Female suffrage (Smith)
REPRINTED FROM "MACMILLAN'S MAGAZINE."
MACMILLAN AND CO.
This Paper has been reprinted by desire of some Members of the House of Commons. It has been revised, and some sentences have been added to meet new arguments on the other side, while special allusions to the legislative phase of the question last session have been omitted.
I cannot take notice of personal attacks, especially when they proceed from ladies. In answer to appeals to party allegiance I have to say, in the first place, that the Bill for removing the Electoral Disabilities of Women comes from the Conservative side of the House, and is apparently, like the enfranchisement of the residuum, not unconnected with the objects of a reactionary policy. In the second place, what is of much more importance, I have to say that I owe allegiance to party in politics, not when it invades the family and home.
A friend, seconding the request that the Paper should be reprinted, writes to me: "The argument that weighs most with me is the incalculable danger of disturbing the tacit concordat on which the relations between the sexes now repose. By virtue of that concordat women get more privileges and fewer burdens, while men take rights and burdens for themselves. Whatever tends to upset this compromise tends to bring on a struggle in which the weaker must needs go to the wall."
- Toronto, January, 1875.
The Bill for removing the Electoral Disabilities of Women has received less attention than the subject deserves. A good deal of personal pressure has been applied in favour of the Bill, and there are probably not a few among its pledged supporters who are far from seeing clearly all the consequences of their vote. The very foundations of society are touched when change is proposed in the relations of the sexes.
In England the proposal at present is to give the suffrage only to unmarried women being householders. But the drawing of this hard-and-fast line is at the outset contested by the champions of Woman's Rights; and it seems impossible that the distinction should be maintained. The lodger-franchise is evidently the vanishing point of the feudal connection between political privilege and the possession of houses or land. The suffrage will become personal in England, as it has elsewhere. If a property qualification remains, it will be one embracing all kinds of property: money settled on a married woman for her separate use, as well as the house or lodgings occupied by a widow or a spinster. In the counties already married women have qualifications in the form of land settled to their separate use; and the notion that a spinster in lodgings is specially entitled to the suffrage as the head of a household, is one of those pieces of metaphysics in which the politicians who affect to scorn anything metaphysical are apt themselves unwarily to indulge. If the present motion is carried, the votes of the female householders, with that system of election pledges which is now enabling minorities, and even small minorities, to control national legislation, will form the crowbar by which the next barrier will be speedily forced. The framer of the Bill, in fact, himself tells his dissatisfied supporters that the limitation to unmarried women is introduced only to hoodwink the House of Commons, which must be very manageable if it can be so easily duped. It is for married women especially that the boon is sought by the authors of the movement, whose favourite argument is the elevating effect which would be produced on the marriage bond by making political interests common to man and wife.
Marriage itself, as it raises the position of a woman in the eyes of all but the very radical section of the Woman's Rights party, could hardly be treated as politically penal. And yet an Act conferring the suffrage on married women would probably be the most momentous step that could be taken by any legislature, since it would declare the family not to be a political unit, and for the first time authorise a wife, and make it in certain cases her duty as a citizen, to act publicly in opposition to her husband. Those at least who hold the family to be worth as much as the state, will think twice before they concur in such a change.
With the right of electing must ultimately go the right of being elected. The contempt with which the candidature of Mrs. Victoria Woodhull for the Presidency was received by some of the advocates of Female Suffrage in America only showed that they had not considered the consequences of their own principles. Surely she who gives the mandate is competent herself to carry it. Under the parliamentary system, whatever the forms and phrases may be, the constituencies are the supreme arbiters of the national policy, and decide not only who shall be the legislators, but what shall be the course of legislation. They have long virtually appointed the Ministers, and now they appoint them actually. Twice the Government has been changed by a plebiscite, and on the second occasion the Budget was submitted to the constituencies as directly as ever it was to the House of Commons. There may be some repugnance, natural or traditional, to be overcome in admitting women to seats in Parliament, but there is also some repugnance to be overcome in throwing them into the turmoil of contested elections, in which, as soon as Female Suffrage is carried, some ladies will unquestionably claim their part. Supposing Parliament to declare sex no longer a political disqualification, it is difficult to see on what ground Peeresses in their own right could be prevented from taking their seats in the House of Lords.
There are members of Parliament who shrink from the step which they are now urged to take, but who fancy that they have no choice left them because the municipal franchise has already been conceded. The municipal franchise was no doubt intended to be the thin end of the wedge. Nevertheless there is a great step between this and the national franchise; between allowing female influence to prevail in the disposition of school rates, or other local rates, and allowing it to prevail in the supreme government of the country. To see that it is so, we have only to imagine the foreign policy of England determined by the women, while that of other countries is determined by the men; and this in the age of Bismarck. In case the great European conflict, for which everybody is armed, should come, it seems not difficult to predict the fate of a nation whose councils should be swayed by its women.
The writer of this paper himself once signed a petition for Female Household Suffrage got up by Mr. Mill. He has always been for enlarging the number of active citizens as much as possible, and widening the basis of government, in accordance with the maxim, which seems to him the sum of political philosophy, "That is the best form of government which doth most actuate and dispose all parts and members of the commonwealth to the common good." He had not, when he signed the petition, seen the public life of women in the United States. But he was at once led to reconsider what he had done, and prevented from going further, by finding that the movement was received with mistrust by some of the best and most sensible women of his acquaintance, who feared that their most valuable privileges, and the deepest sources of their happiness, were being jeopardized to gratify the political aspirations of a few of their sex. For the authority of Mr. Mill, in all cases where his judgment was unclouded, the writer felt, and still feels, great respect. But since that time, Mr. Mill's autobiography has appeared, and has revealed the history of his extraordinary and almost portentous education, the singular circumstances of his marriage, his hallucination (for it surely can be called nothing less) as to the unparalleled genius of his wife, and peculiarities of character and temperament such as could not fail to prevent him from fully appreciating the power of influences which, whatever our philosophy may say, reign, and will continue to reign supreme over questions of this kind. To him marriage was a union of two philosophers in the pursuit of truth; and in his work on the position and destiny of women, not only does he scarcely think of children, but sex and its influences seem hardly to be present to his mind. Of the distinctive excellence and beauty of the female character it does not appear that he had formed any idea, though he dilates on the special qualities of the female mind. We need scarcely scruple to make these remarks since the autobiography was published expressly for the purpose of enabling us to trace the growth of Mr. Mill's mind and opinions in connection with his education and the other circumstances of his life. The feelings of survivors, which are alleged as a reason for not adverting to the work, or rather for putting on it only the construction favourable to the Woman's Rights theory, should have been considered before the publication.
Mr. Mill has allowed us to see that his opinions as to the political position of women were formed early in his life, probably before he had studied history rationally, perhaps before the rational study of history had even come into existence. The consequence, with all deference to his great name, be it said, is that his historical presentment of the case is fundamentally unsound. He and his disciples represent the lot of the woman as having always been determined by the will of the man, who, according to them, has willed that she should be the slave, and that he should be her master and her tyrant. "Society, both in this (the case of marriage) and other cases, has preferred to attain its object by foul rather than by fair means; but this is the only case in which it substantially persisted in them, even to the present day." This is Mr. Mill's fundamental assumption, and from it, as every rational student of history is now aware, conclusions utterly erroneous as well as injurious to humanity must flow. The lot of the woman has not been determined by the will of the man, at least in any considerable degree. The lot both of the man and the woman has been determined from age to age by circumstances over which the will of neither of them had much control, and which neither could be blamed for accepting or failing to reverse. Mr. Mill, and those who with him assume that the man has always willed that he should himself enjoy political rights, and that the woman should be his slave, forget that it is only in a few countries that man does enjoy political rights; and that, even in those few countries, freedom is the birth almost of yesterday. It may probably be said that the number of men who have really and freely exercised the suffrage up to the present time is not much greater than the number of those who have in different ages, and in various ways, laid down their lives or made personal sacrifices of other kinds in bringing the suffrage into existence.
In the early stages of civilization the family was socially and legally, as well as politically, a unit. Its head represented the household before the tribe, the state, and all persons and bodies without; while within he exercised absolute power over all the members, male as well as female, over his sons as well as over his wife and daughters. On the death of the head of a family, his eldest son stepped into his place and became the representative and protector of the whole household, including the widow of the deceased chief. This system, long retained in conservative Rome, was there the source of the national respect for authority, and, by an expansion of feeling from the family to the community, of the patriotism which produced and sustained Roman greatness. But its traces lingered far down in history. It was not male tyranny that authorised a Tudor queen to send members of the royal household to the Tower by her personal authority as the mistress of the family, without regard to the common law against arbitrary imprisonment. Such a constitution was essential to the existence of the family in primitive times; without it the germs of nations and of humanity would have perished. To suppose that it was devised by the male sex for the gratification of their own tyrannical propensities would be most absurd. It was at least as much a necessity to the primitive woman as it was to the primitive man. It is still a necessity to woman in the countries where the primitive type of society remains. What would be the fate of a female Bedouin, if she were suddenly invested with Woman's Rights and emancipated from the protection of her husband?
That the present relation of women to their husbands literally has its origin in slavery, and is a hideous relic of that system, is a theory which Mr. Mill sets forth in language such as, if it could sink into the hearts of those to whom it is addressed, would turn all affection to bitterness and divide every household against itself. Yet this theory is without historical foundation. It seems, indeed, like a figure of invective heedlessly converted into history. Even in the most primitive times, and those in which the subjection of the women was most complete, the wife was clearly distinguished from the slave. The lot of Sarah is different from that of Hagar; the authority of Hector over Andromache is absolute, yet no one can confound her position with that of her handmaidens. The Roman matron who sent her slave to be crucified, the Southern matron who was the fierce supporter of slavery, were not themselves slaves. Whatever may now be obsolete in the relations of husband and wife is not a relic of slavery, but of primitive marriage, and may be regarded as at worst an arrangement once indispensable which has survived its hour. Where real slavery has existed, it has extended to both sexes, and it has ceased for both at the same time. Even the Oriental seclusion of women, perhaps the worst condition in which the sex has ever been, has its root, not in the slave-owning propensity so much as in jealousy, a passion which, though extravagant and detestable in its excessive manifestation, is not without an element of affection. The most beautiful building in the East is that in which Shah Jehan rests by the side of Nourmahal.
If the calm and philosophic nature of Mr. Mill is ever betrayed into violence, it is in his denunciations of the present institution of marriage. He depicts it as a despotism full of mutual degradation, and fruitful of no virtues or affections except the debased virtues and the miserable affections of the master and the slave. The grossest and most degrading terms of Oriental slavery are used to designate the relations of husband and wife throughout the whole book. A husband who desires his wife's love is merely seeking "to have, in the woman most nearly connected with him, not a forced slave, but a willing one—not a slave merely, but a favourite." Husbands have therefore "put everything in practice to enslave the minds of their wives," If a wife is intensely attached to her husband, "exactly as much may be said of domestic slavery." "It is part of the irony of life that the strongest feelings of devoted gratitude of which human nature seems to be susceptible are called forth in human beings towards those who, having the power entirely to crush their earthly existence, voluntarily refrain from using their power." Even children are only links in the chain of bondage. By the affections of women "are meant the only ones they are allowed to have—those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man." The Jesuit is an object of sympathy, because he is the enemy of the domestic tyrant, and it is assumed that the husband can have no motive but the love of undivided tyranny for objecting to being superseded by an intriguing interloper in his wife's affections. As though a wife would regard with complacency, say a female spiritualist installed beside her hearth! It is impossible to doubt that Mr. Mill's views, in writing such passages, were coloured by the incidents of his life. But it is by circulating his book and propagating his notions that the petitions in favour of Female Suffrage have been obtained.
The anomalies in the property law affecting married women, to which remedial legislation has recently been directed, are like whatever is obsolete in relations between the sexes generally—not deliberate iniquities, but survivals. They are relics of feudalism, or of still more primitive institutions incorporated by feudalism; and while the system to which they belonged existed, they were indispensable parts of it, and must have been so regarded by both sexes alike. Any one who is tolerably well informed ought to be ashamed to represent them as the contrivances of male injustice. It is not on one sex only that the relics of feudalism have borne hard.
The exclusion of women from professions is cited as another proof of constant and immemorial injustice. But what woman asked or wished to be admitted to a profession fifty or even five and twenty years ago? What woman, till quite recently, would have been ready to renounce marriage and maternity in order that she might devote herself to law, medicine, or commercial pursuits? The fact is, the demand is connected with an abnormal and possibly transient state of things. The expensiveness of living, in a country where the fashion is set by millionaires, combined with the overcrowded condition of the very callings to which women are demanding admission, has put extraordinary difficulties in the way of marriage. Many women are thus left without an object in life, and they naturally try to open for themselves some new career. The utmost sympathy is due to them, and every facility ought in justice to be afforded them; though unhappily the addition of fresh competitors for subsistence to a crowd in which literally famine has already been at work, will be as far as possible from removing the real root of the evil; to say nothing of the risk which a woman must run in committing herself irrevocably to a precarious calling and closing against herself the gate of domestic life. But the demand, as has been already said, is of yesterday, and probably in its serious form is as yet confined to the countries in which the special impediments to early marriages exist In the United States it is not easy to distinguish the serious demand from a morbid passion for emulating the male sex, which has undoubtedly taken possession of some of the women there, as it took possession of women under the Roman empire, who began to play the gladiator when other excitements were exhausted. With regard to the profession of law, indeed, so far as it is concerned with the administration of justice, there is, and, while human emotions retain their force, always will be, a reason, independent of the question of demand, for excluding women, at least for excluding one of the two sexes. The influence of a pretty advocate appealing to a jury, perhaps in behalf of a client of her own sex, would not have seemed to Mr. Mill at all dangerous to the integrity of public justice; but most people, and especially those who have seen anything of sentimental causes in the United States, will probably be of a different opinion.
What has been said as to the professions is equally true of the universities, which, in fact, were schools of the professions. A few years ago, what English girl would have consented to leave her home and mingle with male students? What English girl would have thought it possible that she could go through the whole of the medical course with male companions of her studies? Even now what is the amount of settled belief in the right, as it is termed, of "co-education?" What would be said to a young man if he presented himself in the name of that right at the door of Vassar, or any other female college? Without arraigning the past, those whose duty it is may consider, with the deliberation which they deserve, the two distinct questions, whether it is desirable that the education of both sexes shall be the same, and whether it is desirable that the young men and the young women of the wealthier classes shall be educated together in the same universities. Beneath the first probably lies the still deeper question, whether it is good for humanity that woman, who has hitherto been the helpmate and the complement, should become, as the leaders in the Woman's Right movement in the United States evidently desire, the rival and competitor of man. Both she cannot be; and it is by no means clear that, in deciding which she shall be, the aspirations of the leaders of this movement coincide with the interests of the sex.
If the education of women has hitherto been defective, so has that of men. We are now going to do our best to improve both. Surely no accomplishment to the acquisition of which woman has been condemned to spend her time, could well be less useful than that of writing Greek or Latin verses. That the comparative absence of works of created genius among women is due entirely to the social tyranny which has excluded, or is supposed to have excluded, them from literary and scientific careers, cannot be said to be self-evident. The case of music, often cited, seems to suggest that there is another cause, and that the career of intellectual ambition is in most cases not likely to be happier than that of domestic affection, though this is no reason why the experiment should not be fairly tried. Perhaps the intellectual disabilities under which women have laboured, even in the past, have been somewhat exaggerated. If Shelley was a child to Mrs. Mill, as Mr. Mill says, no "social disabilities" hindered Mrs. Mill from publishing poems which would have eclipsed Shelley. The writer once heard an American lecturer of great eminence confidently ascribe the Aphra Behn. And this lady's name suggests the remark that as the relations of the sexes have been the most intimate conceivable, the influence of character has been reciprocal, and the level of moral ideas and sentiments for both pretty much the same.of English fiction in the early part of the last century to the exclusion of women from literary life. The lecturer forgot that the most popular novelist of that period, and certainly not the least licentious, was Mrs.
Mr. Mill, seeing that the man is the stronger, seems to assume that the relations between man and woman must always have been regulated simply by the law of the strongest. But strength is not tyranny. The protector must always be stronger than the person under his protection. A mother is overwhelmingly superior in strength to her infant child, and the child is completely at her mercy. The very highest conception that humanity has ever formed, whether it be founded in reality or not, is that of power losing itself in affection. This may be said without lapsing into what has been called the religion of inhumanity. St. Paul (who on an hypothesis is an authoritative expositor of the morality which became that of Christendom) preaches Fraternity plainly, and even passionately enough. He affirms with the utmost breadth the essential equality of the sexes, and their necessary relations to each other as the two halves of humanity. Yet he no less distinctly ratifies the unity of the family, the authority of its head, and the female need of personal government; a need which, when it is natural, has nothing in it more degrading than the need of protection.
The "Revolt of Woman" is the name given to the movement by a female writer in America, who by the way, claims, in virtue of "superior complexity of organization," not only political equality, but absolute supremacy over man. But, in this revolt, to what do the insurgents appeal? To their own strength, or to the justice and affection of man?
The main factors of the relation between the sexes have hitherto been, and probably still are, natural affection; the man's need of a helpmate, the woman's need of a protector and provider, especially when she becomes a mother; and the common interest of parents in their children. One of these factors must be withdrawn, or greatly reduced in importance, to warrant us in concluding that a fundamental change in the relation is about to take place. Mr. Mill hardly notices any one of the four, and he treats the natural relation which arises from them as a purely artificial structure, like a paper constitution or an Act of Parliament, which legislatures can modify or abolish at their pleasure.
It has no doubt been far from a satisfactory world for either sex; but unless we attach a factitious value to public life and to the exercise of public professions, it will be very difficult to prove that it has been more unsatisfactory for one sex than the other. If the woman has had her sorrows at home, the man has had his wars and his rough struggles with nature abroad, and with the sweat of his brow he has reclaimed the earth, and made it a habitation for his partner as well as for himself If the woman has had her disabilities, she has also had her privileges. War has spared her; for if in primitive times she was made a slave, this was better, in the days before sentiment at least, than being massacred. And her privileges have been connected with her disabilities. If she had made war by her vote, she could not have claimed special respect as a neutral, nor will she be able to claim special respect as a neutral if she makes war by her vote hereafter.
In the United States the privileges of women may be said to extend to immunity, not only for ordinary outrage, but for murder. A murderess of her husband whose guilt has been proved by overwhelming evidence, is let off out of regard for her sex; there is a sentimental scene between her and her advocate in court, and afterwards she appears as a public lecturer. The whisky crusade shows that women are practically above the law. Rioting, and injury to the property of tradesmen, when committed by the privileged sex, are hailed as a new and beneficent agency in public life; and because the German population, being less sentimental, asserts the principles of legality and decency, the women are said to have suffered martyrdom. So far from the American family being the despotism which Mr. Mill describes, the want of domestic authority lies at the root of all that is worst in the politics of the United States. If the women ask for the suffrage, say some American publicists, they must have it; and in the same way, everything that a child cries for is apt to be given it, without reflection as to the consequences of the indulgence.
There is, therefore, no reason for setting the sexes by the ears, or giving to any change which it may be just and expedient to make, the aspect of a revolt. We may discuss on its own merits the question whether female suffrage would be a good thing for the whole community. The interest of the whole community must be the test. As to natural rights, they must be sought by those who desire them, not in communities, but in the primeval woods, where the available rights of women will be small.
The question whether female suffrage on an extended scale is good for the whole community is probably identical, practically speaking, with the question whether it is good for us to have free institutions or not. Absolute monarchy is founded on personal loyalty. Free institutions are founded on the love of liberty, or, to speak more properly, on the preference of legal to personal government. But the love of liberty and the desire of being governed by law alone appear to be characteristically male. The female need of protection, of which, so long as women remain physically weak, and so long as they are mothers, it will be impossible to get rid, is apparently accompanied by a preference for personal government, which finds its proper satisfaction in the family, but which gives an almost uniform bias to the political sentiments of women. The account commonly accepted of the reactionary tendency which all admit to be generally characteristic of the sex, is, that they are priest-ridden. No doubt many of them are priest-ridden, and female suffrage would give a vast increase of power to the clergy. But the cause is probably deeper and more permanent, being, in fact, the sentiment inherent in the female temperament, which again is formed by the normal functions and circumstances of the sex. And if this is the case, to give women the franchise is simply to give them the power of putting an end, actually and virtually, to all franchises together. It may not be easy to say beforehand exactly what course the demolition of free institutions by female suffrage would take. In the United States probably some woman's favourite would be elected President, and re-elected till his power became personal, and perhaps dynastic. In that country, assuredly, the Republic could not survive the addition of the female vote to all the anti-republican or non-republican elements already existing, such as negro suffrage and Irish and South-German immigration. But there can lie little doubt that, in all cases, if power were put into the hands of the women, free government, and with it liberty of opinion would fall.
In France, it is morally certain that at the present moment, if votes were given to the women, the first result would be the restoration to power of the Bourbons, with their reactionary priesthood, and the destruction of all that has been gained by the national agonies of the last century. The next result would be a religious crusade against German Protestantism and Italian freedom.
But would the men submit? Would they, in compliance with the edict of the women, and in obedience to a woman's government, haul down the tricolor, hoist the white flag, bow their necks to the yoke of reaction, and march against the victors of Sedan in a cause which they detest? This question points to another serious consideration. It is true that law is much stronger now than it was in primitive or feudal times, and a woman is more under its protection and less under the private protection of her husband and her kinsmen. But law, after all, though the fact may be rough and unwelcome, rests at bottom on the force of the community, and the force of the community is male. Force, as civilization advances, is more guided by reason and open recourse to it becomes less frequent; but the general consciousness that the force is there, in the last resort, is still the foundation of government, representative as well as other kinds. No woman can imagine that her sex can execute, or in case of rebellion re-assert the law; for that they must look entirely to the men. The men would be conscious of this, and if any law were made exclusively in the interests of the women, and in contradiction to the male sense of justice, they would refuse to carry it into effect. In the United States there have been intimations, on the part of the women, of a desire to make a very lavish use of capital punishment, untrammelled by the technical rules of evidence, for offences or supposed offences against the sex. The men, would of course, refuse execution; law would be set at defiance, and government would be overturned. But the bad effects of the public consciousness that executive force—the rude but indispensable basis of law— law—had been partly removed, and that the law was being made by those who had not the power to carry it into effect, would not be limited to manifest instances of the influence of sex in legislation. In cases where, as in Jamaica, an elective government has rested on two races, equal, legally speaking, in political power, but of which one was evidently inferior in real force to the other, reverence for law has been weak, and the result has been disastrous. There can be little doubt that as soon as the Federal bayonets are removed, there will be another case of the same kind in the Southern States; laws made by negro majorities will be set at defiance by the stronger race. To personal despotism or class domination civilization can put an end, but it cannot eliminate force.
It is very likely that in England the women, to reform drunken husbands, would vote for extreme prohibitory measures against liquor; but the difficulty of carrying such legislation into effect, great as it is already, could hardly fail to be much increased by the feeling that it was the act of the women, and the consequence would probably be contempt, and perhaps open defiance of the law. Female legislation with regard to education in the interest of clerical ascendency, would be apt to be attended by the same effects.
Elective government, with the liberty of opinion and the power of progress which are its concomitants, has been brought into existence by the most terrible throes of humanity. When perfected and firmly established, it will, as we hope, and have good grounds for believing, give to reason and justice an ascendency which they have never had before in human affairs, and increase the happiness of all by making all narrower interests subordinate to the public good. But its condition, if we look at the world as a whole, is still exceedingly precarious. All the powers of class interest, of sybaritism, of superstition, are arrayed against it, and have vast forces at their command, including the great standing armies of Europe, while they find accomplices in the lassitude, the alarm, the discouragement caused by the revolutionary storms which, unhappily, are almost inevitable attendants upon the birth of a new order of things. Its existence having been so far a struggle, and an assertion at the sword's point, of principles, just in themselves, but needing qualification to make them available as the foundations of a polity, it is full of defects, to remedy which, so as to make it the deliberate expression of public reason, clear of sectional interest and passion, is now the great aim of political thought and effort. Those to whose hands it is committed at this crisis are trustees for posterity of a heritage bought by ages of effort and torrents of blood; and they are bound to allow neither their own ambition nor that of any one else, if they can help it, to imperil the safety of their trust. That women would be likely to vote for one set of aspirants to political office rather than for the opposite set, would be a very bad reason for withholding from them the suffrage even for a day; but that they would probably overturn the institutions on which the hopes of the world rest, is as good a reason as there can be for withholding anything from anybody. When free institutions are firmly established in Europe, the question of Female Suffrage may, perhaps, be raised with less peril, so far as political interests are concerned; but to take a female vote on their fate at present would be as suicidal as it would have been to take a female vote on the issues between Charles the First and the Parliament in the middle of the Civil War.
So far as elective government has succeeded, women in general have fully reaped the benefit of the improvements, moral and material, which it has produced. They are mistaken if they imagine that they fared better under the form of government which, in France and elsewhere, if they had the power, their sentiment would lead them to restore. They were not exempt from the misery and starvation brought into every home by the ambitious wars and the general misrule of the monarchies or even from the cruelty of their criminal laws. Down to the last days of the monarchy in France, women as well as men were broken alive upon the wheel for theft.
It is needless to say that any discussion of the relative excellence, intellectual or moral, of the two moieties of humanity, would be equally barren and irrelevant. The only question is as to the proper spheres of the man and woman; and assuredly, by unsexing women, we should do no homage to their sex.
It is alleged that female influence would mitigate the violence of party politics. But what ground have we, in reason or experience, for believing that women, if introduced into the political arena, would be less violent than men? Hitherto they have been free from political vices, because they have generally taken no part in politics, just as home has been an asylum from political rancour because political division has not been introduced between man and wife. But the chances are that, being more excitable, and having, with more warmth and generosity of temperament, less power of self-control, women would, when once engaged in party struggles, be not less, but more violent than men. All our experience, in facts, points this way, In the reign of Terror, and in the revolt of the Commune, the women notoriously rivalled the men in fury and ferocity. The same was the case in the late American Civil War. What has been the effect of public life on the character of the women who have thrown themselves into it in the United States can be doubted by no human being; and our experience of female agitations in this country seems to tell pretty much the same tale. That party politics require mitigation, and perhaps something more, may be readily admitted; but we are not likely to make the cauldron boil less fiercely by flinging into it female character and Home.
That Home would escape disturbance it is surely difficult to believe. We are told that a difference of religion between man and wife does not produces unhappiness. The fact may be doubted when the difference is strong. But religion is an affair of the other world; and it does not, at all events it need not, bring people into direct, much less into public collision in this world. A man and his wife taking opposite sides in politics would be brought into direct and public collision, especially if they happened to be active politicians, about a subject of the most exciting kind. Would the harmony of most households bear the strain? Would not a husband who cared for his own happiness be apt to say that if his wife wanted it she might have the vote, but that there should be only one vote between them? The most eminent of the living advocates of Female Suffrage suggests that in future agreement in politics will be one of the conditions of marriage; which at all events proves that in his opinion disagreement in politics, if both husband and wife were politicians, would endanger the harmony of married life.
Men are not good housekeepers, and there need not be anything disparaging in saying that women, as a rule, are not likely to be good politicians. Most of them, after all, will be married, and their sphere will be one in which they do not directly feel the effects of good or bad government, which are directly felt by the man who goes forth to labour, and the practical sense of which, more than anything else, forms the political wisdom, such as it is, of the great mass of mankind. Nor would there be anything, generally speaking, to balance the judgment, as it is balanced in men by the variety of practical needs and considerations. Even with male constituencies, particular questions are apt to become too predominant, and to lead to the exaction of tyrannical pledges and to narrow ostracism of conscientious public men. But with Female Suffrage there would probably be always a woman's question, of a kind appealing to sentiment, such as the question of the Contagious Diseases Act, which demagogues would take care to provide, and which would swallow up every other question, and make a clean sweep of all public men who might refuse to take the woman's pledge. With Female Suffrage, the question of the Contagious Diseases Act would probably have made a clean sweep at the last general election of all the best servants of the State.
Mr. Mill had persuaded himself that great capacity for government had been displayed by women, and that there was urgent necessity for bringing them into the management of the State. But he can hardly be serious when he cites as an instance of female rule a constitutional queen whose excellence consists in never doing any act of government except under the guidance of her Ministers. The queens regnant or consort, before our monarchy became constitutional, who may be said to have wielded power, are the Empress-Queen Matilda, Eleanor, the wife of Henry II., Isabella, the wife of Edward II., Margaret of Anjou, Mary, Elizabeth, and Henrietta Maria. Not much can be made of this list when it is considered that both Margaret of Anjou and Henrietta Maria were, by their temper, principal causes of civil wars, and that the statesmanship of Elizabeth has totally collapsed between Mr. Froude's first volume and his last, while her feminine relations with Leicester and other favourites have contracted a much more ominous complexion in a political as well as in a moral point of view. On the other hand, it is probable that Eleanor, the wife of Edward I., and certain that Caroline, the wife of George II., rendered, in a womanly way, high services to the State. So did Queen Philippa when by her womanly intercession, she saved her husband from the disgrace of putting to death the Burghers of Calais; had she been the sovereign she might herself have lost her gentleness like Elizabeth, who on one occasion desired that the object of her wrath might be put to death with more cruel and protracted tortures. Mr. Mill says, from his experience at the India Office, that the queens in India are better than the kings. But the reason is obvious. British protection has suspended the operation of the rude checks on the vices of Indian despots, and a woman brought up in the zenana, though she cannot possibly be a good ruler, may well be better than a hog or a tiger.
Neither the cases of queens, however, nor those of female regents of the Netherlands, to which Mr. Mill gives so strange a turn (as though Charles V. and Philip II. had preferred females on account of their ability to male members of the house), are in point. They all belong to the hereditary system, under which these ladies were called to power by birth or appointment, and surrounded by councillors from whose policy it is scarcely possible to distinguish that of the sovereign. Under the elective system women would have to make their own way to seats in Parliament and to office by the same means as male politicians, by canvassing, stumping, wrestling with competitors in debate; and the female character would be exposed to influences entirely different from those which operated on Isabella of Castile.
Without pressing the argument against "Premiers in the family way" too far, it may safely be said that the women who would best represent their sex, and whose opinions would be worth most, would be generally excluded from public life by conjugal and maternal duty. Success with popular constituencies would probably fall to the lot, not of the grave matrons and spinsters whom Mr. Mill evidently has in view, but of dashing adventuresses, whose methods of captivating their constituents would often be by no means identical with legislative wisdom, or calculated to increase our veneration for their sex.
That high education will greatly change the female character, in a political point of view, there does not seem to be much reason to believe. The most highly educated women when they take part in public life appear still to show the distinctive features of their sex. It may be remarked that the religious education of the two sexes is already the same, yet their religious tendencies are widely different. Nor is it probable that maternity and the other leading circumstances and influences by which female character is determined being identical in all countries, nationality will be an element of much practical importance. Unless the every-day life of Englishwomen should become such as to train them for political action, it is not likely that they will be superior to French or Spanish women as politicians. Mr. Mill has treated the question as one regarding women generally, without distinction as to nationality, and in this respect he seems to be in the right.
Mr. Mill is the real father of the whole movement; the arguments of its other champions are mere reproductions of his. Whatever biased his mind, therefore, ought to be carefully noted; and again it must be said that he was possessed by an illusion—an illusion beautiful and touching, but still an illusion—as to the political genius of his wife. He has given us the means of judging of her speculative powers, and even they, it is evident, were not extraordinarily high.
That there are women eminently capable of understanding and discussing political questions nobody will deny. These will find a sphere in the press, through which many men exercise a power which makes it a matter of indifference whether they have a vote or not. But it by no means follows that it is expedient to put political power into the hands of the whole sex; much less that it is expedient to do so at a moment when it is morally certain that they would use their power to cancel a good deal of what has been done in their interest, as well as in that of their partners, by the efforts of the last two hundred years.
Some supporters of the movement flatter themselves that women would always vote for peace, and that Female Suffrage would consequently be a short method of ridding the world of war and standing armies. Such experience as we have hardly warrants this anticipation. Female Sovereigns, as a rule, have not been eminently pacific. It would be difficult to find four male rulers in any epoch of history who made more wars than Catherine the Second of Russia, Maria Theresa, Madame de Pompadour (who ruled France in the name of her lover), and the Termagant, as Carlyle calls her of Spain. It is generally believed that the late Empress of the French, inspired by the Jesuits, was a principal mover in the attack on Germany. Those who know the Southern States say that the women are far more ready to renew the Civil War than the men. The most effective check on war is, to use the American phrase, that every one should do his own fighting. But this check cannot be applied to women, who will be comparatively irresponsible in voting for war. A woman, in fact, can never be a full citizen in countries where, as in Germany, it is part of a citizen's duty to bear arms.
That political discussion is essential to the happiness of the fireside, is an assertion about a matter of taste and sentiment, which it is difficult to combat; and the same thing may be said as to the assertion that without politics marriage is wanting in interest and affection lacks a bond.
Finally, it is said that there are certain specific grievances under which women labour, and which call for immediate redress, but of which redress cannot be had unless women are empowered to extort it from their husbands and brothers at the polls. Of course if there is wrong, and wrong to half humanity, which cannot be righted in any other way, we must at once accept Female Suffrage, whatever perils it may entail.
In the United States the grievance of which most is heard is the tyrannical stringency of the marriage tie, which, it is alleged, gives a man property in a woman, and unduly interferes with the freedom and genuineness of affection. Some of the language used is more startling than this, and if reproduced might unfairly prejudice the case. But male legislatures in the United States have already carried the liberty of divorce so far, that the next step would be the total abolition of marriage and the destruction of the family. The women themselves have now, it is said, begun to draw back. They have probably become aware that liberty of divorce must be reciprocal, that marriage is pre-eminently a restraint placed on the passions of the man in the interest of the woman, that a woman loses her charms more easily than she loses her need of a protector, and that to the children divorce is moral and social ruin. Mr. Mill demands for the "slave" the privilege of changing her master; he forgets that he would at the same time give the master the privilege of changing his slave.
The question, of which more is heard here, as to the right of women to the control of their own property, was one the importance of which was not likely to be fully perceived while comparatively few women earned their own bread. However, now that it is perceived, the British legislature has at least gone so far in removing anomalies that it need not despair of seeing itself do complete justice. In the United States, male legislatures, so far from being unwilling, display almost an exaggerated propensity to sever the interest of the wife from that of the husband. An eminent American jurist told the writer that he knew a case in which a woman was compelling her husband to work for her as a hired labourer, and another in which a woman had accomplished a divorce by simply shutting the door of the house, which was her own property, in her husband's face. No doubt equally harsh things are done by bad husbands to wives, and these instances are repeated, as they were cited, merely to show the point to which the legal independence of women has been carried. After all, it must be remembered that the man remains responsible for the maintenance of the woman and her children, and that the analogy of a commercial partnership which is in vogue with the champions of Woman's Right in the United States, is very far from holding good: commercial justice between themselves and their husbands is not what the women really want. It must be remembered, too, that the male has by nature certain advantages over the female which no legislature on earth can annul; and that it is necessary in the interests of both sexes, but especially in the interest of women, to render the restraint of marriage acceptable, not only to persons of cultivated sensibility but to ordinary men. Marriage might almost be defined as a restriction placed upon the passions of the male in the interests of the female. If the ideal which floats in the pages of Mr. Mill were actually embodied in legislation, and the husband were stripped of all conjugal rights, and left with nothing but the responsibility of maintaining the family, it is at least possible that the result amongst the coarser masses of mankind might be the increase of license and the consequent degradation of women.
It is commonly said in the United States by the Woman's Right party, that women are underpaid for their labour, and a vague hope is held out that this might be set right by female legislation. In most fields of industry women are new-comers, and on all new-comers old custom is apt at first to bear hard. Female singers, pianoforte players, novelists, painters, milliners, are not underpaid. If female clerks and schoolmistresses are paid less than male clerks and schoolmasters, this may be partly because continuance in the calling is an element of value, and women are taken off by marriage. That a New-Yorker will persist, out of regard for the aristocracy of sex, in paying a man a high price for his labour when he can get the work done as well for less money by a woman, is not much to be apprehended. But that legislatures, male or female, could equalize wages, few will be credulous enough to believe, though it is possible that the attempt might be made.
As to domestic cruelty, if it can be stopped by any extension of the criminal law, there is surely not the slightest reason for believing that male legislatures are unwilling to perform that duty, though of course criminal legislation in this case, as in all others, to be effective, must keep terms with reason and justice. In fact, in this matter, women are probably better in the present hands than they would be in their own. The source of these infamies and horrors, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, is drink; and if the member for Marylebone, instead of tampering with the relations between the sexes, will turn his mind to the improvement and extension of the legislation commenced under the late Government against intemperance, he will deserve in the highest degree the gratitude of women in general, and especially of those who have the greatest claim to our sympathy.
The grievance is often stated as affecting not the persons but the property; it is said to be very hard that property should be unrepresented because it is owned by a woman. The property, if it understands its own interest, will hardly insist on emasculating the Government of the country. But the fact is, that property generally is not represented in England, though there is a property qualification, now of an inconsiderable kind, for the suffrage. The estate of a great landowner, except so much of it as constitutes the lowest qualification for the suffrage, is no more represented than the house of the dowager. Influence wealth possesses in the hands of men; but so it does in the hands of women.
Nothing, however, to the writer, could seem clearer than that the Female Suffrage movement, both in England and in the United States was not the spontaneous uprising of the sex against wrong, but an artificial agitation, the chief authors of which were ladies anxious to take part in public life.
The case of women is not that of an unenfranchised class, the interest of which is distinct from that of the enfranchised. The great mass of them are completely identified in interest with their husbands, while even those who are not married can hardly be said to form a class, or to have any common interest, other than mere sex, which is liable to be unfairly affected by class legislation. There is, therefore, no reason why Parliament should not do justice in any practical question relative to the rights of women which may be brought before it, as it has already done justice in several such questions, without invoking upon itself the coercion of Female Suffrage.
|This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.|