Reverend Charles Kingsley, Women and politics (1869)
As part of our Voting for Change project, enabled by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we have acquired an 1869 pamphlet by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, entitled Women and politics. Kingsley was a member of a loose group known as the ‘Christian Socialists’ in the 19th century. However, this group was not ‘socialist’ in the way we might understand today! Although they wanted to improve the lives of the lower classes, they saw the solution as applying Christian principles to social problems, rather than radical political upheaval.
In the text, Kingsley argues that the franchise should be extended to women on the same terms as men. He was moved to write the tract partly by the context of the 1860s. Above all, the influence of John Stuart Mill’s 1869 work On the subjection of women is clear. Mill had been at the forefront of recent parliamentary campaigns to give women the vote, after his election as an MP in 1865. He introduced a petition of 1,499 signatures on the issue to the House in 1866. Then the following year he attempted to amend the wording of Disraeli’s Reform Act to replace the term ‘man’ with ‘person’, but was defeated. However, it was not J. S. Mill’s passion alone that led to these efforts. The nascent women’s movement was crucial in putting pressure on him and in gathering enough signatures for the petition. The movement grew in scope as a result despite the failure of these attempts, with new suffrage societies founded in Manchester and London.
At first glance, Kingsley’s argument in Women and politics appears to be quite egalitarian. His main claim is that experience has proved that women are just as capable as men, in terms of their intelligence, their self-sufficiency and their economic lives. He even comes close to arguing for women’s superiority, claiming that if there is any difference between the sexes, it is “that men are generally duller and more conceited than women”, because they are more complacent.
However, Kingsley’s case is not as progressive as it first appears. While he argues for equal criteria for men and women, his concept of democratic citizenship is somewhat conservative. In his view, you have to be worthy and capable of participating in democracy, which excludes “those unable to support themselves”. He believes education and refinement are important, and a large part of his defence of women is based on an idea of them being more virtuous in these regards. Like many others who fought for women’s suffrage, the Reverend seems to hold a level of contempt towards the men who were granted the vote before women above them in the social hierarchy. He argues “it is no wonder if refined and educated women...should ask for votes, for the defence, not merely of themselves, but of their lowlier sisters, from the tyranny of men who are as yet—to the shame of the state—most of them altogether uneducated.”
Kingsley’s attitudes towards democracy can also be seen in some of his other works held in the Library. His 1849 placard addressing the Chartists, ‘Workmen of England!’ entreated the protestors “Workers of England, be wise, and then you must be free, for you will be fit to be free.” These works serve as a good example of the many different ideologies that supported women’s suffrage - not all of them radical!
Charlotte Beglin, volunteer