E. Belfort Bax May 1910

Feminism and Female Suffrage

Source: New Age, 30 May 1910, p. 88-89;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

First and foremost amongst the rights claimed by Feminists for women is the political franchise. The reasons for this claim are based, one on abstract justice, the assumption being that women are, on the average, substantially similar and equal to men in intellectual and moral capacity; and the other on the practical consideration that, as things are, women constitute a cruelly-oppressed section of the community, and that, as with any other division of the community similarly situated, the political franchise is the first essential to their obtaining their legitimate social rights. Now, in the present article it is proposed to deal exclusively with the last point while conceding the other for the sake of the argument. In doing so, I propose to show, as briefly as possible, not only, that women at the present time, considered as women and apart from the class to which they belong, suffer no sort of social injustice to which the men of their class are not equally exposed, but, on the contrary, that as women they enjoy privileges, and hence constitute a privileged order of human beings, not only as against the men of their class, but as against men generally, us men. If this be so, I contend not only does the practical urgency of the Suffrage claim, even if it were conceded in the abstract, fall to the ground, but even the abstract right itself would disappear, since the granting of it would amount to the piling up of an additional privilege on an already privileged class.

That the object of a large number of these women who are now clamouring for the franchise is not merely to maintain but to extend their legal privileges is evident to anyone. They want the suffrage as a weapon wherewith to carry on a sex-war, with a view to the dominance of the female. That this means countering evolution with a vengeance I will merely remark in passing. In early forms of life the female may perhaps be taken as representing the most important element of the species. As the male element evolved, however, the higher function of the species became more and more absorbed by the male, and the female more and more relegated to the function of reproduction. The subordination of the female element by the male has been a characteristic feature of evolution from the lower to the higher throughout the whole course of biological, as of sociological, development.

But to address ourselves to our more immediate purpose, which is to show the privileged status of women before the law, alike in itself and still more in its administration. Let us begin with the civil law, and, first of all, with that relating to the status of the married woman. No woman can be imprisoned for debt (“contempt of court”) no matter what means she may possess, although her husband may be for the non-payment of her debts. Not even can her property be attached for the payment of a debt if settled on her in due form. Neither can she be served with a bankruptcy order unless in relation to a business carried on apart from her husband and in her own name. She is free to leave her husband, and he has no legal power to detain her or compel her to return. He has no control over her personal property. She, on the other hand, can obtain an order for restitution of conjugal rights, by which he is ordered to return, or she can obtain alimony or maintenance, according to her “station in life.” The husband is responsible for any slander or libel she may commit although he knew nothing of it or even disapproved it. He is liable, that is, for damages and costs, while she escapes with absolute impunity. From the above it will be seen that the infamous British law sticks at no outrage on the most elementary principles of common rectitude in privileging the married woman at the cost of her husband. Not that this is by any means a complete statement of the case. To have given such, with the necessary detail and references to law reports, would have carried us much beyond the limits admissible in the present article.

Among all the women’s rights advocates I am not aware of one who, in her zeal for equality between the sexes, has ever suggested abolishing the right of maintenance of the wife by the husband. On the contrary, they are usually only too eager to increase the husband’s burdens in this connection. By an Act passed in 1895 this liability for maintenance was extended to a wife notwithstanding her adultery. It must be remembered here that it is not alone by actual statute that wives are favoured at the expense of their husbands, but that judge-made or decision law is even still more operative in this direction. As has been remarked of the judges in this matter, “every moth-eaten scrap of privilege which is in favour of the wife they retain. All privileges of the husband, no matter how firmly established, they deny as ever having existed.” An illustration of this is to be found in the statement of Lord Halsbury in the Jackson case that a husband had never the right in English to restrain his wife! The pro-Feminist bias of judges is no less marked in civil than in criminal proceedings.

Let us now turn to the criminal law. A wife enjoys, at present in this country, practical immunity for all offences of which her husband is the victim. Gaol and public obloquy are the lot of the husband, as we all know, for similar offences towards the wife. The wife, without forfeiting her right of maintenance, may insult, slander, or libel her husband. The wife is free to neglect every one of her recognised duties, while the husband has no redress. If, on the other hand, the husband neglects her he is at once liable to a police-court separation order with confiscation of property, or wages, for her maintenance. It must be remembered here that everything of which the wife chooses to complain (e.g., coming home late at night) will be held by the Court to constitute neglect, just as everything the wife chooses to call cruelty will be construed as such by a similar chivalrous tribunal. A husband can be arrested and imprisoned for deserting his wife, whereas a wife may desert her husband with impunity.

But it is not so much in the letter of the law that its sex-favouritism is most conspicuously illustrated. It is in the spirit of its administration that this sex-favouritism appears in its strongest light. An assault by a woman on a man, certainly by a wife on her husband, is lightly punished if at all. That this is so can be tested by anyone who likes to read the police reports regularly. Again, a case is hardly known of a woman being sentenced to imprisonment for bigamy. Men commonly receive seven years for this offence. Similarly, a woman is practically allowed full freedom to commit perjury in the Divorce Court with a view to establishing a case of adultery against her husband. Let the husband but try the same game on and he will find quite another pair of shoes awaiting him. Even if the perjury be committed to exculpate himself – a thing regarded as a matter of course in the wife – the husband is by no means secure from the danger of penal servitude. The only case in which perjury is permitted to a man without consequences is where it is committed (say in the Divorce Court) in order to guard or whitewash the character of a woman. The letter of the law in criminal cases is supposed to apply equally to both sexes, but the practical difference in its application is so flagrantly glaring as to hardly need animadversion. We all know the savagely vindictive sentences passed by police magistrates and judges for the most trivial wife assaults and for common assaults generally where a female is the object of them.

As regards indecent assaults, the late Baron Huddleston remarked that in his experience men required far more protection against women than women against men. The reason for this is obvious. It is hardly known, even in the most malicious charge of this kind, that the female plaintiff has ever been prosecuted, much less convicted, for perjury. With this absolute immunity, this dastardly form of blackmailing has naturally flourished among a certain section of the female population. It is even encouraged by the law, for by the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 a boy of fourteen can be convicted for committing a sexual offence with a girl of sixteen, to which he was actually incited by the latter, who, by virtue of her sex, is held guiltless by the law. I know of a case in which a female was produced as witness against several boys, younger than herself, whom she had seduced, but the Court held that this precocious creature could not be punished, although her victims were duly sent to gaol.

As regards prison treatment, it is well known that flogging is absolutely abolished by the Act of 1820 where women are concerned. Hanging is practically abolished by usage for women who murder men. Women, if they find prison discipline irksome to them, have, as a rule, only to create a sufficient disturbance to get it relaxed. A very flagrant case of this kind occurred some years ago at Wormwood Scrubbs. In any case the duration of sentence is, on the average, about one-third that which a man would receive for a like offence, while the “hard-labour” is generally little more than nominal.

I have above given a few of the leading points in the favouritism of the law towards women. Those who wish to pursue the matter in further detail, list of cases etc., may be referred to a pamphlet published some twelve years ago by the Twentieth Century Press entitled The Legal Subjection of Men. This pamphlet, I may observe, which gives the state of the law and its administration at the time of writing, and which holds good in all essentials to-day, has been studiously ignored and boycotted by the feminist faction, well knowing, as they did, that a perusal of it would have burst up once for all that exploitation of popular ignorance and prejudice on which their agitation is based. In the face of the statement of law and of facts there given, the game of bluff by which the advocates of “woman’s rights” succeed in drawing tears from guileless simpletons by diatribes on the cruelly unjust status of Women under man-made laws, would have ceased to be possible. We will now turn to an argument which is sure to crop up. What, it may be said, has all this to do with the right of women to the franchise? Women, it may be urged, are not responsible for these iniquitously sex-biassed laws, or for the administration of the law. The answer to this is, that the chief argument for the imperativeness and urgency of votes for women insisted on by Suffragettes is mainly the unfairness of treatment meted out to women. Now, it is clear that when it is shown that much-decried man makes laws wholly and solely in the interests of the opposite sex and to the detriment of his own, any conclusions drawn from the contrary assumption vanish in smoke. If it be alleged, further, that women do not want these privileges, my reply is, why do they not say so in the course of their agitation? Instead, not only do those who are most zealous in clamouring for the franchise do their best to bluff their dupes by posing as the victims of a non-existent male oppression, but they, often enough, expressly proclaim their intention of pressing forward legislation the effect of which would be to enhance the existing privileges of their sex. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that, although it may be true that women in general are not directly responsible for the present state of the law and public sentiment, this is largely due to the persistent action of the feminist agitation during the last two generations, so that sex-conscious women at least, are in a very definite sense responsible for it. Finally, their position, as a specially privileged class, is surely incompatible with the claim to the possession in addition thereto, of the political rights of those not so privileged.

In the present article I have only dealt briefly with one aspect of this question. I may point out in conclusion that the existing state of public opinion on the subject registers the fact that sex-conscious women have exploited the muscular weakness of their sex and have succeeded in forging a weapon of tyranny called “chivalry” which enables them to ride rough-shod over every principle of justice and fair play, Men are cowed by it, and fail to distinguish between simple weakness per se which should command every consideration, and that aggressive weakness which trades upon “chivalry” and deserves no quarter.