Suffrage Showcases: John Stuart Mill

Of course! Men, too played a huge role in fighting for gender equality and suffrage. We can’t assume that every man in Britain was misogynistic and ignorant of women’s struggles, because many were just as passionate about ‘the cause’ as Fawcett and the Pankhurst’s. John Stuart Mill was a huge equality player that paved the way for suffragettes and suffragists alike in the 1900s. His connection to the royal borough? He resided at 113 Blackheath Park for 20 years!

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Women’s Freedom League endorsing JSM. click here

The ‘Radical’ John Stuart Mill

Advocacy for women’s rights in 2018 is hardly seen as ‘radical’ in the UK, but progressive and necessary. However in the 1860s, when he became an MP, John Stuart Mill was criticised and condemned for his ‘radical’ views on women’s rights. The Dunfermline Saturday Press discussed JSM’s recent petition campaign in which 1550 women signed. However, the paper ended up rejecting Stuart Mill’s feminist ideals stating that women would be much better off in the home ‘we would confine them [women] to that place where in reality they are strongest, conserve that influence which they exert as the sweeteners and pacifiers of domestic life‘. JSM was dynamic, his views on equality was hardly matching with the times; women had no vote, few rights and yet he, in combination with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill and step-daughter Helen Taylor.

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Harriet Taylor Mill, wife of JSM. click here

John Stuart Mill; the celebrity?

Newspapers from around Great Britain throughout JSM’s life documented his speeches, criticised him and praised him; this media presence only suggests that Stuart Mill was a person of public interest. Why was this? Could it be because of his MP status? Or possibly his feminist views? Let’s overlook short segments displaying the contrast in the media’s perception of JSM throughout his life:

  • The Morning Advertiser in 1871 seemed to simply document JSM’s support for women as they presented details of his speech at a women’s suffrage event in Edinburgh. Would you say they are effectively endorsing JSM? These are his words: “How too, could a woman have a conscience about the public good if she was told and believed that it was no business whatever of hers? Give women the same rights as men, and the same obligations would follow[2]”
  • The Dunfermline Saturday Press praising Mill during his time as an MP “Mr Mill is in many respects a valuable accession to the House of Commons. Long known as a profound thinker on political and philosophical problems, his entrance on a career of practical statesmanship has been hailed with satisfaction by men of all parties[3]”
  • On the death of JSM, the Stonehaven Journal declared that it was Mill’s writings and philosophy that made him memorable “It is as an author and Political Economist that Mr Mill is best known. He occupied the post of editor of the London and Westminster Review for a considerable time”[4]

We could all write a book on John Stuart Mill and his influence on modern day feminism and the work of gender equality campaigners a century ago. I hope this short blog gives you a little sneak peak into JSM’s life, so that you may be inspired to do your own research!

[1] 1860s, Dunfermline Saturday Press, British Newspaper Archive

[2] Friday 13th January 1871, Page 3. Morning Advertiser, British Newspaper Archive

[3] Saturday 16th June 1866, Dunfermline Saturday Press, British Newspaper Archive

[4] Thursday 15th May 1873, Stonehaven Journal, British Newspaper Archive

Lydia Becker versus Male Lawmakers in Greenwich

Written by Amy Calvert

Sexism. It runs deep within our society today, but ran even deeper when women were barred from voting in the UK and denied the same rights as men, purely because of their sex. I’ve been researching Greenwich’s role within the constant (and ongoing) struggle for gender equality. How did the staunch, sexist, male lawmakers of the past view Lydia Becker’s plight for women’s rights?

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Lydia Becker. Courtesy of LSE Library. Click Here

Becker’s words for Greenwich, 1877

Long before suffrage was granted, women and men have campaigned, educated others and protested in an attempt to sway those in power and convince the population that women should be enfranchised and treated as equals to men. (What a radical idea!) Lydia Becker, a huge suffrage campaigner of the 19th century, (who interestingly sent Charles Darwin her research on botany regularly, contributing to his findings) spoke on behalf of the Women’s Suffrage Association in Greenwich to justify why women should rightfully be given a chance to vote for their government…

Becker argued that women being barred from voting in the general election was ‘a ridiculous and absurd anomaly[1]’ (I agree) because they were already performing vital roles within local councils and elective boards. Women were allowed to vote for and be elected to be on School Boards and were also able to be churchwardens and parish officers too, yet they were still discriminated against. The Kentish Mercury (a local paper in the borough) reported that one of the arguments put forward in the meeting, was that women were ‘politically unfit and dangerous‘[2]. But Becker slammed the claims to the floor as she insisted that ‘if women had votes they would be educated politically, and give their votes righteously‘[3] Some male attendees of the discussion led by Becker protested that women played no role in defending the country, with only one male speaker acknowledging the efforts of Florence Nightingale. 

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1872, Hanover Square rooms. Lydia Becker alongside Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Mrs Mark Patison, Mrs Ernestine Rose and Rhoda Garrett. Courtesy of the LSE Library.Click Here

It seems that Lydia Becker’s meeting in 1877 emphasised the ignorance of most male lawmakers when it came to women. Women were trusted to hold positions when it came to aiding the poor and educating the youth, but not trusted with deciding the fate of the country. For me it seems as if the lawmakers were generalising half of the population by allowing them to have power in ‘care giving‘ positions, but little more. Sadly Lydia Becker would pass away in 1890, 28 years before any woman was allowed a general election ballot paper…

[1] Page 5, Saturday 19th May 1877, The Kentish Mercury, British Newspaper Archive

[2] Page 5, Saturday 19th May 1877, The Kentish Mercury, British Newspaper Archive

[3] Page 5, Saturday 19th May 1877, The Kentish Mercury, British Newspaper Archive