Men's opinions on the prospect of suffrage for women varied
enormously from downright opposition and sabotage to political support. Below
are some descriptions of what the menfolk of 1900 Brisbane made of it all, with
some interesting comments.
pictured: masculine toiletries circa 1900
photo: Shev Armstrong
There was considerable anxiety in the ruling class
about the prospect that 'in the ballot lay the power to change relations between
men and women and ultimately to create a better world.' (The Dawn)
Arguments against women's enfranchisement ran the whole gamut
from the speculative, through the ludicrous, to the bizarre. The objections
fell into six categories: 1) women did not want it; 2) they were unfit to use
it; 3) they were too easily led; 4) it wasn't in the male interest; 5) fear
of the unknown; 6) women should be revered and uncontaminated.
Objections that women did not want the vote were not only pure speculation but also flawed, as there was no compulsion to register to vote. They surfaced in all debates from 1890 to 1905, however. Premier Boyd Morehead was a great opponent of the suffrage, considering it:
much better that the other sex should keep out of the troubled sea of politics. They have higher functions to perform than political ones, and to those functions their attention should be confined . The bulk of the women in this colony do not want it.
In 1894 the Ministerialists showed that nothing had changed so far as they were concerned. David Dalrymple was convinced that 'the most intellectual, and the greatest number of domestic, motherly women are against it.'
The majority of women are distinctly opposed to it; and the only result of carrying a measure of this sort will be, that a majority of women, at the instance of a minority of women, and with our assistance, will be compelled to take the responsibility of entering into a sphere of life - political life - which has very few charms, and which is utterly distasteful to most women who love their homes The great majority of women look forward to be compelled to register and record their votes with the most intense disgust and horror.
John Kingsbury maintained that: 'The ladies have never endeavoured to get their vote. They have never put in a claim for it,' and Justin Foxton sang to the same tune, that:
three-fourths of the women of the colony are either absolutely indifferent or strongly opposed to it all they appear to have been able to do is get a petition signed by 7000 women. The enormous disparity between the number of signatures to the petition and the number of women who have had an opportunity to sign it and did not do so confirms me in the opinion that a majority of the women of the colony do not desire the franchise.
Foxton had become Home Secretary by the time the first government Bill was introduced in 1901, but had not changed his opinion. George Story overlooked the fact that it was around 7.30pm when he commented during the 1901 debate: 'If the woman vote had been wanted the gallery would have been filled with women.' Even in 1915 Donald Gunn was not convinced that women really wanted the vote, and asserted in any case they were just a duplicate vote of their husband. He advocated a referendum on the matter.
The second objection that women were unfit to vote drew upon notions of women's intellectual capacity not being the same as men's, and the fact that women were not able to fight to defend their country. They were alleged to have defects in their character, be narrower in their views, or more conservative. Byrnes remarked in 1894 that women were: 'brought into work for which her past training and her physical frame of mind do not eminently fit her.' In the same debate Dalrymple maintained of women: 'seeing that they are on the whole more emotional than men, their presence in political life will increase the bitterness of political life.'
The third objection was based on the premise that women would easily be misled by designing males. Dalrymple was of the opinion that 'in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, women will vote as their husbands, or brothers, or male friends tell them', and George Thorn went one step beyond that, asserting that 'if there was a good-looking young man he will get their vote irrespective of his politics.'
The fourth objection, that women's suffrage was not in the male interest, was usually, although not always, handled euphemistically in debates. It included such things as the concern that women would vote as a bloc; they would neglect their families; they might corrupt the system; parliamentary institutions would suffer; the divorce rate would go up and the birthrate down; they might even get into parliament.
A recurrent theme was that some members were worried their womenfolk might not vote for them. In 1894 James Chataway was very concerned about those ramifications:
We will be impaled upon the horns of this very awkward dilemma . That women will either vote in accordance with the views of their husbands, fathers, brothers, or, as I hear an hon. Member say, their sweethearts, or they will vote against them. If they vote with them, we are only doubling the number of men already on the rolls. If they vote against them, we are preparing for ourselves a very great deal of trouble. We are preparing for ourselves domestic friction and war in the home, the results of which we cannot anticipate.
In 1901, George Story similarly predicted: 'There must be dissension at home unless the woman votes exactly as the man wants her. She might vote directly against her husband's interests.' Dalrymple in 1894 thought further and anticipated the collapse of the couple:
'If, in addition to the many causes of trouble in domestic life, we introduce the element of politics, then I am afraid that the number of marriages which take place will rapidly diminish, and that the divorce court will be more thronged with suitors.'
Damage to children was another common theme. William Little was certainly worried about it in 1890:
They would consequently have to attend the public meetings at which the candidates express their views, and the result would be that the children at home, whom it is their burning duty to protect and educate, would be neglected. I say it will be a cruel day for Queensland
These same sentiments were still being echoed in 1903 by Donald MacKintosh:
If they get the franchise, they will be saying to their husbands, "Look here, I am going to a meeting. You can stop home and mind the children" That is how the women's franchise will work. By and by there will be no children at all.
Thorn was worried about the effect on north Queensland:
The North now returns seventeen members; but if this Bill becomes law, owing to the large proportion of women in the south as compared to the North, the number of Northern members would be reduced to twelve.
In 1894 Byrnes predicted vastly more far-reaching consequences: parliamentary institutions would suffer, and the power of woman as the regenerator of man will also suffer. I look upon it as a dangerous experiment I believe that its result would be injury not only to the body politic but to the women themselves.
There were also worries that the vote would give women a taste for political influence and Dalrymple gave examples of how a woman might cast several votes:
The young woman went out in the morning and voted as Mary Johnson in the middle of the day she appeared as "fair, fat, and forty," as Mary Still; and in the evening she voted as an old woman Mary Yet.
Back in 1890 Hyne reported the concerns of some members, but wasn't particularly worried himself about women voting as a group: Another argument is that women will vote in a body and a number of my friends have a great horror of that.
The fifth objection, fear of the unknown, tended to be based around the lack of precedent and experience. Australia had survived until then without it; it might lower the tone of parliament; public opinion was not sufficiently advanced. Dalrymple perorated:
we cannot foretell the consequences. What we can foresee is not at all encouraging, and the mere fact that it is a step in the dark is sufficient to prevent any reasonable man voting for it. Why should we take steps in the dark?
The sixth objection revolves around the constructs of womanhood as being kept in a gilded cage or placed on a pedestal to avoid contamination by the hurly-burly of politics. Members spoke on this with considerable inventiveness: for example, there was no way a woman would register to vote if she had to give her age. Peter Airey thought the government was deliberately exploiting femininity for its own ends:
we all know that there is a decided objection on the part of many ladies to state their age. This, no doubt, arises from the tender reticence which we look upon as a graceful attribute of the feminine mind. It appears to me that the design of the Government is to get credit for conferring the franchise on women, while they are deliberately cutting that away by compelling women to state their ages.
The notion that women were too virtuous to be exposed to jostling or bad language at polling booths also persists throughout the debates:
Women will become unsexed by coming in contact with people at election times.
I do not think any man would like to see his wife, or sister, or any other female relative present at the scenes I have witnessed.
Drunken men scrambling for ballot-papers, and you often see that at general elections.
It has been said women dislike the publicity of voting at a polling-booth, and the possible crush and annoyance.
At various times, the case for the innate virtuousness of women was put. Byrnes in 1894 implored:
I hope that the women of this country will cast on one side the pernicious gift that is being offered to them, because it is one that they would find extremely prejudicial to their higher interests.
James Blair in 1902 made several points in a speech:
It may be a question whether women should embark in the maelstrom of politics. Extending the franchise to women deadens and roughens the innate sweetness of their lives which go to make us respect them. Giving them a privilege which undoubtedly should be theirs will have the tendency towards elevating, ennobling, and purifying political life.
Finally, reasons that fitted no category but the bizarre for
not giving women the vote were advanced:
I find there are five kinds of women in the colony, judging not by the walks of life they may occupy, but by their appearance, their facial expression and countenance. There is the ugly woman, the plain woman, the fair woman, the lovely woman, and the beautiful woman. I find the first two kinds - the ugly and the plain woman-constitute about 10% of the women of the colony; fair women 75%; and the lovely and beautiful women, 15%. How do they express themselves on this question of the franchise? I have endeavoured to find out, and to the best of my ability I have found out. I find that the only women in favour of the extension of the franchise to women are those of the first two kinds, the ugly women and the plain women. The fair, the lovely and the beautiful are either indifferent to the proposed extension of the franchise, or opposed to it. (George Thorn. QPD 71, 28 September 1894:718) Highlighted by the webmistress as the quaintest comment of the lot!
'Now, if you give women the franchise you will add to the Power of the clergy, and by that means will strike a terrible blow at the new unionism, and the democratic socialism, and all the other "isms" '
'There is less disposition to hang women than men, and yet
men have the administration of the law. It is possible that if women administered
the law there may be greater disposition to hang women.'
Thomas Byrnes in 1894 claimed women's suffrage would have an astonishing impact:
a sudden and violent revolution not only in our political system, but in the innermost portions of society They are seeking by this Bill to interfere with the social arrangements which have existed from the beginning of civilization.
Queensland would be the second last state in Australia to enfranchise women. This took place in 1905 without the extreme consequences predicted.
Much of the above text reproduced from an article by John McCulloch in Hecate: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Women's Liberation, Vol. 30, no. 2, 2004
McCulloch's article with complete references and notes:
The Struggle for Women's Suffrage in Queensland
The Bulletin since the end of the nineteenth century had been
articulating its sense of a crisis of masculinity in its ridicule of the Domestic
Man. In November 1888, it published these typical sentiments: 'All our moral
and mental life is the moral and mental life of men who are half women in their
habits, men breathing always a domestic atmosphere', and in August 1895 appeared
Henry Lawson's poem 'The Vagabond', that included these lines:
Sacrifice all for the family's sake
Bow to their selfish rule.
Slave till your big soft heart they break
The heart of the 'family fool.'
Reading women's writing was also liable to turn a man into a SNAG. In The Bulletin in April 1923, Vance Palmer wrote: 'A man wants vivid character, robust humour, a tough philosophy, and tragedy without a superfluity of tears. The atmosphere of women's novels is not good for him: it is warm and enervating, like a small room heated with an asbestos stove.'
Léontine Cooper depicted in The Boomerang a typical family man far different from Lawson's. Cooper's stories are pervaded by women's attempts to resist violence and the appropriation of their money by their husbands.
Frederick Brentnall, MLC and chairman of the board of directors
of the Brisbane Telegraph was among the bourgeois patriarchs who
did not want votes for women, unless they were propertied. But his wife Elizabeth
was Colonial President of the Women's Christian Temperance
Union that, from 1891, had thrown its weight behind women's suffrage.
One of the most strident masculinist voices in opposition to female suffrage was that of David Dalrymple who, in 1894, lamented in Parliament that women would be 'compelled to take the responsibility of entering into a sphere of life - political life - which has very few charms, and which is utterly distasteful to most women who love their homes', and asserted that most viewed the prospect of having to vote 'with the most intense disgust and horror.' He also expected that, since women were 'on the whole more emotional than men, their presence in political life will increase the bitterness of political life.'
Premiers from 1893 had been singularly unhelpful with regard to women's suffrage. Hugh Nelson reported flippantly at an election meeting in 1896: 'I have consulted my matrimonial authority who thinks that women would be better without it', while his short-lived successor Thomas Byrnes, who had in 1894 referred to votes for women as a 'pernicious gift', and as likely to produce 'a sudden and violent revolution not only in our political system, but in the innermost portions of our social system', in 1898 proposed a referendum on the issue - with voting in it to be done only by men! WEFA collected 10,000 signatures in a petition against it but when Byrnes died suddenly the proposal, fortunately, died with him. In July 1897, the WCTU had presented a petition with 4000 signatures from all over Queensland but, as an increasingly cynical Eleanor Trundle reported, it 'met the usual fate of petitions'.
Robert Philp's contribution for increased democracy was a proposal that all Queensland adults would have the right to vote but men with two or more 'legitimate' children would have two votes. Fortunately he wasn't in power for long, and was soon replaced by Arthur Morgan. Having been elected on a mandate of (supposedly) universal suffrage, Morgan called a special Cabinet meeting and then a special sitting of Parliament, to prorogue the Upper and Lower Houses. Many of the women were there - maybe including Elizabeth Brentnall - to see the suffrage bill go through despite her husband's vote.
Men's attitudes to women being able to sit in Parliament
The suffragist Elizabeth Brentnall's husband, Frederick, in 1915 had snidely referred to the fact that although women could stand for election to Federal parliament none had yet got there: 'Does not the fact that the electors have not yet elected one show that they are wiser than the men who passed the Act?'
The patriarchal pomposity in relation to Queensland women getting
the vote was equally evident in debates about women running
for election to parliament. Justin Foxton in 1894 had insisted:
the entry of women into this House as necessary result of granting the franchise may be decidedly deprecated, as we have to deal with subjects here which would be very inconvenient to discuss with an audience of ladies.
And in 1915, James Forsyth expressed the same opinion:
I do not think myself that this is a place for a woman at all, and I hope that when we get into Committee we shall be able to have that innovation knocked out.
The gatekeepers did have some opposition: at the turn of the century Peter Airey welcomed the prospect of female Members:
I think that if ladies were allowed the privilege of sitting in this House, they would be the means of purifying this Chamber and making certain volcanic members conduct themselves in a manner more in accord with our ideas of propriety. If women are fit to elect, I say they are fit to be elected.
And in 1915, John Huxham suggested that a particular class of woman, at least, might be an asset:
the advent of women into our Parliament would be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Why should we deny that right to intellectual women who have taken a high university degree.
Source: John McCulloch - forthcoming book
basic commode in maid's room
photo: Shev Armstrong