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It is a hard thing to categorically state who would be the most interesting figure in the British women’s suffrage movement within this time period, as there were many who had great influence on the events of this time. The militant actions of the Pankhurst ladies make them an enduring symbol of the movement that lives on in today’s memory and immediately spring to mind when the discussion of women’s suffrage arises. Another is the first suffragette martyr, Emily Wilding Davidson, who went to the Derby, rushed out on to the racecourse, grabbed the reins of the King’s horse and tried to stop the race and who died of head injuries from this act.
This incident also lingers in the public memory, long after the event. However, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an interesting figure in the British suffrage movement in the period between 1866 and 1914. He was born in London on May 20, 1806, and was the eldest of son of James Mill.
He died near Avignon, France on the 8th of May 1873. He was influenced by his fathers’ teachings, by the women in his life and events before 1866 influenced the path he took on the road for women to gain the vote. Mill, although not one of the publicly better known names of the suffrage movement, such as the Pankhursts or Emily Davidson, made a huge contribution to the early emergence of the movement for women’s rights and his membership of parliament and his efforts for women’s equality started in motion active petitioning by women for their voice in politics.
It will be shown in this essay how those who were closest in his life played a large part in moulding him into the person he was and how his fathers views versus the thoughts of the woman he loved, gave him a balanced outlook of life and the way things ought to be in a civilised and democratic society. It will be concluded that although not one of the major known militant figures of the suffrage movement, outside of academic circles, his work, writings and influence played a large part in pushing forward the cause of women’s emancipation in the mid to late nineteenth-century even though he would not see the goal of women gaining the vote within his lifetime and barely within living memory of the generation to follow him.
Before 1866, from around the mid 1820s, there had been stirrings in the feminist emancipation movement. Started in essence, with the book ‘Appeal of One-half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery’ written by William Thompson and Anna Wheeler, utilitarians and Owenite socialists. This book, written by Thompson, but dedicated to the thoughts and theories of Wheeler, was one of the first books that put on paper ideals for radical feminist thought. John Stuart Mill, who married Harriet Taylor in 1851 , would later go on to write his books, dedicated entirely to ‘Mrs Mill’, mirroring the way in which Thompson was influenced by a major female in his life. Through his relationship with Harriet Taylor, he came to the strong conviction that women’s suffrage was an essential step toward the moral improvement of humankind. Harriet Taylor died in 1858 and from this time onwards, Mill worked closely with Harriet’s daughter Helen on the writing of his books. He was very aware that his writings could only have come about due to the influences that Harriet and Helen had exerted upon hin him. In his autobiography Mill wrote that ….a motive which weighs more with me…is a desire to make acknowledgement of the debts which my intellectual and moral development owes to other persons, some of them of recognized eminence, others less known than they deserve to be, and the one to whom most of all is due’.
James Mill, John’s father, was an advocate of non-enfranchisement for women and stated that married females already controlled the vote by virtue of the fact that they could control the vote of their husband. But the younger Mill thought that the interests of the male could diverge from those of the female in the family. Mill’s father defended democracy, but also argued that votes for women were unnecessary, since the male could adequately represent the interests of the family and those who were parts of it. John did not agree with these views of his father and held with the view that stopping a woman from having the vote was akin to holding them in a state of subjection and that those women that did not conform to this were less womanly than would be expected of a female of this time. ‘[Men] hold women in subjection by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness. (Subjection of Women, Chapter I, p. 272). As a staunch supporter of womens suffrage he strongly believed that it was an essential part to the liberation of women, that they should be secured the ballot. He saw that by denying women the vote, it not only held a women in a lower submissive state, but therefore also raised the power of men within society.
Therefore he saw that male self-interest is in the subjection of women and that the self-interest of women is in their own liberation. Since male self-interest clearly conflicts with the self-interest of the female, the votes of women are needed to curb the pursuit of male self-interest. Changing the social relations between men and women to ones in which they play equal roles will require each to curb their self-interests and to broaden their social sympathies to include both those of the other and of the whole. He saw that at this time there was great disparity between men and woman and especially those women who were married. When a woman married she lost all her rights, something that Mill saw as unequal. In his ‘The subjection of women’ 1869 he wrote ‘The two are called ‘one person in law’ for the purpose of inferring that whatever is hers is his, but the parallel inference is never drawn that whatever is his is hers…’ Even when not married, the injustice of the situation was felt felt by many wealthy powerful women. In the 1830s there were petitions presented to parliament by very wealthy landowning single women such as Miss Mary Smith who met the property requirements of being able to vote. Miss Smith argued that if property ownership was the qualification for being allowed to vote, then she should, by virtue of the fact of meeting this requirement, be allowed to vote. As a single woman, with no husband or father alive, the property qualification that she should have been able to exercise was nullified due to the question of her sex and not that of her property.
Mill stood as a candidate for election to parliament as a radical for Westminster constituency in 1865. He strongly believed that the only way in which women were to be able to move forward and throw off the shackles of oppression was to have someone in a position of power, especially someone such as a member of parliament, to push forward the perceived rights of women. ‘political power is the only security against every form of political oppression.’ (Later Letters, p. 1343-44). Whilst a member of Parliament, he supported the Reform Bill of 1867, but he also moved an amendment which, if passed, would give women the vote. The amendment was defeated in a vote by 196 to 73. However, even though the bill was defeated, Mill saw that by gaining 73 votes, over 25 per cent of total vote, opinion within parliament was turning his way. With the defeat of Mill’s amendment, suffragists now had to rely on private bills to be introduced by their allies within parliament, but these bills, without the backing of the government would have little chance of passing. Every year from 1870-1883, with the exception of 1880 suffragists introduced their measures and every year they were defeated.
Although Mill was a pioneering radical member of parliament, he also saw that there were dangers of extending the suffrage to those who were not of sufficient intellectual capacity to make best use of the vote. This was a time of precise social strata and the idea that the common working class should be able to exert pressures on the way the country was run was anathema to all in parliament at this time, even to someone as liberal in thought as Mill. This is pointed out by Asa Briggs when he writes ‘Mill had written both in Political Economy and in Representative Government of the extreme unfitness [of] the labouring classes…for any order of things which would make any considerable demand on either their intellect or their virtue’.’ Democracy should be extended to all people, as long as they fitted the mould that was acceptable to high class society at that time. It would seem to make perfect sense to Mill at the time, why burden those with no educational understanding of the matter in had, when there were those such as himself, who would take on the burden of making sure that their lives went well and their voice was heard, through those with the ability and education to do so. For all his writings and speeches on equality, Mill was still a man of his time, at least in respect to certain divisions of the community.
So to conclude, Mill made many advances in the early period of the fight for British women’s suffrage although it can be be argued that in real terms at the time, his actions did not get women any nearer to their goal of gaining the right to vote. For all his actions in parliament and in books written on the subjects of government and the rights of women, the right of votes for women would not come in Britain until nearly fifty-five years after his death. It could be argued that in actuality it was the fact of the First World War and the need for women to take a greater role in society, that brought about the changing way in which men saw women and an appreciation by men of women, that they should have equal rights in life, if they shared the responsibility of equal risks as well. It could even be controversially argued that women did not win the vote, but the vote was given to women by men. Its all a matter of perspective and can depend on which side of the gender fence you sit. But it cannot be denied, that Mill was a great humanitarian and that his actions, if not in specific victories that can shown as gaining women’s objectives, did heighten awareness within the country and around the world and highlighted the need for a change in the way that governments should treat the citizens within their society.
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