1850 - 1900

Sex No Crime: Women's Rights in Great Britain Before the Suffragettes


“The legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement”
John Stuart Mill, 1869

Thinkers, politicians, activists, and civic-minded citizens in Great Britain engaged in a war of pamphlets throughout the 19th century. They discussed a wide range of topics, among which the question of women's role was one of the liveliest.

These exchanges went on to have a significant impact in the decades that followed.

At the end of the century, the quest for equal voting rights intensified, with Millicent Fawcett forming the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and numerous supporters (as well as detractors) joining the fight. This would result in the events of the 1900s and 1910s that eventually led to women's right to vote in 1928.

The following exhibit offers a small taste of the hundreds of conversations pertaining to women's rights during the mid- to late-1800s, all documented in JSTOR's British Pamphlets Collection. From these, visitors can get a sense of the pamphleteers' intelligence, engagement, and sincere quest for dialogue on just one of the many topics they broached. We've organized the documents around a few main themes:

I. Women Versus Men

II. Towards Enfranchisement

III. Women as Grassroots Organizers / The Other Side: Supporters of Tradition

“It seems hard to conceive that sex can be a crime or even a misdemeanour.” 

-- “Sex no Crime: a draft Bill to remove the disabilities of women with regard to the inheritance of property and the guardianship of children,” 1883


Rachel Dhrant, "Woman versus Man," 1870

“We make women large landholders, ladies of manors, fund-holders, householders, burgesses of our cities … by express law they may be, and have been, sextons to bury us, constables to protect us, … high-constable, marshal; they may be, and have personally served the office of, high-sheriff … but yet we are told that they are unfit to choose their own representatives." - Sidney Smith

Sidney Smith, "The Enfranchisement of Women," 1879
Sidney Smith, "The Enfranchisement of Women," 1879

In contrast with other texts that use other countries as examples of leadership, Smith cleverly claims that Britain has always been more advanced. The lack of female enfranchisement is thus illogical in a British context.

“The law of inheritance excluding females which had been imported into the constitution of France, from the Salic settlers, never prevailed in Britain. This nation always recognised the right of succession in the female line.”

Women's unequal condition and unfair treatment

F. Henrietta Müller, "The Future of Single Women," 1884

John Stuart Mill characterized women as comprising “one-half the human race” in 1867, yet treated as completely subordinated to men. The theme, and indeed those words, recurs throughout the pamphlets, as we will see in the part of this exhibit on enfranchisement.

John Stuart Mill, "The Subjection of Women," 1869
John Stuart Mill, "The Subjection of Women," 1869
John Stuart Mill, "On the Admission of Women ...," 1867

Mill also appeals to a sense of common ground by mentioning taxation, valued by the conservatives, and its logical correlate: representation: 

“It violates one of the oldest of our constitutional maxims—a doctrine dear to reformers, and theoretically acknowledged by most Conservatives—that taxation and representation should be co-extensive. Do not women pay taxes?”- John Stuart Mill, ”On the Admission of Women to the Electoral Franchise: Spoken at the House of Commons, May 20th," 1867

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, "Women and Work," 1857

Unequal access to work is another area of inequality. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, a key figure in the debates, puts it simply: “we want work.”

Frances Cobbe uses humor to address a serious unbalance, by comparing women's fate to that of the most severe criminals: upon marriage women find their property taken from them as if they have committed a heinous crime. Cobbe reinforces this analogy by implying one might “commit matrimony,” in an act as drastic as that of “committing murder.”

Frances Power Cobbe, "Criminals, Idiots, Woman and Minors: Is the Classification Sound?," 1869

Humor is often used when comparing women and men, as in this final example, which addresses the age-old comparison of brain versus brawn. Writes Josephine Butler: "... the facts of society have changed more rapidly than its conventions. Formerly muscles did the business of the world, and the weak were protected by the strong; now brains do the business of the world, and the weak are protected by law.”

The not-so-subtle indication is that the areas in which women excel are now those that matter:

Josephine Elizabeth Grey Butler, "The Education and Employment of Women," 1868

Women's Education

A recurring theme throughout the collection, education is seen as key to ensuring equal rights. Some pamphleteers are concerned with the cost of education, others with the quality, and still more with the lack of education for those outside the privileged classes:

“This apathetic indifference does not exist with regard to boys” notes Mary Gurney, with regards to the lack of affordable education for middle class girls.

Mary Gurney, "Are We to Have Education for Our Middle-Class Girls?," 1872
Advertisement for visits to the Female Schools in the King's Road, 1815


Henry Dunckley, "Should Women Have the Vote?," 1890

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon offers some “remarks” in which she quotes Edward Christian's notes to William Blackstone's “Commentaries” on “taxation without representation” (also thus referring to her fellow pamphleteer, John Stuart Mill, as seen earlier): a clear, rational case for giving women the right to vote.

She also notes that the difference in rights is great for unmarried versus married women (which is not the case for men), comparing this to a better situation in France.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, "A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women ...," 1854

The comparison to foreign lands continues with Turkey and Hungary. Clearly, if so many other countries have better systems, Great Britain needs to adapt.

Finally, Bodichon makes an attempt to effect real change by presenting her plan as a small step: removing an antiquated law that has been outgrown. She appeals to fathers who care about their daughters, in order to diminish the power of husbands.

There seems to be a hope that practical, modest measures will eventually lead to greater rights for women.

Helen Taylor, "The claim of Englishwomen to the suffrage constitutionally considered," 1867

Helen Taylor echoes Bodichon, Mill and others in noting that property ownership is the source of rights, and that because women can own property, they should be able to vote. We can, however, see the constant balancing of rights and tradition in her note that the domestic characteristics of women will make them good voters.

Henry Dunckley, "Should Women Have the Vote?," 1890

This leitmotif appears in Henry Dunckley's pamphlet “Should Women Have the Vote?” One of the male supporters of women's enfranchisement, the author argues that women already take part in contested elections “and no scandal follows.” 

However, he adds that “the influence of women at elections will help to make them more quiet and orderly; it will tend to discourage rowdyism.”

Dunckley could believe this or he could be using rhetorical practices to convince his conservative opponents.

An anonymous pamphlet, “Are Women Fit for Politics?,” draws a comparison between England and America: “there has arisen in the United States, and in the most civilised and enlightened portion of them, an organised agitation on a new question … the enfranchisement of women; their admission, in law and in fact, to equality in all rights, political, civil, and social, with the male citizens of the community.”

"Are Women Fit for Politics? Are Politics Fit for Women?," 1850

It adds that women are thought of as furniture, and concludes by noting that “the real question, is whether it is right and expedient that one-half of the human race should pass through life in a state of forced subordination to the other half.” 

Enfranchisement is part of a larger goal that forms the nucleus of these debates and around which women become community organizers.


"The Address of the Women of England to the Women of America," Leeds Anti-Slavery Juvenile Series, 1860

Though supported by members of the opposite sex, as we have seen, women engaged in organized efforts to obtain the vote and, more generally greater parity with men.

Here, a French example is used to demonstrate the possible effectiveness of such efforts: “… in the month of May 1862 there was formed in Paris a ‘Société pour l’instruction professionnelle des femmes.’ … Fifty members put down twenty-five francs, or £1, each; and the fifty had the extreme boldness to begin the execution of a grand scheme of social reform with this apparently ludicrous small capital. Here in England the thing would have been laughed at; but it was not so in France, ... although resting on nothing more potential than the sum of fifty pounds sterling.”


Edward James Watherston,  "The industrial employment of women in France compared with England...," 1878

... “However, in reality, there was far more than this in the background. There was human energy. All fifty members, besides paying down their twenty-five francs, took an intense interest in the work they were starting...”

-- Edward James Watherston, “The Industrial Employment of Women in France Compared with England...,” 1878

Florence Fenwick Miller, "On the Programme of the Women's Franchise League...," 1890

Although the right to vote is many women's primary objective and “franchise” is often used in this sense, there is also a quest for broader rights. Above, Florence Fenwick Miller points out that “Suffrage is only a portion of Franchise,” adding that the goal of organized groups like the Women's Franchise League is “nothing less than to obtain freedom for half the human race.”

It may well be this attempt at a veritable revolution that so frightens the detractors of women's rights.


Even the most cursory overview of these pamphlets would be incomplete without mentioning those opposed to changing the status quo.

A strong voice for opposing women's suffrage, Frederick Augustus Maxse is one example. He notes that “if women exercised direct political power, the effect would be most injurious to society.”

Frederick Augustus Maxse, "Objections to Women's Suffrage...," 1874
Frederick Augustus Maxse, "Reasons for Opposing Woman Suffrage," 1876

Those who favor traditional values are not always as drastic as Maxse. For instance, the Bishop of Carlisle makes distinctions between women's different statuses: “I do not in the least desire that married women should vote. This seems to me undesirable and impossible. The husband and wife must be one in this as in other things. But when the woman satisfies every condition but that of sex, then it seems to me impossible in reason, and I believe it will soon be impossible in fact, to deprive her of a vote.”

His support of women's suffrage is more a perceived inability to avoid it--for certain women.

Harvey Goodwin, "On Women's Suffrage," 1884
"Law of Husband and Wife: Remarks with Reference to the Married Women's Property Bill of 1873," 1873

Read today, some responses to the women's rights movement are downright entertaining, such as this pamphlet in defense of husbands: “The great amount of injustice which Husbands… suffer… The spurious nature of the outcry on property grievances raised by the married Women’s Rights’ agitators. The substantial nature of the grievances of Husbands regarding their property—all liable to have it stolen from them by their Wives … the married state is now made so intolerable for Husbands, that single men, who reflect upon the subject, must increasingly be deterred from contracting matrimony. The door is, therefore, left open for vice, immorality, and improvidence.”

Why do these traditionalists oppose women's rights? Millicent Garrett Fawcett gives one possible answer: their perspectives are reactive, rather than based on facts. Those who oppose women’s suffrage “look upon a ‘woman’s rights woman’ as the incarnation of all that is repulsive.”

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, "Electoral disabilities of women: a Lecture," 1872


Opposition does not stop women from organizing, or from continuing to engage in the war of pamphlets.

“The Manifesto of the Women's Franchise League,” seen in the following vignettes and published in July 1895, shows this. It even features an appeal to male voters on the final page.

19th Century British Pamphlets is a collaboration between JSTOR, Research Libraries UK (RLUK) and Jisc (Joint Information Systems Committee). 

Digitization was completed on site by BOPCRIS at the University of Southampton.

"Sex No Crime: a Draft Bill to Remove the Disabilities of Women...," 1883
Credits: Story

Curator — Benjamin Young, Content Development Analyst, JSTOR
JSTOR Team — Laura Brown, John Kiplinger, John Marshall, Heidi McGregor, Deirdre Ryan, Benjamin Young
Content Partners — Research Libraries UK (RLUK), Jisc (Joint Information Systems Committee)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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