The Hardys and the Suffragette Movement

Tracy Hayes

In 1906 Millicent Garret Fawcett wrote to Thomas Hardy asking that, as a leading male figure, he contribute to a projected pamphlet on the suffrage issue. He replied on November 30th 1906:

'...I have for a long time been in favour of woman-suffrage. I fear I shall spoil the effect of this information (if it has any) in my next sentence by giving you my reasons. I am in favour of it because I think the tendency of the woman's vote will be to break up the present pernicious conventions in respect of manners, customs, religion, illegitimacy, the stereotyped household (that it must be the unit of society), the father of a woman's child (that it is anybody's business but the woman's own, except in cases of disease or insanity), sport (that so-called educated men should be encouraged to harass & kill for pleasure feeble creatures by mean stratagems), slaughter-houses (that they should be dark dens of cruelty), & other matters which I got into hot water for touching on many years ago. I do not mean that I think all women, or even a majority, will actively press some or any of the first mentioned of such points, but that their being able to assert themselves will loosen the tongues of men who have not liked to speak out on such subjects while women have been their helpless dependants. You may disapprove of many of these reasons for woman- suffrage, or think them mistaken, but I am sure you will forgive my stating them...'

Ms Fawcett replied a few days later thanking Hardy for his letter but feared that 'John Bull is not ripe for it at present' and that it could therefore not be printed. It is highly likely that the 'matters' Hardy 'got into hot water for touching on' were his last novel Jude the Obscure. The prominent social commentator Margaret Oliphant wrote scathingly of the novel as representing 'the anti-marriage league', but Hardy pronounced the marriage question as simply being the vehicle for the tragedy 'I feel that a bad marriage is one of the direst things on earth, & one of the cruellest things'. He asserted in the 1912 preface to Jude that 'a marriage should be disolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties being then essentially and morally no marriage'. Hardy had been greatly influenced by the work of J.S. Mill, and claimed to know On Liberty 'almost by heart'. The character Sue Bridehead is widely credited as being Hardy's contribution to the New Woman discourse, she quotes from Mill's On Liberty to her husband Phillotson as part of her bid for freedom. Phillotson himself is a mouthpiece for liberalism, believing it to be 'contemptibly mean and selfish' to keep a wife 'virtuously under lock and key'. When Phillotson is criticized for his opinion he replies 'And yet, I don't see why the woman and the children should not be the unit without the man'.

However it was Hardy's first wife Emma who was most actively involved in the suffrage movement. In November 1899 on her fifty-ninth birthday she put her name into a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The following year she wrote to their mutual friend Rebekah Owen that '...Supposing women had always held the reins of this world would it not have been by now, getting near the goal of happiness? This is a man's world - & in spite of their intellect shown most especially in science! It is in fact a terrible failure as to peace & joy...'. On February 8th 1907 Hardy wrote in his notebook: 'E. goes to London to walk in the suffragist procession to-morrow', and in June 1908 Emma insisted on travelling up to London in order to participate in a large-scale demonstration in support of the movement that was scheduled for the 21st. She was an active member of the London Society for Women's Suffrage, and along with Millicent Fawcett and Annie Kenney had contributed to a 'symposium' on the suffrage issue published in the March 1907 issue of the Woman at Home magazine. She had a long letter published in the Nation magazine in March 1908 in which she argued the case for women's rights with energy and force. However, Emma did not agree with the acts of violence that began to be committed by some of the more militant suffragettes, and stepped down from her activities in the movement, though she continued to send modest donations.

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