Charles Anthony, The social and political dependence of women (1880)

We have acquired another new interesting item relating to women’s suffrage as part of the Voting for Change project.  The social and political dependence of women, by Charles Anthony, is one of the earliest British tracts supporting the concept of women’s right to vote.  Anthony was the editor of the Hereford Times and also mayor of the town several times in the 19th century. The Library has purchased the fifth edition of the text (1880) but it was first published in 1867, in the same year as MP John Stuart Mill’s failed attempt to amend Disraeli’s Reform Bill to introduce female suffrage.

Title page of bookInterestingly, this essay predated Mill’s famous text on the topic, The subjection of women (1869). One thing that comes out of this is the influence of Mill’s late wife, Harriet Taylor Mill. Harriet and her influence on her husband’s work are frequently forgotten, but she wrote an accomplished essay on women’s suffrage decades before her husband—The enfranchisement of women, 1851—and it is her that Anthony quotes as the authority on the topic.

In the essay, Anthony condemns the tendency of the press to ridicule women’s suffrage rather than approach it with real arguments.  He argues that many important developments in the history of humanity have been seen as ridiculous, purely because of their novelty, but are now accepted as truth; e.g. the existence of Australia “was long rejected because it assumed the absurdity that men could exist with their heads continually downwards.”  For Anthony, we must see our own beliefs as fallible and be ready to have them challenged with absurd propositions. He writes, “The ‘novelty’ objection, then, is of no force; for it only repeats the old assertion, that whatever always has been, always must be.”

At the heart of Anthony’s argument seems to be a liberal belief in the continuous progress of ideas, with ignorance and oppression falling away as society becomes more enlightened. The impact of the recent abolition of slavery is especially clear. History has not been kind to all his notions of progress, however... He gleefully lists hops and tobacco as among the “sources of human happiness” that were once feared would lead us to ruin.

We can see a very different conception of the democratic right to vote in this text compared to Canon Kingsley’s pamphlet on the same issue, published just two years later.  While Kingsley based his defence of female suffrage on women’s capacity to exercise political rights, Anthony rejects this argument, asserting that “mere superiority in intellect or in morality constitutes no sound claim to exclusive power”.   In other words, even if men did have a greater capacity to participate in politics, this would not justify their dominance.  This is because everyone needs to have their interests represented, and under the rule of men “woman has no security whatever that her interests will not be ignored—in fact, they are ignored. That she is sufficiently represented or protected by her husband, her father, or her brothers, all history refutes”.  Anthony’s case is that women have specific interests as a group, and representational democracy is needed for them to secure those interests.

Refreshingly. Anthony debunks the whole debate around women’s capacities and nature.  Rather than simply defending their political capacities as equal to those of men, he points out that these capacities are themselves a product of power relations. “So long as women have not votes, so long will women have no political knowledge, but that, give them votes, and they will acquire the knowledge...political knowledge seems to vary with political power”.  Our “nature” might be used to justify our oppression...but is it in fact a result of it?

Charlotte Beglin, Library volunteer