Sylvia Pankhurst argues that the election of women to parliament won’t overcome the bankruptcy of parliamentary politics.
The return of eight women to Parliament marks an advance in public opinion. People have realised at last that women are persons with all the human attributes, not merely some of them and that women have an equal right with men to take part in making the social conditions under which they live.
This country has not been first in admitting women to political equality with men: other countries preceded us in admitting women to the legislature, and we have not yet reached political equality in the franchise here, although the women of this country led the way in agitating for political and legal equality.
It is interesting to observe that the legal barriers to women 5 participation in Parliament and its elections were not removed until the movement to abolish Parliament altogether had received the strong encouragement of witnessing the overthrow of Parliamentary Government in Russia and the setting up of Soviets.
Those events in Russia evoked a response throughout the world not only amongst the minority who welcomed the idea of Soviet Communism, but also amongst the upholders of reaction. The latter were by no means oblivious to the growth of Sovietism when they decided to popularise the old Parliamentary machine by giving to some women both votes and the right to be elected.
Election to Parliament is always much more a question of the strength of the party machine than of the qualities of the candidate. An archangel would be defeated at the polls if he lacked a strong party backing. The majority of the electors vote without having heard or seen the candidate, who actually plays but a minor part in the election. Nevertheless, there was undoubtedly some prejudice to be overcome by the first women candidates; which acted as a makeweight against them, outbalancing what would otherwise have been the normal strength of the party behind them.
This election is the first in which the electors have voted for the successful women candidates to any appreciable extent on the merits of those candidates. Lady Astor, Mrs Wintringham, and Mrs Phillipson entered Parliament merely as deputies of their husbands. This fact, from a democratic standpoint, was particularly objectionable in the case of Lord Astor since he was thus given a voice in ruling the people through both Houses of Parliament.
The women who entered Parliament in place of their husbands introduced no original policies, nor do we anticipate that their successors will do so. They were nominated candidates and have been elected to represent certain parties, and, in the main, their parliamentary doings must follow that of their men colleagues in the party, otherwise the party will cast them out.
Most of these hardships, and the more serious of them, cannot be remedied within the system. Most of them, too, cannot even be mitigated without tampering with economic conditions; and there, at once, the general party policy will certainly obtrude itself, and the party woman will be called to heel by the whips like a party man if she stray far from the party plan.
Nevertheless, on questions of the special hardships of women and on questions specially related to sex the women members of the various parties may sometimes show themselves a trifle before or a trifle behind the general standard of their party by adhering in some respects to what has come to be generally regarded as the accepted programme of feminism. It is so regarded because it was adopted by certain women of the middle and upper classes, who were, for their day, more or less advanced though narrow and prejudiced in many respects, but who were of forceful energetic personality and built up a movement reflecting their conception of what should be the legal status of their sex and primarily of their class. That programme is, in many respects, retrograde and, and in all respects, incompatible with Socialism.
One should not expect to find new policies on any subject springing up from Parliament; the atmosphere there is arid, the life stultifying to thought. At best at very best — the Members of Parliament carry on the politics they adopted before they entered there, or catch up some vibrations or movements going on outside. Parliament is a decaying institution: it will pass away with the capitalist system: it will be replaced by the industrial soviets, when production, distribution and transport pass out of the hands of the capitalist, to become the joint concern of the whole people, each branch of industry being administered by those who are engaged in it.
Women can no more put virtue into the decaying parliamentary institution than can men: it is past reform and must disappear.
Once the special legal disabilities of women in politics were in large measure, though not wholly, removed, it became inevitable that there should be little difference between the woman in politics and the man in politics. That is as it should be.
The women professional politician is neither more nor less desirable than the man professional politician: the less the world has of either the better it is for it. The time to look forward to is that in which there will no longer be a body of persons whose business it is to rule or to listen to speeches of the rulers and their puppets and to while away hour upon hour waiting to record their votes in division lobbies to the call of the party whips.
The Soviets, under Communism, will meet for the administration of the services of the community, not to carry on the party warfare which is inevitable to present- day society, because it is based on competition and torn by the struggles of warring classes. To the women, as to the men, the hope of the future lies not through Parliamentary reform, but free Communism and the soviets.
Published in Workers’ Dreadnought, 15 December 1923.