When Feminism Was ‘Sexist’—and Anti-Suffrage

The women who opposed their own enfranchisement in the Victorian era have little in common with the “Repeal the 19th” fringe of today.

Not long ago, a high-profile conservative woman of my acquaintance was cornered at the National Conservatism conference by a pimply young man who put to her that women should not vote. And, he declared furthermore, women should take no part in public life at all. What did she think? 

She relayed this story to me with some amusement, but we both recognize that this young man’s views are not unique on the fringe Right. In the United States, this proposal propagates as “Repeal the 19th” and tends to base itself in arguments from physiological differences, which reportedly render women unfit for the vote, or else in perverse incentives. Examples are legion. Novelist Michael Walsh, for instance, explains that the typical female mind is characterized not by “calm thinking and reasoned judgment” but “inflamed emotions absent any rational thought.” Such views are not confined to men. The internet personality Pearl Davis argues that granting women the vote has resulted in a state welfare system that replaces husbands, “paying women to be single mothers.”  

One of the frustrating aspects of such debates is how weak a grasp these people typically have of the history of the women’s movement. This is, to some extent, the fault of the winning suffragist side, whose narrative on feminism often situates Year Zero at the campaign for women’s suffrage. One casualty of this self-aggrandizing move is popular recollections of the 19th-century women’s movement. 

We can sketch the outlines of this missing movement in the person of one of its most prominent anti-suffragists: the prolific and wildly successful novelist Mary Augusta Ward (1851–1920), better known by her married name, Mrs. Humphry Ward. A brief study of her life challenges both feminist and anti-feminist narratives. First, it reveals that much of the pre-suffrage women’s movement viewed the vote as a marginal issue. Secondly, it challenges my friend’s NatCon interlocutor with the fact that even high-profile opponents of woman suffrage were strongly in favor of women’s education and participation in public life. Lastly, it reveals the larger-scale social forces that eventually scotched opposition to woman suffrage, along with the ways these have subsequently changed again. The nature of this evolution suggests that those who seek to disenfranchise women today would, if they succeeded, find their victory a hollow one.   

Born in Tasmania into a prominent literary family in 1851, Mary Augusta Arnold married the Oxford fellow Humphry Ward when she was 20. As an Oxford wife, she helped widen access to the university for women, including playing a central role in the foundation of Somerville Hall, Oxford University’s first women’s college, in 1879. She was also an active social reformer, setting up an adult education center in east London that is still in operation today. She involved herself vigorously in local and national politics and wrote prolifically, producing 26 novels, along with lectures, articles, and nonfiction books.

By the outbreak of the First World War, she was the best-known Englishwoman in America. She was also the founding president of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League in 1908. 

Why would such a public and political figure oppose women’s enfranchisement? From a contemporary perspective, this seems quixotic in the extreme. But Mrs. Ward baffles today only because our world differs so sharply in its moral assumptions. From a modern perspective characterized by dogmatic egalitarianism, it has come to be seen as illegitimate by definition to map asymmetries of power, agency, or status onto givens such as sex or social class. Seeking to entrench such differences, meanwhile, is viewed today as deeply immoral. Whether or not we support this premise, it is not possible to understand Victorian England without grasping that there, the inverse generally obtained. 

The Anglican hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful, written in 1848, is still popular today. The extent of the moral sea-change we have undergone in between is illustrated by how rare it is to find modern churches singing the second verse:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

By contrast, the established social world Mrs. Ward bestrode so influentially viewed political access and agency as necessarily unegalitarian, because power was contextual and relationship-bound—not just for women, but for everyone. One’s social station was as given as one’s sex. The power relations implied by such a worldview are compellingly described in Mrs. Ward’s many novels. The Marriage of William Ashe (1905) depicts a glittering prewar politics whose terrain is not, or not only, Parliament, but also wider networks of association across great families, gilded Mayfair parties, and grand country houses. It is a world of parliamentary candidates chosen among friends and cousins, of landed-interest power bases, and deferential farmhands and servants. In this world, elite women exert all the influence they could desire, just obliquely: The plot of William Ashe turns on the hero’s disastrous marriage to a woman too emotionally erratic to play her allotted part as a charming political wife. Conversely, in the book, the notion that non-elite individuals of either sex should have much say in the country’s government is scarcely considered. In Delia Blanchflower (1913), meanwhile, the figure that most closely articulates Mrs. Ward’s own view of the issue muses at one point that feminists “attributed a wildly exaggerated importance to the vote, which, as it seemed to him, went a very short way in the case of men.” 

In the view of influential antis such as Mrs. Ward, being denied the vote was no impediment to women making full use of their abilities. By her time, the women’s movement was in fact very well-developed. Industrialization disrupted families and settled social norms. As men and women grappled with how to live together in a world transformed, the result was a vigorous, culture-wide debate on sex roles and relations. A consensus gradually emerged from this on “true womanhood”; in its wake came an increasingly organized women’s movement that was both maternalist and often strongly religious. 

If this movement is largely illegible from the liberal feminist vantage-point, this is because its core assumptions leaned into the very “sexist” distinctions that liberal feminism seeks to dismantle. Its vision was of women’s role as flowing from motherly values of kindness, selflessness, nurture, and moral uplift. Ideas spread via reading circles and public lectures. At scale, this coalesced into networks dedicated to public service and moral improvement. Organizations such as the Girls’ Friendly Society and the Mothers’ Union worked to propagate sexual “purity,” frugal living, and strong marriage across society, especially among the lower classes. Women linked domestic and public maternalism and drew parallels between all forms of caring work: The National Union of Women’s Workers, formed in 1895, explicitly framed all women’s domestic, voluntary and professional activities as “work,” whether paid or not, emphasizing the common element of public service. 

In an age with very little state welfare, the maternalist women’s movement played a transformative role in areas such as poor relief, social work, education, and health care. After the 1869 electoral reform extended the local government franchise to rate-paying women, this extended to voting for and standing in local government and school board elections. But, by and large, this movement did not view suffrage as anything like a main priority. Instead, as Julia Bush shows in her book Women Against the Vote, within such organizations suffragists and antis often worked side-by-side. The NUWW leadership, in particular, fought to preserve the institution’s neutrality on the suffrage question, hoping to preserve a space where women could continue collaborating on the many common projects to which the franchise was a side issue. 

This movement was the distaff side of Britain’s industrial and imperial ascendancy, and members often framed their labors explicitly in the context of this larger patriotic project. Though later decried as the tyrannically moralistic “Mrs. Grundy,” their philanthropic and reformist efforts helped soften the disruptive social costs of industrial urbanization. And anti-suffragists such as Mrs. Ward based their arguments against women’s enfranchisement on the fact—obvious to them, from the labors of Mrs. Grundy—that women were already involved in public life. Their domain was just distinct from those of men. 

This reasoning is set out in an 1889 open letter against female suffrage, co-authored and organized by Mrs. Ward. It argues that women should be active in every area where they have equal skin in the game. They should pursue higher education, lead in “the State of social effort and social mechanism,” and aspire to “that higher State which rests on thought, conscience and moral influence.” As the government began to take on more of the social functions first innovated by reformist women, Mrs. Ward and other antis argued for a representative delegation of women to advise Parliament on policy in domains where women were prominent. But, they argued, it was not physiologically possible for women to play an equal part across the board, especially in areas of public life predicated on the capacity to exert physical force, such as heavy industry, shipping, imperial governance, and the military. There, women’s influence was already proportionate to their contribution. 

What, if anything, can we learn from Mrs. Ward about the contemporary right-wing suffrage debate? Today, far fewer of her objections to woman suffrage apply. The Britain I live in is no longer the industrial, imperial, naval one of the 19th century. Industrial modernity prompted debate on the “woman question,” and its depredations also ended the settlement dubbed “true womanhood”: slowly, through the 19th century, then, with the World Wars, all at once. Ironically, one of Mrs. Ward’s last major works approvingly documented its end. England’s Effort: Letters To An American Friend (1915) was commissioned by England’s Propaganda Bureau with the aim of tilting American public opinion toward the English side of the war. In it, Mrs. Ward outlined England’s total wartime mobilization, an effort that mingled social classes, drew women into manufacturing, drove industrial innovations that weakened the bargaining power of labor, and legitimized the hitherto unimaginable intrusions of an emerging managerial state into previously private domains of English life. 

She applauded all these initiatives in the name of the war effort. But they proved to be the final nail in the anti-suffrage coffin. Wartime social changes shattered the stiffly hierarchical prewar social order upon which Mrs. Ward’s view of womanly public service was premised. It lent moral force to the working-class claim to political participation and normalized the presence of women in the workplace. In its aftermath, the franchise was granted at least in part in recognition of the fact that working-class goodwill was now in the national interest. England needed its industrial workers, and those workers therefore had leverage with which to demand political access. This went for women, too. Their direct participation in national economic life had, by this point, been so impressed upon the public that withholding the franchise seemed perverse and cruel. Mrs. Ward lost her battle, two years before her death, in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. 

In light of all this, a better question than “Should women be denied the franchise in 2024?” might be “Who, in 2024, actually has it?” Since deindustrialization, the franchise may be nominally universal but the electoral goodwill of the lower orders is not, as it was in 1918, needed. It should therefore surprise no one that, as Peter Turchin has noted, where popular opinion today diverges from the elite on a policy issue, it is never decided in favor of popular opinion. Politically speaking, the masses are now once again as peripheral to the business of decision-making as they were in Mrs. Ward’s day: a force not to be wholly disregarded but without any kind of decisive power. 

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The real counter to right-wing calls for the disenfranchisement of women is not outrage but: What difference would that make? Within this increasingly pseudo-democratic order, and especially across its mechanisms of consensus-formation and moral conditioning, something not dissimilar to the 19th-century “women’s movement” is once again in the ascendant. In the 19th century, reformist women dominated education, health, philanthropy, and moral reform; the same is true today, across education, the charity sector, and the guardians of contemporary moral conformity known as HR. The chief difference is that, whereas in Mrs. Ward’s time such institutions were run on a voluntaristic basis by women of independent means, motivated by Christian piety and noblesse oblige as well as the usual human quest for status, today these are run on a salaried basis by elite women with household bills to pay and ordered to a more post-Christian moral framework.

For those agitating to disenfranchise women, this invites a further question: Disenfranchise how? Which forms of political agency would the repealers remove? I defy anyone to compare the literary output of Mrs. Humphry Ward with (say) that of Michael Walsh and conclude that men are always and everywhere the intellectual superiors of women. Given this, we can reasonably assume that, whether directly enfranchised or not, clever women will continue to wield the influence they have always possessed. In the softer, less accountable, and now palpably post-democratic political order we inhabit, where at least as much of the Overton window is shaped by today’s equivalent of Mrs. Grundy, this influence would if anything be increased. 

Even supposing a consensus could somehow be mustered for withdrawing the vote from women, I submit that male advocates of this policy would be surprised to find themselves as politically henpecked as ever. Whatever we choose to call our formal political settlements, the reality today is—as it was in Mrs. Ward’s time—that men and women must, once again, grapple with how best we can live together.

This article appears in the May/June 2024 issue

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Sourse: theamericanconservative.com

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