A Regency Era argument for votes for women

In 1824 James Mill (utilitarian, colleague of Jeremy Bentham and father of John Stuart Mill) wrote an article On Government for the Encyclopedia Britannica. In it he argued that individuals whose interests were represented by another would not be inconvenienced by being denied a vote. In this category he included children (represented by their parents) and women

the interest of almost all of whom is involved either in that of their fathers or in that of their husbands

The following year William Thompson and Anna Doyle Wheeler jointly authored An Appeal Of One Half Of The Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men” (published under Thompson’s name). Anna Doyle Wheeler and William Thompson both knew Bentham and were interested in utilitarianism. An Appeal expresses dismay at the cavalier treatment Mill gives to women’s interests and systematically demolishes Mill’s argument in On Government by appealing to the same utilitarian principles that Mill uses.

They do this by showing many classes of women to whom Mill’s argument does not apply. For example, women who are unmarried or widows, and do not live with their father obviously fall outside Mill’s categories. They do not live in direct relation to a father or husband who then can represent  their interests. By Mill’s argument they should then have the same political rights as men, since they are not “virtually” represented. Yet they do not and Mill ignores them.

Anna Doyle Wheeler
Anna Doyle Wheeler
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Another group of women are adult daughters living in their father’s household. Wheeler and Thompson argue there is no evidence of an identity of interests between these grown-up daughters and their fathers. Daughters, they argue, are disadvantaged compared to sons, with opportunities for “mingled recreation, information and discussion on politics, trade and literature” all but closed to them, yet available to adult sons. If fathers had daughters’ interests at heart this would not be the situation. Since it was the case, it suggests the interests of fathers and sons were more closely  identified  and thus sons should be denied representation before this was required of daughters.

This lack of common interest, Wheeler and Thompson argue, is reflected in the custom of daughters on marriage leaving even their fathers name to join with another man. This traditional form of marriage Wheeler and Thompson call an “ungenerous, all-corrupting, and mutually degrading code”. It is mutually degrading because women are utterly dependant on men meaning their behaviour is constrained to conform to whatever pleases their husband. The husband’s behaviour aimed at pleasing his wife is, by contrast, voluntary. This leads to an emphasis on man’s needs and desires such that the woman’s needs are sidelined or forgotten. Because of this wives are in fact more in need of political representation, not less.

In conclusion Wheeler and Thompson argue the whole notion of identity of interests is a mistaken one. The happiness of the family, society or nation is made up of the happiness of the individuals that make up the larger entity. An individual’s happiness can neither be made subservient to, nor dependant on, the interests of another, regardless of how virtuous that other might be.

The Appeal has been called the most important feminist treatise of its time being the major feminist treatise between Mary Wollstonecraft’s (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman  and John Stuart Mill’s (1869) The Subjection of Women (Duddy, History of Irish Thought). It is thought to influenced Mill in the writing of his book. The Subjection was written with Mill’s wife, Harriet Taylor Mill and her daughter Helen Taylor, but as with Appeal, it was published only under the male author’s name.

(c) Freeparking/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Further Reading

Scroll to Top