemies of political equality for women are to be found in Radical ranks. In the United States men of this class have a certain magnanimity; in England, while they do not object to the highest educational advantages, some even going to the extreme of advocating degrees for women who have fulfilled all the conditions and passed the examinations at the Universities, they manifest a strong determination to keep the reins of government in their own hands and to resist all division of authority. In other words, their position is that of American politicians, who consent willingly enough that women shall bear their full portion of the burdens of government without an equivalent recognition of [-76-] rightful authority. They profess to believe that since women are so rapidly taking their places in the industrial field, being clothed with such responsibility as is consistent with their womanly attributes, no further extension of privilege is necessary. To this it need only be said that the widely different position of English women to-day from that which they held fifty years ago is due, not to the efforts of those who oppose equal suffrage, but to those men and women who have labored without ceasing for its accomplishment; and the same is equally true in the United States.
    While there are yet many economic, political and educational inequalities to overcome, the trend of events in Great Britain, as throughout the world, is in the direction of justice which shall make intelligence and honesty and reasonable responsibility, not class nor sex, the only qualifications for the exercise of the franchise. In the furtherance of this end English women, like those in the United States, have been aided and counseled at every step by wise and liberal-minded men.
    The attitude of English men in what are called literary pursuits, however, toward women of the same profession furnishes much food for reflection. The spirit which they betray toward their women rivals has no counterpart in the United States, although it has been evidently acquired by several who have taken up their residence in London. This attitude may be described as either actively hostile or patronizingly tolerant, and there are apparently very few intermediate degrees of opinion; the great and notable exceptions are George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Zangwill and Hall Caine, and with these, Moore and Gissing and Grant Allen. From the standpoint of abstract genius, they are more than a majority, as opposed to mere superiority of numbers.
    Phillipa Fawcett who stood far higher than her rival [-77-] who is enjoying honors and perquisites which she had fairly earned in the mathematical tripos at Cambridge in 1890, is said to be only one of many women as highly endowed, studying or teaching at Newnham and Girton.
    The illiberal monopoly of educational advantages has tended to the intellectual development of English men at an apparent sacrifice of broad and general intellectual training for English women. In the United States the difference is not so marked, which accounts for the equality and comradeship between the sexes that it is so difficult for a foreigner to comprehend. To-day, in both England and the United States at least one-third of the successful writers are women. This means, to put it bluntly, a division of the patronage of the reading public, and a liberal share of publishers' royalties - a sufficient raison d'?tre for unfriendliness and disapproval-the survival of mediaeval supremacy that it will require several generations to overcome.
    Some of the best pictures in the recent annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy were painted by Mrs. Alma Tadema, Lady Butler and Henrietta Raeburn, while a large canvas: "Colt-hunting in the New Forest," by Lucy Kemp-Welch, one of the greatest works in the exhibition of 1897, was purchased by the Academy "under the terms of the Chantry Bequest."
    There is no special unfriendliness, but perhaps the reverse, between men and women painters; but the attitude of the Academy in refusing to admit women to the full rewards of excellence, in withholding the coveted honor of the Associate Royal Academician and Royal Academician, where there is no question as to merit, is parallel with the conservatism of the Universities. It is, of course, an expression of human limitation, but where the whole political and educational system has been devised by men for men, in which justice and fair dealing toward women are still [-78-] an after thought, one cannot censure its defects with too much severity. Where custom has been fixed for centuries, rooted in the very soil, it is difficult to displace the old and establish the new, whatever the claims of the latter to the approval of a wise and more tolerant generation. But that justice will prevail, that tremendous reforms have been already achieved cannot be disputed, and there are many thousands who agree with the Head-Master of one of the great Public Schools who said in a public address: "it is the part of wisdom to confer as a favor that which, ultimately, will be exacted as a right."

source: Mary H. Krout, A Looker-On in London, 1899>