Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Woman Suffrage

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The effort made by many women and men of excellent standing in the community to induce our Constitutional Convention to strike out the word “male” from the State Constitution, and thus to put the two sexes upon a footing of political equality, has given the question of woman suffrage an unusual prominence. It is probable that if the people of the Empire State assented to so radical an innovation, the movement would receive a powerful impulse throughout the country, and have a chance of success where at present it appears hopeless. The action of this State is therefore likely to be of great influence far beyond its boundaries. It must also be admitted that in the public discussions of this subject now taking place the women who advocate woman suffrage have in some respects a decided advantage over their sisters who oppose it. The foremost among the female champions of “the cause” do not shrink from appearing upon the public stage; they are mostly “accustomed to public speaking,” and speak well; and they are able to turn to their advantage a good many of those catch phrases taken as political axioms by our people in revolutionary times, or on occasions of self-glorification, although those phrase were never intended to carry the meaning which the woman suffragists now give them. Still, they make captivating battle-cries, and are used sometimes with effect. On the other hand, the women who oppose woman suffrage, and who believe that the circle of the duties of woman centers in the family, and that she should not permit herself to be unnecessarily drawn into publicity, are by their very principles debarred from demonstrative public manifestations of their views. The “campaign” is therefore, so far as their aggressive vigor and their argumentative vocabulary are concerned, strongly in favor of the woman-suffragists.

But in another respect they find a difficulty in their way which gives their opponents a decided advantage. There was a time when the American people flattered themselves with the pleasing thought that they had succeeded in finally solving the problem of democratic government. The public mind is no longer in this state of self-congratulation. The number of American citizens who are much troubled by the miscarriages of democratic government in the nation, in the States, and especially in our municipalities, is very large and constantly growing. We do not believe that many of them would seriously think of substituting for the present form of government another form not democratic. But we are very sure, the idea that the evils we now complain of can be cured by further extensions of the suffrage, is, after the experiences we have had, entertained by but very few, if any, thinking men. On the contrary, the belief is fast gaining ground that in the democratization of our institutions by enlargements of the suffrage we have gone fully as far as the safety of the republic will warrant, and that it is much more advisable to sift the body of voters by educational requirements and the like, than to expand it by indiscriminating additions.

The advocates of woman suffrage are certainly entitled to great respect, and there is much force in many of their arguments. When a woman of high character and culture asks us why she should not have the right to vote while a plantation negro or an immigrant knowing nothing of American institutions or of the English language has that right, the appeal to our sympathies is very strong. But calm reason tells us that, after all, the highly educated woman and the plantation negro and the ignorant man from abroad do not stand upon the same level of comparison. If woman suffrage meant only the enfranchisement of the women of high character and good education, there would be little opposition among the men, provided such women actually desired the ballot. But the introduction of woman suffrage means also the enfranchisement of those classes of women who correspond in character and education to the plantation negro and the ignorant immigrant. And now, admitting that among the men enjoying the right to vote there are very many whose mental and moral fitness for the exercise of political privileges is at least doubtful, the question arises whether it would be wise to increase in so sweeping a manner, as it would be done by the general enfranchisement of woman, the proportion of persons of doubtful fitness in the voting body.

It is no answer to this question that as the fit women would be enfranchised with the unfit, the proportion between fit and unfit would, in the voting body, remain on the whole about the same. For here the difference between man and woman, the existence of which even the most enthusiastic suffragist will after all not deny, comes into consideration. One of our troubles is that among male voters the so-called better classes, the well educated and refined, take generally a much less active part in that political activity which has a direct bearing upon the exercise of the suffrage, as well as in the act of voting itself, than the less well educated and refined, the so-called lower classes. Another is that many voters are ignorant or careless of public questions, or easily reached by dangerous influences, or apt to be controlled by personal considerations or blind party spirit, or have only one object in view, and sacrifice to it all others. Now, if men of refinement are deterred from the necessary political activity by the rudeness of the contacts inseparable from them, is it not probable that refined women will be still more so deterred? Is it not probable that many women, belonging to the most estimable element of society, would keep aloof from all contact with politics on principle, believing it to be outside of their sphere? Is it not probable that even more female than male voters would be ignorant or careless of public questions, or easily reached and controlled by extraneous, especially sectarian, influences, or personal considerations, or anything that appeals more to the emotions than to reason? Is it not probable, in one word, that, while doubtless a limited element of excellent quality would be added to the voting force, not only the positive quantity, but the proportion in it of the element to which some of our most serious troubles are owing, would be largely increased? Even it we were to admit, for arguments sake, that to these questions there are different answers, is it not certain that so tremendous an addition to the voting force as the granting of unqualified woman suffrage would effect, would involve at least the possibility of a dangerous increase of those evils which the best thought of the country is at present painfully struggling to remedy?

Under such circumstances there would seem to be good reason for the following protest, which, signed by a large number of women, has been sent to the Constitutional Convention: “We, women, citizens of the State of New York (twenty-one years of age), believing that it would be against the best interests of the State to give women unqualified suffrage, thus taking an irrevocable step, at a time when the country is already burdened with many unsolved problems, do protest against striking out the word 'male' from Article II., Section 1, of the Constitution.” The woman who wrote this protest has the mind of a statesman. It hits the nail on the head with rare precision. Against the striking common-sense of this one sentence all the able and beautiful speeches made by the advocates of woman suffrage about equal rights and representation with taxation, and so on, avail nothing. Woman suffrage may eventually come. It may appear at some future time even very desirable. But will it not be wise to get more light on the problems which now perplex us, before adding to them, without the possibility of recall, a new complication which may immensely increase their difficulties? As good citizens, we should not permit ourselves one moment to forget that this is very serious business, in the treatment of which we should keep our feelings and sympathies well in hand.

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.