Liberty and the Enfranchisement of Women

by Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead was one of the towering figures in philosophy and theology in the nineteenth century. He is known particularly for his contribution to process theology.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 37-39, Vol. 7, Number 1, Spring, 1977. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Whitehead: “In the name of Liberty, we demand the Suffrage for Women.”

Editor’s Note: The following "Extract from the speech of A. N. Whitehead, Esq., Sc.D., at the Annual Meeting of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association, Nov. 5, 1906" was published as a four-page pamphlet by the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association (Mrs. J. Ward, 6 Selwyn Gardens, Hon. Sec.). At the time 50 copies could be obtained for a shilling, post free, but Professor John C. Slater of the Department of Philosophy, the University of Toronto, appears to possess the sole surviving copy.1


"A few years ago the political emancipation of women was merely the dream of a few political idealists, today it is a living political issue, popular among large masses of voters. This is a fact which should give us confident hope and renewed energy. I will not waste time speculating upon the causes which have produced this progress, but will pass to a consideration of the reasons which animate the Women’s Suffrage agitation.

"Speaking for myself, I base my adherence to the cause upon the old-fashioned formula of Liberty: that is, upon the belief that in the life of a rational being it is an evil when the circumstances affecting him are beyond his control, and are not amenable to his intelligent direction and comprehension. External constraint upon the rational self-direction of conduct is, indeed, inextricably interwoven in the nature of things. But wherever it exists, and is removable without some corresponding loss of liberty, it is the evil, it is the enemy. Progress in science, progress in thought, progress in civilization depend for their good ultimately upon this, that they deliver the life of man into his own hands.

"But the chief and noblest of the external activities of human beings is concerned with the life of the State, that great organism on whose well-being depends the nature of the opportunities which life can offer to each individual.

"It follows, therefore, that except for plain, overmastering reasons connected with the necessary efficiency of Government, it is a crime against Liberty deliberately to deprive any portion of the population of possibilities of political action. That such overmastering reasons for limitation of political functions do exist in many states, perhaps in all states, I am not concerned to deny. They may arise when there is a cleavage in the population produced by inferiority of race, inferiority of civilization, or by deficiency in goodwill.

"But what we are here today to assert is that in the case of women in England at the present time, there is no reason for any exceptional treatment which does not also exist for the corresponding class of men.

"For what reasons have been alleged against the enfranchisement of women? It can no longer be maintained that women are prevented by social usage from interfering in Politics. Both the great parties in the state now make use of large political organizations of women.

"Again, Mr. Asquith tells us that women have now a vast political influence, and that it will be destroyed if they possess the suffrage. I grant that it is true that women have great indirect influence, and for this very reason they should be accorded a definite and determinate place in the political organization.

"Their influence as a class, at present, is necessarily irresponsible and often uninformed. When they have the vote they will take themselves seriously, and form their opinions with a sense of responsibility.

"During the last General Election nothing has struck me more than the educative effect of the vote upon the agricultural labourers in the village in which I live. They listened to both sides with care and attention, and their random political ideas were transformed into an instructed body of opinion. So we may agree that women now have influence, and from this we deduce that they should be admitted within that class to which direct political teaching is addressed.

"Again we are told that women are virtually represented by the votes of the men. This theory of virtual representation is ever the last bad argument of prejudice. In another connection it was long ago examined and torn to shreds by the historian Macaulay. Either the virtual representative will act as his so-called virtual constituents wish, and then, why not give them the direct vote? Or the virtual representative will not act as his virtual constituents desire, and then in what sense is he their representative.

"Lastly, there is the physical force argument; namely, that the ultimate direction of affairs must be vested in those who in their own persons possess the fighting strength of the nation. This argument goes far. In fact it goes much too far, and it proves that the vast majority of Governments, that have ever existed, were impossible. It proves that the government of Louis the Great of France was impossible, because in his own person he was unable to coerce the French nation. It proves that any despotism is impossible, and that any oligarchy is impossible. And when I contemplate these results of the argument, I wish it were true. But unfortunately it is manifestly false.

"In the name of Liberty, then, we demand the Suffrage for Women."



1We are indebted to Victor Lowe for calling this item to our attention. During recent years Lowe has learned of several previously unidentified works of Whitehead besides this one:

"A Visitation," Cambridge Fortnightly 1 (March 6, 1888), 81-83.

"The Fens as Seen from Skates," Cambridge Review, 12 (February 20,1891), 212-13.

"On Ideals: With Reference to the Controversy Concerning the Admission of Women to Degrees in the University," Cambridge Review 17 (May 14, 1896), 310-11.

"The University Library,’’ co-authored with Ernest W. Barns, Cambridge Review 24 (May 14, 1903), 295.

‘‘The Philosophy of Mathematics," Science Progress in the Twentieth Century, 5 (October, 1910), 234-39.

"Foreword," The Father Shore: An Anthology of World Opinion on the Immortality of the Soul, edited by Nathaniel Edward Griffin and Lawrence Hunt (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1934), xvii.

"James Houghton Woods," Undercurrents in Greek Philosophy (James Houghton Woods, privately printed pamphlet, 1945), 5. (A copy of this document is on file in the collection of James Houghton Woods’s papers at Harvard University.)

These new entries also appear with annotations in Alfred North Whitehead: A Primary-Secondary Bibliography, edited by Barry A. Woodbridge (Bowling Green, Ohio: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1977).