John Stuart Mill Speech: On the Admission of Women to the Electoral Franchise
John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century British philosopher and economist best known for his writings on liberalism and utilitarianism, was also an early male advocate of women’s rights and enfranchisement.
In 1866, Mill—on behalf of two women’s rights pioneers, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson—presented the House of Commons with the first mass petition in favor of women’s suffrage. The petition’s origins are described in a UK Parliament article about the document:
The Liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill MP (1806-1873) was elected MP for the City of Westminster in 1865 on a platform including votes for women. Mill’s thinking on women’s rights was influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858). In 1869 Mill published his famous essay “The Subjection of Women“, in favour of equality of the sexes.
In 1865 the Kensington Society was formed. A discussion group for middle-class educated women who were barred from higher education in this period, it met at the Kensington home of Indian scholar Charlotte Manning. Following a discussion on suffrage, a small informal committee was formed to draft a petition and gather signatures, led by women including Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett. Mill agreed to present the petition to Parliament provided it could get at least 100 signatures, and the first version was drafted by his step-daughter, Helen Taylor.
The petition sparked some Parliamentary interest in women’s suffrage and led, one year later, to the assembly’s first debate on the question. On May 20, 1867—the day he turned 61—Mill argued before the House of Commons that British women should be given the right to vote.
At the time, the Commons was considering the Second Reform Act, which eventually roughly doubled the size of the electorate in England and Wales by loosening the property qualifications Brits had to meet in order to vote. The legislation only applied to the Queen’s male subjects, however, so Mill devised a clever ploy: He proposed to amend the Act by replacing instances of the word “man” with “person,” a change that would have included (some) women in the mass of newly eligible voters. Though he later described as “perhaps the only really important public service I performed in the capacity as a Member of Parliament,” Mill’s amendment was defeated when put to a vote.
He had never expected it to succeed, however. Rather, Mill used the amendment as a pretext to debate the larger question of why women were not allowed to vote. He began his speech by refuting some obvious potential objections to his proposal, calling it an “extension of the suffrage which can excite no party or class feeling in this House” and “which cannot afflict the most timid alarmist with revolutionary terrors, or offend the most jealous democrat as an infringement of popular rights, or a privilege granted to one class of society at the expense of another.”
Having set these issues aside, Mill got to the heart of the matter, saying, “There is nothing to distract our attention from the simple question, whether there is any adequate justification for continuing to exclude an entire half of the community, not only from admission, but from the capability of being ever admitted within the pale of the Constitution.”
Women’s exclusion from the voter rolls, he argued, was an outrage against the idea of the British constitution’s universal applicability. It was predicated only on the basis of women’s sex, an immutable factor beyond anyone’s control, and had no equivalent in British law or common sense:
There is no other example of an exclusion which is absolute. If the law denied a vote to all but the possessors of £5,000 a year, the poorest man in the nation might—and now and then would—acquire the suffrage; but neither birth, nor fortune, nor merit, nor exertion, nor intellect, nor even that great disposer of human affairs, accident, can ever enable any woman to have her voice counted in those national affairs which touch her and hers as nearly as any other person in the nation …
…[J]ustice, though it does not necessarily require that we should confer political functions on every one, does require that we should not, capriciously and without cause, withhold from one what we give to another. As was most truly said by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Lancashire, in the most misunderstood and misrepresented speech I ever remember; to lay a ground for refusing the suffrage to any one, it is necessary to allege either personal unfitness or public danger. Now, can either of these be alleged in the present case? Can it be pretended that women who manage an estate or conduct a business—who pay rates and taxes, often to a large amount, and frequently from their own earnings—many of whom are responsible heads of families, and some of whom, in the capacity of schoolmistresses, teach much more than a great number of the male electors have ever learnt—are not capable of a function of which every male householder is capable? Or is it feared that if they were admitted to the suffrage they would revolutionize the State—would deprive us of any of our valued institutions, or that we should have worse laws, or be in any way whatever worse governed through the effect of their suffrages? No one, Sir, believes anything of the kind.
Though it failed to achieve its purported purpose of amending the Second Reform Act, Mill’s speech proved enduring, and was used in the next century by American suffragists, including in this 1912 pamphlet distributed by the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League of New York State.
You can read Mill’s entire speech to the House of Commons—complete with the responses of some of his fellow legislators—here, or you can read just Mill’s speech here.
You can download a PDF version of the original printed text of Mill’s long essay “The Subjection of Women” below, or you can access it in various digitized formats—including Kindle versions—for free here, via Project Gutenberg.
For more on the contributions of male suffragists, see Brooke Kroeger’s book The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote.