Votes for Young Women
irT has _been well understood for two years past that, I before the present Parliament ends, women will have received the franchise on precisely the same. terms as men. We confess to finding it strange, therefore, that the advocates of the extended suffrage for women should profess anxiety as to the Government's intentions. The Daily Mail is pressing the Cabinet to break its pledges on the ground that Votes for Flappers " would shatter the. British Constitution and destroy the Empire, although, of course, the Australian Commonwealth, where women vote on the same terms as men, shows no signs of decay. But newspaper controversy of this sort. is belated. The question is virtually settled. Each of the three parties in turn has accepted the principle, for the House of Commons in 1922, 1923 and 1924 accepted resolutions in favour of the extended franchise, and these resolutions were moved by a Conservative, a Liberal and a Labour man respectively. Finally, on February 20th, 1925, the present Home Secretary, While declining to support a private member's Bill on the subject, definitely declared that at the next General Election the voting age would be the same for women and for men. He made it perfectly clear that the. Government would fulfil, either this year or next, the promise given by Mr. Baldwin, as. Leader of the Opposition, in the General Election of 1924. We are not indeed so unversed in polities as to regard every Ministerial promise as the equivalent of an accomplished fact. But in this case the pledge was specific, and it was voluntarily given by a new Government with an immense and coherent majority. We assume, therefore, that the pledge will be redeemed in due course, and that women will soon enjoy precisely the same franchise as men have. The Nineteenth Amendment of 1920 to the American Constitution abolished any differentiation of voting rights based on sex, and we too are bound to have adult suffrage in the very near future.
When a constitutional change is, humanly speaking, inevitable, it is surely wise to recognize the fact and make the best of it. Wellington and Peel in 1832 fought the list Reform Bill as long as possible and then let it pass through the Upper House. Disraeli showed a better way in 1867 when he produced the second Reform Bill and carried it triumphantly to the Statute book. The Conser native Opposition of 1884 held up the third Reform Bill until it was accompanied by a reasonable scheme of Redistribution. The fourth Reform Bill fared best of all, as it was based on the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference and was carried by a Coalition Government with general consent. It will be remembered that the non-party conference accepted woman's suffrage in Principle, but could not agree as to the age at which a woman should be given a vote. The House of Commons in 1917, by 214 votes to 17, decided that the minimum age should be thirty. That was admittedly a compromise, based upon mere expediency. The Parliament of ten Years ago, elected in 1910, could not reconcile itself to the idea that women should form the majority of the electorate. Such a compromise might have worked well here in Great Britain, where we love anomalies, if it had commanded general assent. But it was logically indefen- sible, and, as soon as politicians, in one party and another, began to take up the cry of " Injustice to Voteless • - Women.," the compromise of 1917 was doomed. In our view, then, it is futile to argue the question. Sex disquali- fications cannot be maintained any longer. If Mr. Baldwin by some strange chance were to refuse to abolish them, his successor will certainly do so and get the credit.
Nor need the prospect alarm the most timid of Conservatives. What is the position now ? There are about 11,800,000 men voters and 8,800,000 women voters on the register. If women and men were enfran- chised on equal terms, sonic 5,000,000 women would get votes for the first • time. Not all of these, by any means, would be women between twenty-one and thirty. It is estimated that nearly 2,000,000 women over thirty are denied votes because they are not ratepayers or the wives of ratepayers who arc local government electors.
These women are presumably neither more nor less competent to exercise the voting powers of a citizen than their married sisters. Indeed, as most of them arc earning their own living, they may be presumed to take an even keener interest in public affairs than do the women who have husbands to protect them. It would be difficult to distinguish between this class of future woman voters and the 3,000,000 younger women, over twenty-one and under thirty, who will soon be enfran- chised. To label them as " flappers " is absurd : they include, no doubt, a few idle girls, but the vast majority of them are, of course, working women—cotton operatives, shop-assistants, clerks, as well as teachers and so forth.
Most of them are better educated than their mothers were, thanks to the care of a paternal State, and they almost certainly know as much about public affairs as their mothers do because they enjoy unbounded freedom in our post-War society. We can see no reason for supposing that the addition of these 5,000,000 women, over and under thirty, to the voters' rolls will debase the electorate in any way. On the contrary, we should he inclined to think that such new electors will, on the whole, be somewhat more alert and responsive than the average woman voter. There is no need to institute foolish comparisons between women and men. We have accepted woman suffrage and cannot go back on it. But a reasoned survey of politics since 1918 would not justify the conclusion that the nine million women voters have done any harm to their country. The Conservative Party at any rate should be grateful to them for giving it the largest majority that it has ever had. Moreover, it has been clearly shown that women do not vote as a sex but are as much divided politically as their ' fathers, brothers and husbands. Even if there- is a majority of women in the electorate, we need not fear that they will rule us men more than they do now. The " monstrous regiment of women " is a figment of the reactionary imagination. Women electors, as we have seen, seldom vote for women candidates.
All that remains to do is to determine the precise method by which the Govermnentk pledge is to be implemented. The Home Secretary's suggestion two years ago was that a small conference representing all parties should agree upon the details of a new Reform Bill, which could then quickly become law by general assent. It was a good proposal, which might yet be adopted. Failing this, the Government should find no great difficulty in drafting a Bill for itself. In any case the women still unenfranchised will soon receive votes, and ten years hence we shall look hack and wonder why so much fins was made about such a very simple matter.