A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right
- Tom Paine 1737-1809
It was not until 1928, that women were able to vote in the UK on the same basis as men. In the decades before the First World War, most people - women as well as men - were opposed to women having the vote.
What arguments were used to oppose giving women the vote? There were no good arguments. So, those who were opposed to this happening, came up with plenty of nonsense arguments. Nonsense arguments can be just as effective as good arguments.
Sometimes, those putting forward these nonsense arguments, did so cynically, knowing very well that the arguments were nonsense and also knowing they could not simply state the truth, that men wanted to deny women the vote so as to maintain men’s power.
Other times, those putting forward these nonsense arguments completely believed in them. It is very easy for people to convince themselves that something is true, if it is in their own interest for it to be true.
Here are some of the nonsense arguments used against giving women the vote.
In a debate in the House of Commons on 25 April 1906, Mr Samuel Evans said: -
“All really sensible men…think women have their own honourable position in life…accorded to them by nature, and their proper sphere is the home…If women were to be entitled to privileges of citizenship, they ought to share its responsibilities. Would it be desirable that women should have to go to battle?”
Mr Cremer said: -
“There are times and periods in women’s lives when they require rest not only for mind but for body and to drag them into the political arena under those conditions would be cruel indeed.”
And from the Commons debate on 28 March 1912: -
Mr Harold Baker: -
“The question is…the enfranchisement of politically inert masses who take no interest in politics and do not desire to do so…The vote is a badge, not of superiority, but of difference, a difference of masculine character and coercive power…”
Viscount Helmsley: -
“…the mental equilibrium of the female sex is not as stable as the mental equilibrium of the male sex. The argument has very strong scientific backing.
I believe that the normal man and the normal woman both have the same instinct that man should be the governing one of the two and I think that the undoubted dislike that women have for men who are effeminate and which men have for masculine women is nothing more or less than the expression of this instinct…”
The Prime Minister, Mr Asquith: -
“The question [is] why should you deny to a woman of genius the vote, which you give to her gardener? [The answer is] you are dealing not with individuals but with the masses…[any] gain would be more than neutralised by the injurious consequences…to the status and influence of women as a whole."
Mr Stewart: -
“Men are under the potent influence of women already. They are controlled in childhood and cherished in old age. And between childhood and old age they are more subject to their influence than at any other period of life…[Women] can [already] win any election or carry any measure they set their minds to…”
Mr MacCullum Scott: -
“The argument against Woman Suffrage which has always impressed me most is the physical force argument. …women as physical force units are not equal to men… Therefore, if you include women when you are counting heads, the result is not reliable as an index of the physical force in the country…By giving votes to women you are destroying the value of a General Election.”
Other commonly used nonsense arguments as to why women should not be allowed the vote were
- Married women would only double or annul their husband’s votes
- Voting would destroy chivalry
- Voting would stop women getting married and having children
- Women are too precious and innocent to be involved in public life
These nonsense arguments might be laughable now but at the time they were made in earnest and many people found them persuasive.
Not everyone, of course. Here is the Labour MP Philip Snowden in the 1912 debate, identifying the nonsense arguments for what they were: -“The opposition to the enfranchisement of women is not argument; it is a masculine prejudice.”
Many, like the Suffragettes, who opposed the nonsense arguments of their time, were dismissed as either ridiculous crazies or as dangerous extremists.
In 2015, the malign power of nonsense arguments is as strong as ever. They are used to justify all sorts of arrangements which suit the powerful. I will consider some contemporary nonsense arguments in future pieces.
And the powerful still dismiss the people who challenge their nonsense arguments as ridiculous crazies or as dangerous extremists.
Sadly, our media is no more helpful in combatting nonsense arguments than it was at the time of the fight for votes for women.
There is only one way the power of nonsense arguments can be combatted. As many people as possible, need to be alert and engaged and able to identify such dangerous nonsense for themselves.