Nancy Kerns


"Isn't it time the women lent a hand?": Feminists as Domestic Saviors in Votes For Women

     In her book The Burdens of History, Antoinette Burton discusses her thesis that the British female enfranchisement movement utilized the principles of its country's imperialist vision to promote its cause. One of the supporting arguments she makes states that the women in question believed "that the parliamentary franchise would empower British women to reform a whole host of civil evils - both at home and in the empire" (Burton 10). Burton concentrates on the latter desire of many British female activists to "save" the women of the empire's holdings, especially India, in order to demonstrate the movement's imperialistic leanings. However, in the play Votes for Women by Elizabeth Robins, "home" as nation takes prominence. The feminist characters in the play strive to "save" British lower class women from their miseries, but they do not stop there. They also offer to save the men from themselves, promoting the enfranchisement of women as the remedy for England's crises at home for men as well as women.

     In the Robins play, the first thing that stands out about the women most wanting saving remains their lower class positions. Robins emphasizes again and again through various characters the desperate need of the working and lower class females, and its intrinsic connection to the need for the enfranchisement of women. For characters like Miss Levering and Jean, the plight of poverty-stricken women acts as a major impetus for them to promote "The Cause." In Miss Levering's case, it is only after her experiences disguised as a poor woman that she decides to risk speaking out at a public forum for the enfranchisement of women. For the character of Jean, the movement remains a political study until Miss Levering relates the story of the girl "dying in a Tramp Ward" (Robins 49). After learning about the suffering of the lower-class women, Jean becomes interested enough to sneak off to a rally that very afternoon. Robins hopes that laying out her audience these miseries for her middle class audience will have a similar shocking effect on its members, startling them out of their complacency.

     The connection that Robins makes between the salvation of lower class women and the importance of enfranchisement maintains that women will use the vote to remedy this suffering. Miss Levering implies in her speech in Act Two that the quashed bill providing more shelters to destitute women might have passed if women had voted as well (Robins 71). On the working class front, Miss Ernestine Blunt argues that keeping women from getting the vote also keeps women from receiving equal pay (64). Robins repeatedly offers the plight of working and lower class British women as a problem that women could solve with the vote, reinforcing the implication that the franchise movement saw itself as "salvific", that saving that saving these women occupied a prominent place in the goals of the "Votes for Women" Movement. Burton also mentions the prevalence of this attitude in her book when she quotes Amos, a leading feminist of the time. Amos aligns the women's struggle for the vote with the struggle to improve the lives of "all the women, degraded, miserable, unheard of, for whose life and happiness England has daily to answer to God" (qtd. in Burton 3). While Burton applies this statement to Indian women, Robins' heroine in Votes for Women would no doubt agree that "degraded" and "miserable" also describe the life of the lower class of women in England. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that, domestically, activist women focused much attention on the salvation of the working and lower class women when arguing for female enfranchisement.

     Nevertheless, activists did not simply assert that only the lower and working class women would benefit from their help. They also claimed the salvation and civilizing of Britain's men depended on women getting the vote. Burton acknowledges this attitude in the matter of imperialism when she states that "[f ]emale emancipation would not herald the end of the empire but [ . . . ] would signify a more feminine and hence (in their view) a more ethical kind of imperial rule" (17). In Votes for Women, the domestic version of this argument occurs most forcefully during the rally of Act Two. First, the character of Miss Ernestine Blunt states that giving women the vote will allow them to rein in the men's passion for war. She argues that a woman's traditional role as peacemaker will undoubtedly extend to policy-making. She even goes so far as to claim "when we [women] have a share in public affairs there'll be less likelihood of war" (Robins 65). As in the Burton quote, Miss Ernestine Blunt's reasoning (as well as that of many other members of the Women's Movement) follows the premise that women would add a feminine morality - in this case, a woman's "traditional" desire for peace -- that the men lacked.

     Act Two also contains other instances of suffragettes offering to "save" men from the mess they have made for themselves, and hence all of England. The "Working Woman" is the first to speak of how the traditional male ethos has hampered reform. According to her, "If one o' you [men] is all right, he thinks the rest don't matter. [ . . . ] But we women are not satisfied. We don't only want better things for our children. We want better things for all" (Robins 62). She asserts that the tendency of men to look after themselves oblivious to the needs of others has contributed to the dire straits many Englishmen were experiencing at the time. Likewise, she feels that the traditionally nurturing and sympathetic nature of women would encourage the redress of many of these wrongs -- but only if women receive empowerment through the vote. Once again, the salvation motif does not only give the activists a goal but appeals to those on the fence with its promises to improve the lives of both men and women. Likewise, the character of Miss Levering reinforces the notion that the women need the vote in order to "save" the men from the monster of a system they have created when she relates the story of the boy who must go to prison for stealing milk. As she eloquently states at the end of her heartfelt critique, "I did wonder that the men refuse to be helped with a problem they've so notoriously failed at" (Robins 70). As both Miss Levering and the Working Woman emphasize, the men needed salvation just as badly as the women. In their eyes, enfranchising women remains the only way to bring about that salvation.

     Therefore, if women were to possess the vote, they could act "as savior of the nation, the race, and the empire" (Burton 3). Suffragists, Suffragettes, and other women working to gain the vote did not do so simply to put themselves on equal footing with men, although no doubt that was a factor. These women truly felt that gaining the vote would improve the lives of not only the women of the British Empire, as Burton stresses, but also those of their fellow countrymen (and women). In fact, such a belief played a central role in "The Cause," as exemplified by its centrality in Votes for Women. This salvation aspect of the Women's Movement also acted as a terrific motivator and unifier. Bettering the existence of people in need has always possessed broad appeal, as well as great sentimental pull. Robins recognizes this, and uses the salvation approach very effectively in her "Suffragette Play." By doing so, Robins significantly increases the possibility that, at the end of the night, Miss Levering will not be the only person wondering, "Isn't it time the women lent a hand?" (70).

Works Cited

Burton, Antoinette. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture, 1865 - 1915. Chapel Hill and London: U of North Carolina P, [?].

Robins, Elizabeth. Votes for Women. How the Vote was Won and Other Suffragtte Plays. Dale Spencer and Carole Hayman, eds. New York, London: Methuen, 1985.

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