Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/November 1874/Woman Suffrage as Affecting the Family

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I NOW turn to a side of the question on which Mr. Smith lays very great stress, and of which I am not in the least disposed to underrate the importance—the extension of the suffrage to married women. I do not yield to Mr. Smith, or to any one, in the firmness of my conviction that the family is at the bottom of our existing civilization, and I should, for my part, regard as dearly purchased any gain in material or political well-being which should introduce a jar or weakness into this pivot of our social system. But I believe that to open political life to women, far from being fraught with the disastrous consequences Mr. Smith anticipates, would, taking things in their entire scope, be productive of quite opposite effects. If I were asked to name the principal element of weakness in the family as things now stand, I should have no hesitation in pointing to the want of sufficient subjects of common interest between man and woman. It is owing to this that matrimonial engagements are entered into so rarely on the basis of any broad intellectual sympathy, such as might furnish some security for lasting affection, and so often at the bidding of impulses and fancies that do not outlive the honey-moon; and it is owing to the same cause that so very large a proportion of the lives of most husbands and wives are spent practically apart, with little or no knowledge on the part of either of the objects or aims that engross the greater portion of the other's thoughts and energies. That under such circumstances the marriage-tie is, on the whole, maintained as well as it is, seems rather matter for wonder; and to argue that the introduction of a new source of very profound common interest for husband and wife must, of necessity weaken the bond, is, in my opinion, to evince a singular inability to appreciate the real dangers now besetting the institution. It is true, no doubt, that every new subject of common interest for husband and wife must, from the nature of the case, constitute also a new possible occasion for disagreement; but, if this is to be accounted a good reason for excluding women from politics, they might with equal justice be excluded from literature, from the fine arts, from every thing in which men also take an interest—above all, from religion. The value of these several pursuits as bonds and cements of married life is just in proportion to the degree of common interest which husbands and wives take in them, and just in the same proportion also is the possible danger that they may become the grounds of dissension. Mr. Smith is greatly scandalized at the prospect of a man .and his wife taking opposite sides in politics. I cannot see that it would be at all more scandalous than that a man and his wife should take opposite sides in religion—going, for example, every Sunday to different places of worship, where each hears the creed of the other denounced as soul-destroying and damnable. It will serve to throw light upon the present problem if we consider for a moment how it happens that this latter spectacle is on the whole so rarely presented, and that, even where the event occurs, it is so frequently found consistent with tolerable harmony in married life. The explanation, I have no doubt, is of this kind: where difference of religion consists with matrimonial happiness, it will generally be found that one or both of the partners do not take a very deep interest in the creeds they profess; while, on the other hand, where people do feel strongly on religion, they generally take care, in forming matrimonial alliances, to consort with those who, on fundamental points, are of the same opinion with themselves. Now, it seems to me that this may serve to illustrate for us what will be the practical working of politics in respect to married life when women begin to receive a political education, or at least to learn as much about politics, and take as much or as little interest in them, as men do. A number only too large of men and women will probably continue for long enough to take but small interest in public affairs, and these will marry, as they do now, with little reference to each other's political opinions; but the danger of discord from politics under such circumstances would be infinitesimal. The only cases in which this danger would become serious would be when both husband and wife were strong politicians. Here, no doubt, there would be danger; though no greater, I think, than when two persons of strong but opposite religious convictions enter into marriage. Mr. Smith seems to think that, because "religion is an affair of the other world," it is less likely than politics to be an occasion of strife. This is probable enough when people do not believe in another world; but when they do, and believe also that the fate of people there will depend on what they believe in this, I cannot see the wisdom of his remark. Some of the worst and crudest wars that have ever been waged have been religious wars; and so notoriously is religion an engenderer of strife, that it is now scarcely good manners to moot a religious question in private society, where politics are quite freely and amicably discussed. If persons of genuine but different religious opinions can contrive to get on together in married life, they would certainly not be likely to be severed by political differences, however strongly their opinions might be held. But, however this may be, my argument is that, in practice, such cases would very rarely occur. When politics became a subject of interest alike for men and women, it would very soon become a principal consideration in determining matrimonial alliances. Even now this is the case to some extent, and it will no doubt become more and more so as the political education of women advances. Mr. Smith's question, therefore, "Would the harmony of most households bear the strain?" may be answered by saying that in very few households would there be any strain to bear; while in most—at least in those in which politics were intelligently cultivated—home-life, no longer the vapid thing it is so often now, would acquire a new element of interest, and the family would be held together by powerful sympathies that now lie undeveloped.

Mr. Smith seems to think that, if women are only excluded from the suffrage, the harmony of married life can never be endangered by politics; but this is to attribute to the mere right of voting a degree of efficacy which I, for one, am not disposed to allow to it. If women only come to take an interest in politics—it matters not whether they have the suffrage or not—all the danger that can arise from the suffrage to married life will be already incurred. It is not the giving of a vote every four or five years that constitutes the danger, if danger there be; but the habitual mental attitude of husband and wife toward each other. Those, therefore, who share Mr. Smith's apprehensions on the present subject, ought clearly to take their stand against the suffrage movement very much higher up. They ought to oppose every extension of female education which may reasonably be expected to lead women to take an interest in politics. The intelligent study of history should, in the first place, be rigidly proscribed. Political economy would be excluded as a matter of course; and, along with it, that large and increasing class of studies embraced under the name "social." Every one of these, intelligently cultivated, leads inevitably, where faculty is not wanting, to an interest in contemporary politics; and if women are to be shut out from this field of ideas, lest perchance they should adopt opinions which should not be those of their future husbands, their education ought at once to be truncated by this large segment. Mr. Smith, indeed, suggests that women who are capable of discussing political questions "will find a sphere in the press." Does he then suppose that there would be less danger to the harmony of married life from women writing in the press—writing leaders, perhaps, for strong party papers—than from tendering a vote at the polls every four or five years? Besides, the suggestion falls utterly short of the requirements of the case. The number of women who are capable, or who desire, to find a sphere in the press are never likely to be more than a handful: the number who desire a liberal education, in the best and broadest sense of that word, and who are or may become quite fitted to form sound opinions on political questions, are already to be numbered by thousands, perhaps I might say by tens of thousands: what their numbers will become in another generation, I will not pretend to conjecture. Mr. Smith's suggestion, therefore, though graciously meant, is hardly to the purpose. Plainly, nothing short of lopping off from the education of women some of the most important branches of human knowledge will meet the difficulty.

  1. Extracted from an article in Macmillan's Magazine for September, in reply to Goldwin Smith.