It has long been a socialist aim, first voiced by the Utopians, that men and women should be equal in the conduct of social and personal affairs. This was a direct challenge to the Christian doctrine that women were inferior and to the legal contract called marriage which made the wife the private property of the husband. This aim is expressed in our own Declaration of Principles: “the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex”. In other words, the establishment of Socialism would mean an end to all oppression and discrimination against women.
The heyday of the Suffragette movement was the decade before the outbreak of the first world war. During that period also, the Socialist Party of Great Britain was set up. Since political democracy is the only condition in which a genuine socialist movement can become effective, it may surprise some to learn that the Socialist Party not only did not advocate woman’s suffrage but was opposed to the Suffragettes. But we opposed them mainly because their demands were undemocratic; they did not stand for universal adult suffrage.
People often do not realise that universal suffrage was not achieved in Britain till 1929 and that about four out of ten men were excluded till 1918. When, for instance, in 1912 McKenna, the Liberal Home Secretary, introduced an unsuccessful bill to extend the franchise he estimated that there were twelve million men over twenty-one of whom less than seven-and-a-half million had the vote. Incidentally, we denounced this bill which would still have left over two million men voteless as a typical Liberal vote-catching swindle. Only certain ratepayers had the vote under a system called Household Suffrage. The Suffragettes wanted to give women the vote on these terms. The Socialist Standard of June 1908 pointed out what this would mean:
What are the facts regarding the Suffragettes? Under the pretence of sex equality they are buttressing class privilege. Under the guise of democracy they are endeavouring to strengthen the political power of property. They plausibly propose that women be admitted to the franchise on the same terms as men, and since all Socialists want sex equality this looks attractive. But wait. What does it really mean? Men vote at present under the £10 franchise. The suffrage is thus upon a property basis with plural voting for the wealthy. Therefore, according to the proposals of the women Suffragists, only those women having the necessary property qualifications are to be allowed to vote. This excludes not only all those single working women unable to qualify because of their poverty, but it also bars practically the whole of the married women of the working class who have no property qualifications apart from their husbands’. Further, it increases enormously the voting power of the well-to-do. since the head of the wealthy household can always impart the necessary qualifications to all women of his house, while the working man, through his poverty, is entirely unable to do so.
Votes made by transferring enough property to unqualified persons were known as ‘faggot votes”. We returned to the same point in February 1912:
As already stated (and it has not been denied) the Suffragettes oppose adult suffrage. The vote to women on the same terms as men as at present would exclude the mass of working-class women (or their husbands) because of their lack of property. It would permit the doubling of the voting strength of property by enabling the wealthy to provide their women with the requisite qualifications. It would deal a blow at the whole working class, and set back the hour of emancipation.
When a Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill was introduced in 1910 we were able to show that our opposition to the Suffragettes was fully justified. Even Winston Churchill, then a Liberal, pointed out that its effect would simply be to multiply faggot votes for the wealthy. The whole trend of the debate, commented the August Socialist Standard, “showed how essentially undemocratic is the spirit of the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the measures it proposes.” This was also why the Liberal leaders said they were against it. Indeed Asquith earned what must have been the only praise from us (normally we called him “butcher” as he was Home Secretary in 1893 at the time of the Featherstone shootings) for the way he opposed “the hysteric demands of women for the enfranchisement of the propertied ones among them”!
Thus we opposed the Suffragettes because their demands were against the interests of workers, women as well as men. Their proposals would have strengthened the political power of the capitalist class by increasing the proportion of rich people who had the vote. The movement, we stated, was “only a means of providing votes for the propertied women of the middle class, and faggot votes for the wealthy”. They wanted not votes for women, but more votes for property. We warned “the women of the working class are being used for the purpose of obtaining a limited suffrage in the interests of propertied women”. The Women’s Social and Political Union we denounced as “essentially a rich women’s organsation”.
The attitude of the Socialist Party towards reforms is basically that a socialist party should not advocate them as this inevitably leads to compromise with capitalism. This is not to say that all reforms are against working class interests. They are not, and we have never said they were. Obviously some are, and some are not. The Suffragette proposal to extend the Household Vote to women on the same terms as men was and we opposed it for that reason. Universal adult suffrage was a different proposition. We were not opposed to this and frequently said so: “we are of necessity Universal Adult Suffragists” (April 1906) and “we are necessarily and without qualification democrats” (July 1912).
However, we did not advocate universal suffrage or seek support on the grounds that we thought it useful. This was because there were already sufficient workers with the vote to win political power for Socialism if they were so minded. We held that in the political conditions of pre-1914 Britain there was no need to advocate extension of the franchise. The Socialist Standard put this well in answers to queries on this point:
The Socialist Party is not opposed to Adult Suffrage, but maintain that the working class have quite sufficient votes at their disposal to effect the revolutionary purpose when the class are sufficiently class conscious to make the time opportune. It is a question of education, not of extensions of the franchise (December, 1910).
While Adult Suffrage would be a useful measure for the working class, to enable them to more quickly and completely take control of political power when they understand how to use their votes, yet as the working class have a franchise wide enough for the initial steps of their emancipation, it is not the business of a Socialist Party to spend time and energy in advocating the extension of that franchise, but to educate the workers in how to use the voting power which they already possess; hence the business of a Socialist Party is to advocate Socialism only (November, 1913).
Of course had there not been enough workers with the vote, as in Britain before 1868, this would have been a different situation.
The woman’s suffrage issue was first raised in these columns in April 1906 in a letter asking for funds from Mrs. Emmeline Pethick Lawrence
of the WSPU. In our reply we pointed out that no doubt when the workers had won political power for Socialism one of their first acts would be to introduce adult suffrage, if indeed the capitalist class had not already done so in a bid to ward off their coming dispossession. Demanding the whole baker’s shop, we said, was the best way of getting the whole loaf.