Another aspect of Mill's polemic has specific political relevance: that as mothers and teachers women should be educated and expected to engage with national issues; the condition of women reflects the condition of the nation writ large. This line of argument reemerges in Mill's introduction of female suffrage to the House of Commons. On May 20, 1867 he professed to fellow MPs:
...the time is now come when, unless women are raised to the level of men, men will be pulled down to theirs. The women of a man's family are either a stimulus and a support to his highest aspirations, or a drag upon them. You may keep them ignorant of politics, but you cannot prevent them from concerning themselves with the least respectable part of politics--its personalities....(Hansard, 822)
Mill goes on to invert the rhetoric used by most Victorian males to impede women's entrance into the public sphere. This language traditionally espoused the maintenance of English masculinity and revealed male fear of personal and national feminization. Playing on such insecurities Mill proclaimed:
...men are afraid of manly women; but those who have considered the nature and power of social influences well know, that unless there are manly women, there will no longer be manly men. When men and women are really companions, if women are frivolous, men will be frivolous ...the two sexes must now rise or sink together. (822-823)
Though he composed it in 1861, Mill did not publish The Subjection of Women until 1869, after he had participated in the first Parliamentary debates concerning female suffrage. While the House of Commons was debating the bill known as the Representation of the People Bill, which would lead to the Reform Bill of 1867, John Stuart Mill sat in the House as MP from Westminster. With an awareness of the unacceptable position of women, Mill, on May 20, 1867, suggested that the bill's clause which read "man" be changed to "person." As soon as Mill announced his intentions, in late March of the same year, the issue received immediate attention in periodicals like Punch. By examining the arguments, language and pictorial images employed by this popular publication to dismiss the necessity of female suffrage, as well as Mill's arguments, we begin to better understand the way in which mid-Victorian middle-class men conceptualized gender issues and, consequently, why women weren't enfranchised until over fifty years later. Between March 30, 1867 and June of the same year, Punch ran three short pieces which, considered together, outline what types of women were pro-suffrage and what type was against such legislation. In addition, there were two political cartoons addressing female enfranchisement and one "lecture" was printed whereby women were dismissed as incapable of exercising the vote. Let us briefly examine these various texts to better understand Punch's stance on this controversial issue.
In this discussion, the woman is depicted as manly; she has her own pipe, she is articulate and open to reconsidering her position on women's suffrage. We must remember, however, that she is highly educated and therefore a rarity herself. Still, in the end she proposes a somewhat ridiculous solution to the problem, that women have a separate house. Not only does such a suggestion invalidate her supposed intelligence, but it also emphasizes the differences between men and women; even an educated, pro-suffrage woman cannot envision women sitting in Parliament with men. Accordingly, throughout Punch's dealings with this issue we see an insistence on women and men maintaining their natural (and different) qualities and inhabiting separate spaces. Though not totally unattractive, this pro-suffrage Englishwoman is masculine and slightly unrealistic. Similarly, her ideas so closely mirror Mill's that we have to wonder if the piece is not merely an attack on that Westminster MP. Regardless of whether Mill's ideas are being equated with the feminine or he is being accused of being the puppet of Harriet Taylor, the connotations of this scene are not positive.
Overall, the pro-suffrage female figures here as immature, uninformed and grossly superficial. Still, even Sophonisba doesn't agree with Mr. Mill's desire to "call the ladies 'persons' in Lord Derby's Reform Bill." She insists it is a misprint, no "gentleman would dream of using such coarse language when speaking of a woman." It seems that, regardless of whether referring to women as people is appropriate, there is nothing wrong (at least in the eyes of Punch's editor and contributor) in overtly mocking lovely, supercilious women. This, according to Punch, is acceptable because the majority of respectable Englishwomen do not resemble Sophonisba Smith.
Meanwhile, the women's physical characteristics are also important. The featured ladies look like old spinsters. The two in the front are unattractive and older while the younger woman, to Mill's immediate right, is attractive but haughty. The women scattered in the background all share the same generic features, all have pretty and gentle expressions. These faces are the most attractive and female readers (or male readers thinking about their wives, sisters and daughters) would probably read themselves into these less active characters. Unlike the other three women and Mill, some of the women in the back are looking away from the polls--clearly their attention is elsewhere.
Another important feature of this cartoon is the election sign on the left wall of the poll building. We cannot decipher what it says beyond "Vote for..." Yet there is a woman underneath it looking away from the poll. Clearly we are to read this image as "Vote for a woman." Such a suggestion gestures toward the potential outcome of allowing females the vote: female Members of Parliament and the feminization of the national identity. Connected to this is the response of the two male voters John Stuart Mill is pushing aside. One, a John Bull-like character, looks annoyed, while the other just stands there, his mouth gaping open. Clearly, there is no open embracing of these new voting citizens, neither on the part of the fictitious male voters nor the real, and influential, creators of Punch.
Once again, Mill is being treated with a certain amount of respect; for the most part his peers wrote off his adamance surrounding women's enfranchisement as "political economy" gone astray, as, in the words of MP Mr. Karslake, "the hon. Member for Westminster would do well if he imported into this sort of question not so much political economy, and a little more common sense" (Hansard 832). Yet he is drawn as small in stature, perhaps as much as a whole foot shorter than Mrs. Bull. Furthermore, she looks as if she is about to coddle him, like he is a small nephew she hasn't seen for a few months. Again, her gesture toward Mill makes his serious expression, and reverent offering of the document labeled "womanhood suffrage" somewhat ridiculous. Finally, Mr. Mill has his eyes closed, echoing Judy's question in "A Certain 'Person' to Mr. Mill": "When will logic open your eyes to the fact that, like the Constitutional Sovereign, 'La femme regne et ne gouverne pas." Again, Mill's efforts are dismissed as being misplaced and as having introduced to women a sense of dissatisfaction which they would not have arrived at on their own.
From the outset, Professor Barnowl asserts that the criteria for enfranchisement is reason and, according to him, very few women possess such faculties. Instead "The ordinary woman is actuated by instinct--sentimental instinct, but still instinct." He goes on to claim that women are ruled by that unreliable organ, the heart, and, for that reason as well, are not fit to vote for Members of Parliament. From that argument the Professor proceeds to call forth more traditional tactics used throughout the century when debating against women's capabilities. If women are so able to think and succeed why have so few been great geniuses, Mozarts, Donizettis, even chefs? Unlike Mill, this author is unable to see where women's socialization and formal education (or lack thereof) might have resulted in a shortage of "geniuses."
This essay serves as an appropriate end piece because it reestablishes the definitions of men and women as separate and different. Unable to move beyond a binary method of conceptualizing gender, the author of this work cannot consider calling women "persons"; such a revision would open up the space for massive amounts of change and a reevaluation of the oppositional framework employed by Victorians to understand, among other things, gender roles and relations.
Here Mill challenges the binaries central to Victorian thinking and western patriarchal culture more generally. For this reason, above all others, Mill's arguments did not succeed in convincing a majority of fellow MPs or English society at large. Within the House of Commons, as Mill rightly observed, "every one who has attempted to argue at all [with Mill's suggestion], has argued against something which is not before the House..." (Hansard 842). Similarly, in the pages of Punch we do not see any reasonable arguments against female enfranchisement. On the contrary, an emphasis is placed on the insistence that women are women rather than persons as Mill's revision to the Representation of the People Bill of 1867 suggested. This seemingly trivial differentiation is actually quite revealing; in transferring the debate from the issue of women's qualifications as voters (Mill's emphasis) to the question of "what defines a woman," periodicals like Punch ensured against the passage of female suffrage while drawing attention to the real anxiety impeding such legislative change. For in asking "what defines a women" one opens up space for a challenging of the binary framework distinguishing between the "masculine" and the "feminine." Victorians feared such a challenge. This fear centered around English identity, both on the personal and public levels. For to call into question the validity of categories like masculine/male and feminine/female would be to challenge the conceptual tools Victorian used, and, arguably, Western cultures continue to use today, to understand and control an otherwise potentially chaotic and quickly changing society.
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[Victorian initial "I" by Harlan Wallach ©copyright 1994.]