MoboReader> Literature > Women and the Alphabet

   Chapter 8 SUFFRAGE

Women and the Alphabet By Thomas Wentworth Higginson Characters: 46932

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"No such phrase as virtual representation was ever known in law or constitution. It is altogether a subtlety and illusion, wholly unfounded and absurd. We must not be cheated by any such phantom or any other trick of law and politics."--JAMES OTIS, quoted by Charles Sumner in speech, March 7, 1866.


When in Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby" the coal-heaver calls at the fashionable barber's to be shaved, the barber declines that service. The coal- heaver pleads that he saw a baker being shaved there the day before. But the barber points out to him that it is necessary to draw the line somewhere, and he draws it at bakers.

It is, doubtless, an inconvenience, in respect to woman suffrage, that so many people have their own theories as to drawing the line, and deciding who shall vote. Each has his hobby; and as the opportunity for applying it to men has passed by, each wishes to catch at the last remaining chance, and apply it to women. One believes in drawing an educational line; another, in a property qualification; another, in new restrictions on naturalization; another, in distinctions of race; and each wishes to keep women, for a time, as the only remaining victims for his experiment.

Fortunately the answer to all these objections, on behalf of woman suffrage, is very brief and simple. It is no more the business of its advocates to decide upon the best abstract basis for suffrage, than it is to decide upon the best system of education, or of labor, or of marriage. Its business is to equalize, in all these directions; nothing more. When that is done, there will be plenty still left to do, without doubt; but it will not involve the rights of women, as such. Simply to strike out the word "male" from the statute,--that is our present work. "What is sauce for the goose"--but the proverb is somewhat musty. These educational and property restrictions may be of value; but wherever they are already removed from the men they must be removed from women also. Enfranchise them equally, and then begin afresh, if you please, to legislate for the whole human race. What we protest against is that you should have let down the bars for one sex, and should at once become conscientiously convinced that they should be put up again for the other.

When it was proposed to apply an educational qualification at the South after the war, the Southern white loyalists all objected to it. If you make it universal, they said, it cuts off many of the whites. If you apply it to the blacks alone, it is manifestly unjust. The case is the same with women in regard to men. As woman needs the ballot primarily to protect herself, it is manifestly unjust to restrict the suffrage for her, when man has it without restriction. If she needs protection, then she needs it all the more from being poor, or ignorant, or Irish, or black. If we do not see this, the freedwomen of the South did. There is nothing like personal wrong to teach people logic.

We hear a great deal said in dismay, and sometimes even by old abolitionists, about "increasing the number of ignorant voters." In Massachusetts, there is an educational restriction for men, such as it is; in Rhode Island, a property qualification is required for voting on certain questions. Personally, I believe with "Warrington," that, if ignorant voting be bad, ignorant non-voting is worse; and that the enfranchised "masses," which have a legitimate outlet for their political opinions, are far less dangerous than disfranchised masses, which must rely on mobs and strikes. I will go farther, and say that I believe our republic is, on the whole, in less danger from its poor men, who have got to stay in it and bring up their children, than from its rich men, who have always Paris and London to fall back upon. I do not see that even a poll-tax or registry-tax is of any use as a safeguard; for if men are to be bought the tax merely offers a more indirect and palatable form in which to pay the price. Many a man consents to have his poll-tax paid by his party or his candidate, when he would reject the direct offer of a dollar bill.

But this is all private speculation, and has nothing to do with the woman- suffrage movement. All that we can ask, as advocates of this reform, is that the inclusion or the exclusion should be the same for both sexes. We cannot put off the equality of woman till that time, a few centuries hence, when the Social Science Association shall have succeeded in agreeing on the true basis of "scientific legislation." It is as if we urged that wives should share their husbands' dinners, and were told that the physicians had not decided whether beefsteak were wholesome. The answer is, "Beefsteak or tripe, yeast or saleratus, which you please. But, meanwhile, what is good enough for the wife is good enough for the husband."


I remember to have read, many years ago, the life of Sir Samuel Romilly, the English philanthropist. He was the author of more beneficent legal reforms than any man of his day, and there was in that very book a long list of the changes he still meant to bring about. It struck me very much, that among these proposed reforms not one of any importance referred to the laws about women.

It shows--what all experience has shown--that no class or race or sex can safely trust its protection in any hands but its own. The laws of England in regard to woman were then so bad that Lord Brougham afterwards said they needed total reconstruction, if they were to be touched at all. Yet it is only since woman suffrage began to be talked about, that the work of law-reform has really taken firm hold. In many cases in America the beneficent measures are directly to be traced to some appeal from feminine advocates. Even in Canada, as was once stated by Dr. Cameron of Toronto, the bill protecting the property of married women was passed under the immediate pressure of Lucy Stone's eloquence. And even where this direct agency could not be traced, the general fact that the atmosphere was full of the agitation had much to do with all the reforms that took place. Legislatures, unwilling to give woman the ballot, were shamed into giving her something. The chairman of the judiciary committee in Rhode Island told me that until he heard women argue before the committee he had not reflected upon their legal disabilities, or thought how unjust these were. While the matter was left to the other sex only, even men like Sir Samuel Romilly forgot the wrongs of woman. When she began to advocate her own cause men also waked up.

But now that they are awake they ask, Is not this sufficient? Not at all If an agent who has cheated you surrenders reluctantly one half your stolen goods, you do not stop there and say, "It is enough. Your intention is honorable. Please continue my agent with increased pay." On the contrary, you say, "Your admission of wrong is a plea of guilty. Give me the rest of what is mine." There is no defence like self-defence, no protection like self-protection.

All theories of chivalry and generosity and vicarious representation fall before the fact that woman has been grossly wronged by man. That being the case, the only modest and honest thing for man to do is to say, "Henceforward have a voice in making your own laws." Till this is done, she has no sure safeguard, since otherwise the same men who made the old barbarous laws may at any time restore them.

It is common to say that woman suffrage will make no great difference; that women will think very much as men do, and it will simply double the vote without varying the result. About many matters this may be true. To be sure, it is probable that on questions of conscience, like slavery and temperance, the woman's vote would by no means coincide with man's. But grant that it would. The fact remains,--and all history shows it,--that on all that concerns her own protection a woman needs her own vote. Would a woman vote to give her husband the power of bequeathing her children to the control and guardianship of somebody else? Would a woman vote to sustain the law by which a Massachusetts chief justice bade the police take those crying children from their mother's side in the Boston court-room a few years ago, and hand them over to a comparative stranger, because that mother had married again? You might as well ask whether the colored vote would sustain the Dred Scott decision. Tariffs or banks may come or go the same, whether the voters be white or black, male or female; but when the wrongs of an oppressed class or sex are to be righted the ballot is the only guaranty. After they have gained a potential voice for themselves, the Sir Samuel Romillys will remember them.


The newspapers periodically express a desire to know whether women have given evidence, on the whole, of superior statesmanship to men. There are constant requests that they will define their position as to the tariff and the fisheries and the civil-service question. If they do not speak, it is naturally assumed that they will forever after hold their peace. Let us see how that matter stands.

It is said that the greatest mechanical skill in America is to be found among professional burglars who come here from England. Suppose one of these men were in prison, and we were to stand outside and taunt him through the window: "Here is a locomotive engine: why do you not mend or manage it? Here is a steam printing-press: if you know anything, set it up for me! You a mechanic, when you have not proved that you understand any of these things? Nonsense!"

But Jack Sheppard, if he condescended to answer us at all, would coolly say, "Wait a while, till I have finished my present job. Being in prison, my first business is to get out of prison. Wait till I have picked this lock, and mined this wall; wait till I have made a saw out of a watch-spring, and a ladder out of a pair of blankets. Let me do my first task, and get out of limbo, and then see if your little printing-presses and locomotives are too puzzling for my fingers."

Politically speaking, woman is in jail, and her first act of skill must be in getting through the wall. For her there is no tariff question, no problem of the fisheries. She will come to that by and by, if you please; but for the present her statesmanship must be employed nearer home. The "civil-service reform" in which she is most concerned is a reform which shall bring her in contact with the civil service. Her political creed, for the present, is limited to that of Sterne's starling in the cage,--"I can't get out." If she is supposed to have any common-sense at all, she will best show it by beginning at the point where she is, instead of at the point where somebody else is. She would indeed be as foolish as these editors think her if she now spent her brains upon the tariff question, which she cannot reach, instead of upon her own enfranchisement, which she is gradually reaching.

The woman-suffrage movement in America, in all its stages and subdivisions, has been the work of woman. No doubt men have helped in it: much of the talking has been done by them, and they have furnished many of the printed documents. But the energy, the methods, the unwearied purpose, of the movement, have come from women: they have led in all councils; they have established the newspapers, got up the conventions, addressed the legislatures, and raised the money. Thirty years have shown, with whatever temporary variations, one vast wave of progress toward success, both in this country and in Europe. Now success is statesmanship.

I remember well the shouts of laughter that used to greet the anti-slavery orators when they claimed that the real statesmen of the country were not the Clays and Calhouns, who spent their strength in trying to sustain slavery, and failed, but the Garrisons, who devoted their lives to its overthrow, and were succeeding. Yet who now doubts this? Tried by the same standard, the statesmanship of to-day does not lie in the men who can find no larger questions before them than those which concern the fisheries, but in the women whose far- reaching efforts will one day make every existing voting-list so much waste paper.

Of course, when the voting-lists with the women's names are ready to be printed, it will be interesting to speculate as to how these new monarchs of our destiny will use their power. For myself, a long course of observation in the anti-slavery and woman-suffrage movements has satisfied me that women are not idiots, and that, on the whole, when they give their minds to a question, whether moral or practical, they understand it quite as readily as men. In the anti-slavery movement it is certain that a woman, Elizabeth Heyrick, gave the first impulse to its direct and simple solution in England; and that another woman, Mrs. Stowe, did more than any man, except perhaps Garrison and John Brown, to secure its right solution here. There was never a moment, I am confident, when any great political question growing out of the anti-slavery struggle might not have been put to vote more safely among the women of New England than among the clergy, or the lawyers, or the college professors. If they did so well in that great issue, it is fair to assume that, after they have a sufficient inducement to study out future issues, they at least will not be very much behind the men.

But we cannot keep it too clearly in view, that the whole question, whether women would vote better or worse than men on general questions, is a minor matter. It was equally a minor matter in case of the negroes. We gave the negroes the ballot, simply because they needed it for their own protection; and we shall by and by give it to women for the same reason. Tried by that test, we shall find that their statesmanship will be genuine. When they come into power, drunken husbands will no longer control their wives' earnings, and a chief justice will no longer order a child to be removed from its mother, amid its tears and outcries, merely because that mother has married again. And if, as we are constantly assured, woman's first duty is to her home and her children, she may count it a good beginning in statesmanship to secure to herself the means of protecting both. That once settled, it will be time enough to "interview" her in respect to the proper rate of duty on pig-iron.


"Seek not to proticipate," says Mrs. Gamp, the venerable nurse in "Martin Chuzzlewit"--"but take 'em as they come, and as they go." I am persuaded that our woman-suffrage arguments would be improved by this sage counsel, and that at present we indulge in too many bold anticipations.

Is there not altogether too much tendency to predict what women will do when they vote? Could that good time come to-morrow, we should be startled to find to how many different opinions and "causes" the new voters were already pledged. One speaker wishes that women should be emancipated, because of the fidelity with which they are sure to support certain desirable measures, as peace, order, freedom, temperance, righteousness, and judgment to come. Then the next speaker has his or her schedule of political virtues and is equally confident that women, if once enfranchised, will guarantee clear majorities for them all. The trouble is that we thus mortgage this new party of the future, past relief, beyond possibility of payment, and incur the ridicule of the unsanctified by committing our cause to a great many contradictory pledges.

I know an able and high-minded woman of foreign birth, who courageously, but as I think mistakenly, calls herself an atheist, and who has for years advocated woman suffrage as the only antidote to the rule of the clergy. On the other hand, an able speaker in a Boston convention soon after advocated the same thing as the best way of defeating atheism, and securing the positive assertion of religion by the community. Both cannot be correct: neither is entitled to speak for woman. That being the case, would it not be better to keep clear of this dangerous ground of prediction, and keep to the argument based on rights and needs? If our theory of government be worth anything, woman has the same right to the ballot that man has: she certainly needs it as much for self-defence. How she will use it, when she gets it, is her own affair. It may be that she will use it more wisely than her brothers; but I am satisfied to believe that she will use it as well. Let us not attribute infallible wisdom and virtue, even to women; for, as dear Mrs. Poyser says in "Adam Bede," "God Almighty made some of 'em foolish, to match the men."

It is common to assume, for instance, that all women by nature favor peace; and that, even if they do not always seem to promote it in their social walk and conversation, they certainly will in their political. When we consider how all the pleasing excitements, achievements, and glories of war, such as they are, accrue to men only, and how large a part of the miseries are brought home to women, it might seem that their vote on this matter, at least, would be a sure thing. Thus far the theory: the fact being that we have been through a civil war which convulsed the nation, and cost half a million lives; and which was, from the very beginning, fomented, stimulated, and applauded, at least on one side, by the united voice of the women. It will be generally admitted by those who know, that, but for the women of the seceding States, the war of the Rebellion would have been waged more feebly, been sooner ended, and far more easily forgotten. Nay, I was told a few days since by an able Southern lawyer, who was long the mayor of one of the largest Southern cities, that in his opinion the practice of duelling--which is an epitome of war--owes its continued existence at the South to a sustaining public sentiment among the fair sex.

Again, where the sympathy of women is wholly on the side of right, it is by no means safe to assume that their mode of enforcing that sentiment will be equally judicious. Take, for instance, the temperance cause. It is quite common to assume that women are a unit on that question. When we look at the two extremes of society,--the fine lady pressing wine upon her visitors, and the Irishwoman laying in a family supply of whiskey to last over Sunday,--the assumption seems hasty. But grant it. Is it equally sure, that when woman takes hold of that most difficult of all legislation, the license and prohibitory laws, she will handle them more wisely than men have done? Will her more ardent zeal solve the problem on which so much zeal has already been lavished in vain? In large cities, for instance, where there is already more law than is enforced, will her additional ballots afford the means to enforce it? It may be so; but it seems wiser not to predict nor to anticipate, but to wait and hope.

It is no reproach on woman to say that she is not infallible on particular questions. There is much reason to suppose that in politics, as in every other sphere, the joint action of the sexes will be better and wiser than that of either singly. It seems obvious that the experiment of republican government will be more fairly tried when one half the race is no longer disfranchised. It is quite certain, at any rate, that no class can trust its rights to the mercy and chivalry of any other, but that, the weaker it is, the more it needs all political aids and securities for self-protection. Thus far we are on safe ground; and here, as it seems to me, the claim for suffrage may securely rest. To go farther in our assertions seems to me unsafe, although many of our wisest and most eloquent may differ from me; and the nearer we approach success, the more important it is to look to our weapons. It is a plausible and tempting argument, to claim suffrage for woman on the ground that she is an angel; but I think it will prove wiser, in the end, to claim it for her as being human.


In a hotly contested municipal election, the other day, an active political manager was telling me his tactics. "We have to send carriages for some of the voters," he said. "First-class carriages! If we undertake to wait on 'em, we must do it in good shape, and not leave the best carriages to be hired by the other party."

I am not much given to predicting just what will happen when women vote; but I confidently assert that they will be taken to the polls, if they wish, in first-class carriages. If the best horses are to be harnessed, and the best cushions selected, and every panel of the coach rubbed till you can see your face in it, merely to accommodate some elderly man who lives two blocks away, and could walk to the polls very easily, then how much more will these luxuries be placed at the service of every woman, young or old, whose presence at the polls is made doubtful by mud, or snow, or the prospect of a shower.

But the carriage is only the beginning of the polite attentions that will soon appear. When we see the transformation undergone by every ferryboat and every railway station, so soon as it comes to be frequented by women, who can doubt that voting-places will experience the same change? They will soon have-- at least in the "ladies' department"--elegance instead of discomfort, beauty for ashes, plenty of rocking-chairs, and no need of spittoons. Very possibly they may have all the modern conveniences and inconveniences,--furnace registers, teakettles, Washington pies, and a young lady to give checks for bundles. Who knows what elaborate comforts, what queenly luxuries, may be offered to women at voting-places, when the time has finally arrived to sue for their votes?

The common impression has always been quite different from this. People look at the coarseness and dirt now visible at so many voting-places, and say, "Would you expose women to all that?" But these places are not dirtier than a railway smoking-car; and there is no more coarseness than in any ferryboat which is, for whatever reason, used by men only. You do not look into those places, and say with indignation, "Never, if I can help it, shall my wife or my beloved great- grandmother travel by steamboat or by rail!" You know that with these exemplary relatives will enter order and quiet, carpets and curtains, brooms and dusters. Why should it be otherwise with ward rooms and town halls?

There is not an atom more of intrinsic difficulty in providing a decorous ladies' room for a voting-place, than for a post-office or a railway station; and it is as simple a thing to vote a ticket as to buy one. This being thus easily practicable, all men will desire to provide it. And the example of the first-class carriages shows that the parties will vie with each other in these pleasing arrangements. They will be driven to it, whether they wish it or not. The party which has most consistently and resolutely kept woman away from the ballot-box will be the very party compelled, for the sake of self-preservation, to make her "rights" agreeable to her when once she gets them. A few stupid or noisy men may indeed try to make the polls unattractive to her, the very first time; but the result of this little experiment will be so disastrous that the offenders will be sternly suppressed by their own party leaders, be

fore another election day comes. It will soon become clear, that of all possible ways of losing votes the surest lies in treating women rudely.

Lucy Stone tells a story of a good man in Kansas who, having done all he could to prevent women from being allowed to vote on school questions, was finally comforted, when that measure passed, by the thought that he should at least secure his wife's vote for a pet schoolhouse of his own. Election day came, and the newly enfranchised matron showed the most culpable indifference to her privileges. She made breakfast as usual, went about her housework, and did on that perilous day precisely the things that her anxious husband had always predicted that women never would do under such circumstances. His hints and advice found no response; and nothing short of the best pair of horses and the best wagon finally sufficed to take the farmer's wife to the polls. I am not the least afraid that women will find voting a rude or disagreeable arrangement. There is more danger of their being treated too well, and being too much attacked and allured by these cheap cajoleries. But women are pretty shrewd, and can probably be trusted to go to the polls, even in first-class carriages.


I know a rich bachelor of large property who fatigues his friends by perpetual denunciations of everything American, and especially of universal suffrage. He rarely votes; and I was much amazed, when the popular vote was to be taken on building an expensive schoolhouse, to see him go to the polls, and vote in the affirmative. On being asked his reason, he explained that, while we labored under the calamity of universal (male) suffrage, he thought it best to mitigate its evils by educating the voters. In short, he wished, as Mr. Lowe said in England when the last Reform Bill passed, "to prevail upon our future masters to learn their alphabets."

These motives may not be generous; but the schoolhouses, when they are built, are just as useful. Even girls get the benefit of them, though the long delay in many places before girls got their share came in part from the want of this obvious stimulus. It is universal male suffrage that guarantees schoolhouse and school. The most selfish man understands that argument: "We must educate the masses, if it is only to keep them from our throats."

But there is a wider way in which suffrage guarantees education. At every election time political information is poured upon the whole voting community till it is deluged. Presses run night and day to print newspaper extras; clerks sit up all night to send out congressional speeches; the most eloquent men in the community expound the most difficult matters to the ignorant. Of course each party affords only its own point of view; but every man has a neighbor who is put under treatment by some other party, and who is constantly attacking all who will listen to his provoking and pestilent counter-statements. All the common school education of the United States does not equal the education of election day; and as in some States elections are held very often, this popular university seems to be kept in session almost the whole year round. The consequence is a remarkable average popular knowledge of political affairs,--a training which American women now miss, but which will come to them with the ballot.

And in still another way there will be an education coming to woman from the right of suffrage. It will come from her own sex, proceeding from highest to lowest. We often hear it said that after enfranchisement the more educated women will not vote, while the ignorant will. But Mrs. Howe admirably pointed out, at a Philadelphia convention, that the moment women have the ballot it will become the pressing duty of the more educated women, even in self-protection, to train the rest The very fact of the danger will be a stimulus to duty, with women, as it already is with men.

It has always seemed to me rather childish, in a man of superior education, or talent, or wealth, to complain that when election day comes he has no more votes than the man who plants his potatoes or puts in his coal The truth is that under the most thorough system of universal suffrage the man of wealth or talent or natural leadership has still a disproportionate influence, still casts a hundred votes where the poor or ignorant or feeble man throws but one. Even the outrages of New York elections turned out to be caused by the fact that the leading rogues had used their brains and energy, while the men of character had not. When it came to the point, it was found that a few caricatures by Nast and a few columns of figures in the "Times" were more than a match for all the repeaters of the ring. It is always so. Andrew Johnson, with all the patronage of the nation, had not the influence of "Nasby" with his one newspaper. The whole Chinese question was perceptibly and instantly modified when Harte wrote "The Heathen Chinee."

These things being so, it indicates feebleness or dyspepsia when an educated man is heard whining, about election time, with his fears of ignorant voting. It is his business to enlighten and control that ignorance. With a voice and a pen at his command, with a town hall in every town for the one, and a newspaper in every village for the other, he has such advantages over his ignorant neighbors that the only doubt is whether his privileges are not greater than he deserves. For one, in writing for the press, I am impressed by the undue greatness, not by the littleness, of the power I wield. And what is true of men will be true of women. If the educated women of America have not brains or energy enough to control, in the long run, the votes of the ignorant women around them, they will deserve a severe lesson, and will be sure, like the men in New York, to receive it. And thenceforward they will educate and guide that ignorance, instead of evading or cringing before it.

But I have no fear about the matter. It is a libel on American women to say that they will not go anywhere or do anything which is for the good of their children and their husbands. Travel West on any of our great lines of railroad, and see what women undergo in transporting their households to their new homes. See the watching and the feeding, and the endless answers to the endless questions, and the toil to keep little Sarah warm, and little Johnny cool, and the baby comfortable. What a hungry, tired, jaded, forlorn mass of humanity it is, as the sun rises on it each morning, in the soiled and breathless railway- car! Yet that household group is America in the making; those are the future kings and queens, the little princes and princesses, of this land. Now, is the mother who has undergone for the transportation of these children all this enormous labor to shrink at her journey's end from the slight additional labor of going to the polls to vote whether those little ones shall have schools or rumshops? The thought is an absurdity. A few fine ladies in cities will fear to spoil their silk dresses, as a few foppish gentlemen now fear for their broadcloth. But the mass of intelligent American women will vote, as do the mass of men.


"There go thirty thousand men," shouted the Portuguese, as Wellington, with a few staff-officers, rode along the mountain-side. The action of the leaders' minds, in any direction, has a value out of all proportion to their numbers. In a campaign there is a council of officers,--Grant and Sherman and Sheridan perhaps. They are but a trifling minority, yet what they plan the whole army will do; and such is the faith in a real leader, that, were all the restraints of discipline for the moment relaxed, the rank and file would still follow his judgment. What a few general officers see to be the best to-day, the sergeants and corporals and private soldiers will usually see to be best to-morrow.

In peace, also, there is a silent leadership; only that in peace, as there is more time to spare, the leaders are expected to persuade the rank and file, instead of commanding them. Yet it comes to the same thing in the end. The movement begins with certain guides, and if you wish to know the future, keep your eye on them. If you wish to know what is already decided, ask the majority; but if you wish to find out what is likely to be done next, ask the leaders.

It is constantly said that the majority of women do not yet desire to vote, and it is true. But to find out whether they are likely to wish for it, we must keep our eyes on the women who lead their sex. The representative women,--those who naturally stand for the rest, those most eminent for knowledge and self- devotion,--how do they view the thing? The rank and file do not yet demand the ballot, you say; but how is it with the general officers?

Now, it is a remarkable fact, about which those who have watched this movement for twenty years can hardly be mistaken, that almost any woman who reaches a certain point of intellectual or moral development will presently be found desiring the ballot for her sex. If this be so, it predicts the future. It is the judgment of Grant and Sherman and Sheridan as against that of the average private soldier of the Two Hundredth Infantry. Set aside, if you please, the specialists of this particular agitation,--those who were first known to the public through its advocacy. There is no just reason why they should be set aside, yet concede that for a moment. The fact remains that the ablest women in the land--those who were recognized as ablest in other spheres, before they took this particular duty upon them--are extremely apt to assume this cross when they reach a certain stage of development.

When Margaret Fuller first came forward into literature, she supposed that literature was all she wanted. It was not till she came to write upon woman's position that she discovered what woman needed. Clara Barton, driving her ambulance or her supply wagon at the battle's edge, did not foresee, perhaps, that she should make that touching appeal, when the battle was over, imploring her own enfranchisement from the soldiers she had befriended. Lydia Maria Child, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa Alcott, came to the claim for the ballot earlier than a million others, because they were the intellectual leaders of American womanhood. They saw farthest, because they were in the highest place. They were the recognized representatives of their sex before they gave in their adhesion to the new demand. Their judgment is as the judgment of the council of officers, while Flora McFlimsey's opinion is as the opinion of John Smith, unassigned recruit. But if the generals make arrangements for a battle, the chance is that John Smith will have to take a hand in it, or else run away.

It is a rare thing for the petition for suffrage from any town to comprise the majority of women in that town. It makes no difference: if there are few women in the town who want to vote, there is as much propriety in their voting as if there were ten millions, so long as the majority are equally protected in their right to stay at home. But when the names of petitioners come to be weighed as well as counted, the character, the purity, the intelligence, the social and domestic value of the petitioners is seldom denied. The women who wish to vote are not the idle, the ignorant, the narrow-minded, or the vicious; they are not "the dangerous classes:" they represent the best class in the community, when tried by the highest standard. They are the natural leaders. What they now see to be right will also be perceived even by the foolish and the ignorant by and by.

In a poultry-yard in spring, when the first brood of duckling's goes toddling to the waterside, no doubt all the younger or feebler broods, just hatched out of similar eggs, think these innovators dreadfully mistaken. "You are out of place," they feebly pipe. "See how happy we are in our safe nests. Perhaps, by and by, when properly introduced into society, we may run about a little on land, but to swim!--never!" Meanwhile their elder kindred are splashing and diving in ecstasy; and, so surely as they are born ducklings, all the rest will swim in their turn. The instinct of the first duck solves the problem for all the rest. It is a mere question of time. Sooner or later, all the broods in the most conservative yard will follow their leaders.


An English member of Parliament said in a speech, some years ago, that the stupidest man had a clearer understanding of political questions than the brightest woman. He did not find it convenient to say what must be the condition of a nation which for many years has had a woman for its sovereign; but he certainly said bluntly what many men feel. It is not indeed very hard to find the source of this feeling. It is not merely that women are inexperienced in questions of finance or administrative practice, for many men are equally ignorant of these. But it is undoubtedly true of a large class of more fundamental questions,--as, for instance, of some now pending at Washington,-- which even many clear-headed women find it hard to understand, while men of far less general training comprehend them entirely.

Questions of the distribution of power, for instance, between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government,--or between the United States government and those of the separate States,--belong to the class I mean. Many women of great intelligence show a hazy indistinctness of views when the question arises whether it is the business of the general government to preserve order at the voting-places at a congressional election, for instance, as the Republicans hold; or whether it should be left absolutely in the hands of the state officials, as the Democrats maintain. Most women would probably say that so long as order was preserved, it made very little difference who did it. Yet, if one goes into a shoe-shop or a blacksmith's shop, one may hear just these questions discussed in all their bearings by uneducated men, and it will be seen that they involve a principle. Why is this difference? Does it show some constitutional inferiority in women, as to this particular faculty?

The question is best solved by considering a case somewhat parallel. The South Carolina negroes were considered very stupid, even by many who knew than; and they certainly were densely ignorant on many subjects. Put face to face with a difficult point of finance legislation, I think they would have been found to know even less about it than I do. Yet the abolition of slavery was held in those days by many great statesmen to be a subject so difficult that they shrank from discussing it; and nevertheless I used to find that these ignorant men understood it quite clearly in all its bearings. Offer a bit of sophistry to them, try to blind them with false logic on this subject, and they would detect it as promptly, and answer it as keenly, as Garrison or Phillips would have done; and, indeed, they would give very much the same answers. What was the reason? Not that they were half wise and half stupid; but that they were dull where their own interests had not trained them, and they were sharp and keen where their own interests were concerned.

I have no doubt that it will be so with women when they vote. About some things they will be slow to learn; but about all that immediately concerns themselves they will know more at the very beginning than many wise men have learned since the world began. How long it took for English-speaking men to correct, even partially, the iniquities of the old common law!--but a parliament of women would have set aside at a single sitting the alleged right of the husband to correct his wife with a stick no bigger than his thumb. It took the men of a certain State of this Union a good many years to see that it was an outrage to confiscate to the State one half the property of a man who died childless, leaving his widow only the other half; but a legislature of women would have annihilated that enormity by a single day's work. I have never seen reason to believe that women on general questions would act more wisely or more conscientiously, as a rule, than men: but self-preservation is a wonderful quickener of the brain; and in all questions bearing on their own rights and opportunities as women, it is they who will prove shrewd and keen, and men who will prove obtuse, as indeed they have usually been.

Another point that adds force to this is the fact that wherever women, by their special position, have more at stake than usual in public affairs, even as now organized, they are apt to be equal to the occasion. When the men of South Carolina were ready to go to war for the "State-Rights" doctrines of Calhoun, the women of that State had also those doctrines at their fingers'-ends. At Washington, where politics make the breath of life, you will often find the wives of members of Congress following the debates, and noting every point gained or lost, because these are matters in which they and their families are personally concerned; and as for that army of women employed in the "departments" of the government, they are politicians every one, because their bread depends upon it.

The inference is, that if women as a class are now unfitted for politics it is because they have not that pressure of personal interest and responsibility by which men are unconsciously trained. Give this, and self-interest will do the rest, aided by that power of conscience and affection which is certainly not less in them than in men, even if we claim no more. A young lady of my acquaintance opposed woman suffrage in conversation on various grounds, one of which was that it would, if enacted, compel her to read the newspapers, which she greatly disliked. I pleaded that this was not a fatal objection; since many men voted "early and often" without reading them, and in fact without knowing how to read at all. She said, in reply, that this might do for men, but that women were far more conscientious, and, if they were once compelled to vote, they would wish to know what they were voting for. This seemed to me to contain the whole philosophy of the matter; and I respected the keenness of her suggestion, though it led me to an opposite conclusion.


If it were anywhere the custom to disfranchise persons of superior virtue because of their virtue, and to present others with the ballot, simply because they had been in the state prison,--then the exclusion of women from political rights would be a high compliment, no doubt. But I can find no record in history of any such legislation, unless so far as it is contained in the doubtful tradition of the Tuscan city of Pistoia, where men are said to have been ennobled as a punishment for crime. Among us crime may often be a covert means of political prominence, but it is not the ostensible ground; nor are people habitually struck from the voting-lists for performing some rare and eminent service, such as saving human life, or reading every word of a presidential message. If a man has been President of the United States, we do not disfranchise him thenceforward; if he has been governor, we do not declare him thenceforth ineligible to the office of United States senator. On the contrary, the supposed reward of high merit is to give higher civic privileges. Sometimes these are even forced on unwilling recipients, as when Plymouth Colony in 1633 imposed a fine of twenty pounds on any one who should refuse the office of governor.

It is utterly contrary to all tradition and precedent, therefore, to suppose that women have been hitherto disfranchised because of any supposed superiority. Indeed, the theory is self-annihilating, and has always involved all supporters in hopeless inconsistency. Thus the Southern slaveholders were wont to argue that a negro was only blest when a slave, and there was no such inhumanity as to free him. Then, if a slave happened to save his master's life, he was rewarded by emancipation immediately, amid general applause. The act refuted the theory. And so, every time we have disfranchised a rebel, or presented some eminent foreigner with the freedom of a city, we have recognized that enfranchisement, after all, means honor, and disfranchisement implies disgrace.

I do not see how any woman can avoid a thrill of indignation when she first opens her eyes to the fact that it is really contempt, not reverence, that has so long kept her sex from an equal share of legal, political, and educational rights. In spite of the duty paid to individual women as mothers, in spite of the reverence paid by the Greeks and the Germanic races to certain women as priestesses and sibyls, the fact remains that this sex has been generally recognized, in past ages of the human race, as stamped by hopeless inferiority, not by angelic superiority. This is carried so far that a certain taint of actual inferiority is held to attach to women, in barbarous nations. Among certain Indian tribes, the service of the gods is defiled if a woman but touches the implements of sacrifice; and a Turk apologizes to a Christian physician for the mention of the women of his family, in the very phrases used to soften the mention of any degrading creature. Mr. Leland tells us that among the English gypsies any object that a woman treads upon, or sweeps with the skirts of her dress, is destroyed or made away with in some way, as unfit for use. In reading the history of manners, it is easy to trace the steps from this degradation up to the point now attained, such as it is. Yet even the habit of physiological contempt is not gone, and I do not see how any one can read history without seeing, all around us, in society, education, and politics, the tradition of inferiority. Many laws and usages which in themselves might not strike all women as intrinsically worth striving for--as the exclusion of women from colleges or from the ballot-box--assume great importance to a woman's self-respect, when she sees in these the plain survival of the same contempt that once took much grosser forms.

And it must be remembered that in civilized communities the cynics, who still frankly express this utter contempt, are better friends to women than the flatterers, who conceal it in the drawing-room, and only utter it freely in the lecture-room, the club, and the "North American Review." Contempt at least arouses pride and energy. To be sure, in the face of history, the contemptuous tone in regard to women seems to me untrue, unfair, and dastardly; but, like any other extreme injustice, it leads to reaction. It helps to awaken women from that shallow dream of self-complacency into which flattery lulls them. There is something tonic in the manly arrogance of Fitzjames Stephen, who derides the thought that the marriage contract can be treated as in any sense a contract between equals; but there is something that debilitates in the dulcet counsel given by an anonymous gentleman, in an old volume of the "Ladies' Magazine" that lies before me,--"She ought to present herself as a being made to please, to love, and to seek support; a being inferior to man, and near to angels."

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top